“Academic freedom”: Creating opportunities for the subjugated



The absurd and embarrassing decision to fire Steven Salaita has rekindled dialogues and debates about academic freedom, conversations which inevitably result in a return to “free speech,” which in turn means a constant barrage of arguments about civility, decorum, and neutrality. As this latest case of violated academic freedom rights reminds us, the legal codification of “academic freedom” is just as ambiguous, and can be just as malleable and contradictory, as the laws of “free speech.”

In my essay, “Opportunities of Our Own Making: The Struggle for ‘Academic Freedom,’” I offer a historical analysis of the contemporary controversy surrounding the narrative of “academic freedom.” Specifically, I examine David Horowitz’s “Academic Freedom” campaign, exploring how “academic freedom,” a narrative that appears alongside “free speech” discourse frequently since September 11, 2001, can be understood as a site of struggle, a privileged label that grants legitimacy to those controlling it. This analysis includes public debates, interviews, and blog postings spanning the 2003 launch of Horowitz’s campaign, discussions of the proposed legislation in 2007, and his publication in 2009 of One-Party Classroom. By exposing the various ways Horowitz’s campaign is framed in the media by interested parties, I demonstrate how the link between “academic freedom” and “free speech” becomes a rhetorical strategy still used today by institutions and a powerful elite to silence dissent, but also a rhetorical strategy by which the subjugated can gain political and economic legitimacy.

If I could add to my essay in light of recent events, I would like to think further about the opportunities for returning “academic freedom” to the subjugated, removing it from those who (mis)use it as a disciplining/policing narrative. I hope to raise more conversation not simply of the strategies of control, but the tactics for liberation—the ways in which we might flip the script of contemporary (mis)understandings of academic freedom as somehow synonymous with civility and collegiality (and political neutrality—like Howard Zinn says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”).

When I read over UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s e-mail about the decision not to hire Salaita, I, like AAUP’s John Wilson, notice the strategies for control in the appeals for “respectful discourse,” and the hypocritical appeals to community and tolerance. I am reminded of Michel de Certeau, who makes a distinction between the concepts of strategy and tactics in his work, The Practice of Everyday Life. One of the clearer explanations of Certeau’s distinction is found in Andrew Blauvelt’s edited book, Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life (2003):

Strategies are used by those within organizational power structures, whether small or large, such as the state or municipality, the corporation or the proprietor, a scientific enterprise or the scientist. Strategies are deployed against some external entity to institute a set of relations for official or proper ends, whether adversaries, competitors, clients, customers, or simply subjects. Tactics, on the other hand, are employed by those who are subjugated. By their very nature tactics are defensive and opportunistic, used in more limited ways and seized momentarily within spaces, both physical and psychological, produced and governed by more powerful strategic relations.

Although I use the concept “rhetorical strategy” positively in my essay, it is my hope, in the tradition of Certeau, we strive to think about tactics, too. I hope we learn to embrace evolving, changing, contradictory tactics that challenge and dismantle inequalities and oppression. And in the meantime, I believe that the fallacious, binary logic of civil and uncivil/ collegial/uncollegial that some continue to associate with “academic freedom” will continue to serve not as productive rhetorical tactics moving us toward a more just, educated, deliberative society, but rather as a causal factor in continued symbolic and material violence on college campuses and all democratic communities.

Author Bio: This is a guest post by Adria Battaglia, a contributor to the newest issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom. Professor Battaglia received her PhD in rhetoric and language from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010. She served as a visiting professor at Illinois College for one year before returning to Texas to join the communication and mass media faculty at Angelo State University where she teaches in the area of rhetorical studies. Her work has appeared in the scholarly journals Quarterly Journal of Speech, Text & Performance Quarterly, and Free Speech Yearbook (a National Communication Association publication now known as First Amendment Studies).