Journal of Academic Freedom: Academic Freedom in an Illiberal Democracy?


This is a guest post by Jennifer H. Ruth, the faculty editor of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom and professor of film studies at Portland State University. Ruth issued a call for papers for the 2017 Volume 8 of the Journal in September, at the time Volume 7 was released. The topics proposed in the call for papers—academic freedom in an era of globalization, “civility” and academic freedom, and the relationship between economics and academic freedom—seem all the more important to address in the aftermath of the presidential election. In the blog post below, Ruth comments on the potential impact of a Trump presidency and raises some questions that may inspire submissions to the Journal of Academic Freedom.  The Journal also welcomes scholarly essays on other topics focused on academic freedom and its relation to shared governance, tenure, and collective bargaining. Submissions are due by January 31, 2017. Read the call for papers for more detailed guidelines.


Journal of Academic Freedom faculty editor Jennifer H. Ruth

Last year, the radical magazine Jacobin and the alt-right site Alternative Right both reviewed Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (2013). Individuals presumably as far as it is possible to be from one another on the political spectrum converged in their admiration for this book warning of democracy’s endtimes. Ruling the Void argues that the foundation of democracy—the party system—is broken. Disengaged from a disaffected citizenry, technocrats and elites run the political parties. These people may or may not have the country’s best interests at heart but they certainly can’t claim its heart. Such a situation is dangerous, Mair warns, because when voters no longer identify with a party, they grow reckless. Feeling superfluous, they would just as soon risk blowing everything up than see the status quo continue. A hollowed-out democracy stands a good chance of then turning into an illiberal democracy.

As political outsiders recognized faster than insiders (fewer mainstream outlets reviewed the book than one would expect), Mair was onto something. So was Chris Hayes when he warned in the Twilight of the Elites: After Meritocracy (2012) of the hollowing out of American institutions in general. The ordinary American didn’t feel contempt just for the nation’s political system but for its churches and universities, too. For higher education, perhaps the clearest indicator of such contempt was the warm embrace received by William Deresiewicz’s fairly incoherent book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014). Readers on both the left and the right, many of them working within universities, were eager to pile on as Deresiewicz ridiculed the likes of Yale University and Barack Obama. “With his racial identity and relatively humble background, [Obama’s] election has been called the triumph of the meritocracy,” Deresiewicz wrote; “The sad thing is that that’s exactly what it was” (230). Obama’s successful navigation of higher education damns him, proving that he is “like every other product of the [meritocratic] system,” fueled by expertise and narcissism, lacking character and soul (229).

If we have contempt for our universities and for the other institutions that make up the liberal part of liberal democracy, how are we going to prevent them from being destroyed by an illiberal democracy? My fear is that a decade from now, or sooner, I will read a sentence that goes like this: Tenure having been all but eliminated by 2016, the professoriate was an inconsequential obstacle when X happened in Trump’s America [fill in X with whatever now-plausible disaster worries you]. More often than not, the erosion of tenure over the last three decades resulted from bottom-line short-sightedness rather than a conspiracy against academic freedom. But motivation hardly matters now that we have a non-tenured faculty majority during what many commentators reasonably take to be a profound crisis for American democracy. Trump’s America. This phrase makes ominous sense in the way Xi Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia make sense.

Volume 7 of the Journal of Academic Freedom addressed the relationship between geopolitics and academic freedom. Johannes Chan and Douglas Kerr documented Beijing’s threat to Hong Kong’s academic freedom as the Chinese Communist Party flouts the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. William Tierney and Nidhi S. Sabarhwal asked if we can assume “that academic freedom in the world’s largest democracy is more similar than different from academic freedom in other democratic nations.” We can’t, they concluded after outlining the various forms of illiberalism undermining academic freedom in India.  The CFP for Volume 8 calls for more such analyses. What happens to academic freedom when authoritarian nationalisms (re-)emerge?

Nobody has a crystal ball but given the president-elect’s words and acts during the campaign—not to mention his seedy experiment in higher education—we would be fools not to expect an attack on the liberal institutions of shared governance and academic freedom. We need to look at what has happened to the sanctity of free intellectual inquiry and academic self-governance in other countries where illiberal regimes came to power. How were German universities deformed by the ascendance of National Socialism? What has Putin’s re-assertion of Soviet-era control over the press and academia meant for the Russian professoriate? What about Xi Jinping’s ever-tightening grip on scholars and teachers? What from all this is conceivable here? How will we use what remains of our infrastructure—the tradition and policies built by AAUP—to protect academic freedom from attacks stemming from both without and within the university? (There are always a few intellectuals wishing to hitch their stars to illiberal movements.)

I taught in China last year. After the November election, a student in Shanghai wrote to ask how I was dealing with an outcome that I in my great wisdom had assured them was impossible. She said that one of her professors, a Chinese national specializing in American Studies, changed his preference just before the election, saying that maybe a clown is better than a liar. She tried to cheer me up. At least your system, she said, prevents Trump from having as much power there as the president has here. Yes. How can we be sure to keep it that way?



One thought on “Journal of Academic Freedom: Academic Freedom in an Illiberal Democracy?

  1. I have a comment about the “shortsightedness” that resulted in a “non-tenured faculty majority”—why not finally address this by shutting down governance until the non-tenured are given a seat at the table, full-time and part-time, especially long-term faculty who have been left out for decades? That would also include recognition by TT track faculty that their NTT colleagues have as much merit as they do, and that welcoming them into governance will only strengthen the effort to preserve academic freedom and save our noble profession. Too often we are seen as competing for TT resources, and that only strengthens the illiberal hand. Too radical an idea?

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