Academic Freedom: A Reconsideration

By James Anderson

The concept of academic freedom contains a tension within it, mirroring the tension within society writ large. This essay will examine the conceptual and class divisions inherent in the concept. I will argue academic freedom has to be extended in such a way that breaks down these divides. To do so, it must not be a right reserved only for some within the increasingly hierarchized academy. It also cannot ignore the material effects and dearth of economic democracy, within and outside the university.

A recent proponent of a restrictive conception of academic freedom, Stanley Fish, argued higher education is valuable not because of any benefits it might have for the common good, but rather because of the pleasures it affords those within scholarly professions to engage in creative inquiry.[i] Were higher education subordinated to outside concerns, the “pleasures” derived from the exercise of free inquiry in the academy would be “unavailable or rendered secondary if higher education were regarded as the extension of another enterprise.”[ii]  Fish is right to refute the subjection of scholarly inquiry to external control. Fish argues, albeit implicitly, against instrumentalist scholarship and against alienating academic work. However, as Robert Post pointed out, Fish downplayed why traditional arguments for academic freedom were intended to protect against that instrumentalism and external coercion.[iii]  Predicated on the belief that scholars required a degree of autonomy from administrators and other authorities in order to produce knowledge valuable to society, traditional conceptions of academic freedom rested on the assumption that freedom (and in this way, separation) of academics from institutional and social coercion provided the space necessary to both realize the pleasurable pursuit of knowledge and to produce the new knowledge beneficial to society. Both the traditional argument and Fish’s formulation miss the mark. In trying to carve out and protect freedoms – and as far as Fish is concerned, pleasures – for some, without attending to conditions of un-freedom in the rest of society and even (or especially) in the university setting, advocates of academic freedom impregnated the concept with an indissoluble tension from its inception.

While Fish conceptually severed academic liberties from social concerns, he was not wrong to advance the desires for free, creative inquiry. Our creative human impulses need not be made into instruments for other ends. Yet, at present, neither academics nor humans generally determine the ends to which research findings are applied. Enterprises and institutions turning the power of human brains and muscles over and against humanity make those determinations. As state funding for education shrinks and schools become reliant upon corporate funds to support research, human satisfaction derived from maximizing creative capacities gets subject to the dictates of profit maximization. The return of instrumental reason is masked by the language of market freedoms. This is the freedom of consumers – those with ample discretionary income – to choose from a variety of commodities produced for exchange value and allocated by state-enforced market mechanisms, not through exercise of free association. The irony is that much of the new economy – like most of our information technologies – were developed through the state sector and through research and development at universities funded by public dollars, before the innovations were turned over to private enterprise to reap profits.[iv] Scholarly research now servilely submits to the profit motive so grants necessary for acquiring funds needed to exercise the freedoms reported to inhere within the academy can be obtained.

Students, victims of the tuition-based and fee-funded paradigm, are similarly subject to an insidious utilitarianism. With seven out of 10 college seniors in the US compelled to take out loans on average for more than $29,000,[v] the pressure to get a degree for purposes of finding a job that will enable one to repay thousands of dollars in debts limits student freedoms at the university at the same time as it forecloses upon students’ futures. As a mechanism of control, debt disciplines graduates. It directs their energies toward loan repayments, not toward creating a society where coercive mechanisms might no longer prevail. The individualization of this social problem, wherein education is a commodity one is responsible for purchasing (debt-financing) as a way of investing in oneself for purposes of maximizing the value of one’s future labor on the market, militates against imagining how human relations could be otherwise. This is the epitome of alienation. Students are free to pursue education as a means to augment their individual value on the job market – a freedom circumscribed from the outset for most because of the need to outcompete others and secure that high-paying job in order to pay back the exorbitant loans they had no choice but to take out to get their education. Our capacity to project beyond this existing state of un-freedom, in which higher education has become wholly complicit, has become nullified. The only collective action it is possible to imagine is acquiescence to ubiquitous interactions mediated by markets or acceptance of normalized debt obligations – not exactly conditions conducive to free inquiry.

