BY HENRY REICHMAN
In an important piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, “Watch What You Say: How Fear is Stifling Academic Freedom,” Fredrik deBoer, who teaches at Purdue University, made the essential connection between violations of academic freedom and the academic labor market. Seeking to explain “the pervasive sense of fear that is already endemic on many campuses,” he concludes:
The labor issues really drive the problem. In a healthy job market, academics wouldn’t need to fear the consequences of political speech nearly as much. Scholars who were fired for voicing controversial opinions, or who felt that their ability to speak freely was being obstructed, would be able to obtain employment elsewhere. Meanwhile, institutions eager to hire the best people would find that a reputation for resistance to free expression would hamper those efforts. But in the contemporary academy, where openings for full-time faculty members are few and adjuncts fill the gaps, the leverage lies in the hands of institutions. With so many underemployed Ph.D.s, controversial faculty can be swiftly replaced. The difficulty of obtaining a new job, meanwhile, compels employees to keep their mouths shut. The academy is hardly alone in this condition. Since the Reagan/Thatcher era, the general drift of the working world is toward less- and less-empowered workers, who are correspondingly more and more subservient to the employers who dominate them. The university is a particularly intense example of this trend.
The essay goes on also to address some of the contradictions inherent in the recent upsurge in student activism, identifying both positive elements and potential threats both to academic freedom and to the struggle against administrative bloat and overreach. His comments on these issues are worth considering as well, but I want here simply to highlight his critical point that one can’t support the fight for academic freedom and stand aside from the struggle against the widespread abuse of contingent employment. They are two fronts in the same conflict.