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Julia Schleck on The Function of the University Today

Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism


PERHAPS THE ONLY uncontroversial statement one can make about the contemporary American university is that it is a deeply controversial institution. Indeed, universities appear besieged from multiple directions. Parents and students have become increasingly disenchanted as both prices and student debt have increased. Long-standing conservative criticisms of new forms of knowledge have morphed into claims of “ideological indoctrination”; right-wing governors and legislators have used these claims as justification to intrude into college teaching and research, banning certain subjects and demanding greater control over the curriculum and the ways that the curriculum is taught. The growing influence of financialization and the evidence that higher education reproduces rather than overcomes inequality has led to a growing conviction on the left that universities function primarily as neoliberal institutions. The most visible signs of this financialization — student debt and labor precarity — have each produced significant opposition movements. Activists have forced student debt onto the national political agenda, demonstrating that the reduction in public funding and the rise in tuition have left multitudes of students carrying crippling debt from their efforts to get a college education. In the last few months, a remarkable upsurge in labor action by the most precarious academic workers — adjuncts and graduate students — has spread across the country and made clear that we inhabit an ultimately exploitative, and untenable, labor system of higher education.

Taken together, it is not hyperbole to say that student debt and the labor strikes have called into question the future of the research university itself. Take the recent strike at the University of California. For over half a century, the University of California has served as the research university of the state and as a leading trainer of scholars and scientists for the nation. But if, due to ongoing cuts to public funding and increasing financialization of the university, we no longer provide graduate students with enough support to pursue advanced degrees, the only people able to become the next generation of teachers and scholars will be the independently wealthy. And if we fail to provide enough funding to science faculty to enable them to train graduate students rather than simply hire professional researchers, we will destroy the future of scientific research.

I am not suggesting an equivalence between the Right and the Left here: the Right has power and the Left insight. When state legislatures ban subjects or methods, or when they move to eliminate tenure, they are seeking to undermine academic freedom and universities from the outside. When students organize around debt or precarious workers strike, they are trying to preserve the university by asserting the rights of those who actually do the teaching and learning. The future of the research university has been put into question.

At the same time, universities are arguably of greater importance today than at any time in the past. Universities are society’s main site for the concentrated production of knowledge across a wide range of fields. Institutions like think tanks, research sites, professional organizations, and community groups exist to approach specific sets of problems, and informal networks of individuals, especially in the arts and humanities, operate throughout society. But the university remains the primary site for inquiry across a multitude of domains. This role, always central, has become even more important due to the enormous challenges facing the contemporary world: from climate change to the intensification of global inequality, from the challenges of new pandemics to the resurgence of national and racial conflicts. The university is so controversial because its functions are so critical.

To a great extent, these controversies circle around the always-contested notion of academic freedom. Indeed, barely a day goes by without some new argument about the contours of academic freedom. This situation should not surprise us: after all, at its core, academic freedom is about the relative autonomy of knowledge production and the material support of knowledge producers and disseminators. Academic freedom exists because knowledge can be threatening: to values, social structures, political programs (of both left and right), and the supporters of universities themselves. Scholarship, research, and teaching are potentially transgressive but in a way that is distinct from the transgressions of free speech. Free speech is a right that inheres within an individual as a member of a political community; it is designed to ensure the continued freedom of opinion. Academic freedom, on the other hand, is a collective right that is rooted in the disciplinary pursuit of knowledge; it is designed to ensure that that pursuit can continue unchecked. The challenge today is that the threats to academic freedom come both from society outside the school and from within the structures of the contemporary university. Few are willing to take up this double challenge.

Luckily, Julia Schleck is willing. Her Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism seeks both to redefine academic freedom and to tie that redefinition to a theory of the growing importance of the university. In the course of her effort, she links together labor conditions and academic freedom, challenges the common conflation of academic freedom and free speech, and grounds academic freedom anew in the essential function of the university rather than in an individualized right. Dirty Knowledge is a concise and precise argument for the idea that sustainable labor practices within the university are an essential precondition for the maintenance of academic freedom, and that the maintenance of academic freedom is an essential precondition for the ability of universities to fulfill their social tasks. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of universities and society.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books