Graduate students and adjunct professors understand perhaps better than any other sectors of academe the folly inherent in Fish’s formulation of academic freedom. Fish’s conceptual separation of scholarship from the society in which the institution of learning is ensconced ignores the real influences existing socioeconomic arrangements have on those within the academy. Looking within the academy itself also belies Fish’s contention. At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, for example, graduate student employees pay about two months of their salary back to the school in fees each academic year.[vi] Over the last few decades, low-wage labor of graduate student workers and adjunct faculty has replaced many tenure and tenure-track faculty positions within the university, at the same time as administrator positions and pay increased in direct correlation with expansion of the student debt regime.[vii] Combined with vast disparities in economic prospects, coping with ever-larger class sizes, forced into assuming greater responsibilities without additional remuneration, urged to complete extra grading without extra time to do so (while coerced into sacrificing pedagogical integrity in the process of grading faster), grads and adjuncts cannot help but associate academic freedom with the privileges afforded only a select few within the university. In the “publish or perish” environment – conditions by definition inimical to Fish’s conception of non-instrumental academic freedom – doctoral candidates are expected to enter dog-eat-dog competition with colleagues to vie for any of the remaining tenure-line positions so that they might escape a life of under-paid precarious contingent teaching aggravated by unpaid debts. Select professors and administrators, in contrast, wield relative power-over others within the institution. They exercise a degree of freedom in a context in which it comes at the expense of the freedom of those on the lower rungs of the academy. These conditions of un-freedom are sustained by the re-ascendant ideology presupposing the “individual to be the self-responsible architect of his [or her] fate.”[viii] As Herbert Marcuse explained, within this framework of thought, the individual’s “own performance in free competition with other individuals who are about equally equipped,”[ix] rightly determines one’s institutional position. Institutional safeguards of freedom in this mold, however, inevitably increase the insecurity of vast swaths of individuals. Freedom in the economic sphere is closed off as a result of the supra-individual processes that appear outside anyone’s control. Yet, within the present context, that reification and real denial of any meaningful say in the major decisions affecting our lives (i.e., deciding how one can spend most of one’s day, as opposed to the trivial freedom of endless choices among, say, the multitude of frozen pizza brands on the market), occurs simultaneously alongside the dominant ideological understanding that individualizes structural problems like mass indebtedness, framing the issue as a matter of personal responsibility. Freedom is transubstantiated into its opposite. Impoverished conceptions of academic freedom conceal the transubstantiation.

John Dewey, who Post cited as one of the early advocates of a progressive academic freedom,[x] actually offered a vision of freedom for both education and society capable of animating a more fulfilling human existence inside and outside of the university. Dewey criticized the prevailing mode of instrumental, abstract labor, as “the great majority of workers have no insight into the social aims of their pursuits and no direct personal interest in them,” ensuring “results actually achieved are not the ends of their actions, but only of their employers.”[xi] Workers – and we could add academics here, emphasizing graduate student-workers and adjunct professors – at present do not labor “freely and intelligently,” but instead “for the sake of the wage earned.”[xii] Dewey advocated a pedagogy aimed at liberation from “an unintelligent, unfree state” where “captains of industry” and a cadre of professionals monopolize decision-making power.[xiii] Within the “economic region, control remains external and autocratic,” and education should help “do away with the evils of the existing economic situation” with its division of labor ensuring only few are free to engage in creative and empowering work.[xiv] Education in and for a democratic society must make “thought a guide of free practice for all,”[xv] concerned with realizing a freedom not relegated to the realm of thought – or confined to a small privileged strata of the academy – alone. Students and especially graduate students who obtain degrees and too-often end up with dismal prospects, are at once disadvantaged déclassé intellectuals and also the hope for reconfiguring institutions, like the university, to better reflect the different human relations necessary for realizing and redefining real freedom, academic and otherwise.


James Anderson is an adjunct professor at California State University San Marcos teaching classes in the Communication department during the Fall 2015 semester. To supplement his low-wage contingent faculty salary, he also works at a local Ralphs, part of the Kroger-affiliated grocery store chain along the West Coast, where he bags groceries, retrieves shopping carts in the store parking lot and performs general store upkeep. He is a member of three unions at present: the California Faculty Association representing educators at Cal State; UFCW local 135 representing Ralphs employees; and the Industrial Workers of the World. He remains a doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.




[i] Stanley Fish, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 161.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Robert Post, “Why Bother With Academic Freedom?” Florida International University Law Review, 9 (2013), 1-9.

[iv] Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010). Daniel Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999).

[v] Robert Hitlonsmith and Tamara Draut, “The Great Cost Shift Continues: State Higher Education Funding After the Recession,” Demos, March 6, 2014, available online:

[vi] Fees for the 2012-2013 academic year at Southern Illinois University Carbondale totaled $3,352.68. SIU Institutional Research and Studies, “Factbook 2012-2013,” Southern Illinois University Carbondale, available online: The average graduate assistant in a PhD program on a 50 percent assignment at SIUC earns $1,633.91. For the numbers, see: “Agreement between the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University and the SIUC Graduate Assistants United, IEA-NEA,” July 1, 2010 – June 30, 2014, available online:

[vii] From 1975 to 2011, the number of full-time non-faculty jobs increased 369 percent and the number of graduate employee positions increased about 123 percent in the same period. See John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton, “Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2013-14,” AAUP, March-April 2014, available online:; Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood, “The One Percent at State U: How Public University Presidents Profit from Rising Student Debt and Low-Wage Faculty Labor,” Institute for Policy Studies, May 21, 2014, available online:

[viii] Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 188-189.

[ix] Ibid, 189.

[x] Robert Post, “Why Bother With Academic Freedom?”

[xi] John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: The Free Press, [1916]1944), 260.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid, 256.

[xiv] Ibid, 260.

[xv] Ibid, 261.

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