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Political Research Exchange

Academic Freedom and Political Legitimation in a Contemporary Globalised World

Interest Groups
Higher Education
Public Opinion
Section Number
Section Chairs
Giulio Marini
University College London
Jennifer Chubb
University of Sheffield
Section Co-Chair
Anatoly Oleksiyenko
University of Hong Kong

Since their inception in Western Europe, universities have characterized themselves with a strong political dimension – that of being partially independent by the main political players (Hofstadter, 1955). In light of this, the generation of knowledge was relatively free of political restraints and autonomy was valued by means of diffusing knowledge to students. Although in common parlance universities and their academics are most usually understood as custodians of knowledge, the hidden engine of this feature is their political legitimation. This pattern is coherent with the assumptions developed in neo-institutionalism (Meyer & Rowan 1991), which underlines the link of legitimation of higher education in compliance with societal norms. This panel assumes neo-institutionalism as a key referral to define the interplay between (different forms of) academic freedom and the current political scenario. In fact, academic freedom may also refer to cultural traditions, as the differences among English and Scottish nations unveil (Collini 2006).

The general assumption of the section is that neoliberalism in the global West is misinterpreting the mission(s) of higher education, compelling universities toward activities which are beneficial and important (i.e. “impact” & “employability”) yet partial and reductive (Collini 2017). We maintain that the more universities follow a neoliberal assumption, the more certain aspects of what universities may offer are reduced, if not neglected. The section is aimed at discussing these facts under this theoretical approach exploring possible (both desirable and undesirable) consequences, not only for universities, but for societies as a whole. The western tradition secured long-term development (not only technologically) bestowing some freedom to academics. On the other hand, it is to be remembered that some of the strongest discoveries in science have been gained under a tight regime of research-on-demand – war-time perhaps offering the best example – giving to academic freedom a much more nuanced valence.

We follow this scheme to approach the contemporary urgent issue of the role of universities in contemporary political societies (Rider & Peters 2018). This broad research question may span three clusters of homogenous countries. “Western democracies” which are suffering a crisis of representation and the rise of post-truth – meant as populism, but also as political arena (Fuller 2018). Societies whose democratic asset is questioned or threatened, having academic freedom as one of the privileged targets. The issue of (lack of) academic freedom in not-democratic societies, especially those with high geopolitical ambitions such as China. In this regard, the section is open to any possible contextual and historical contexts, provided the issue of the contribution of higher education for its political background is discussed.

Three Panels will be dedicated to specific issues:
- The role of universities and academics in post-truth societies;
- Redefinition of universities in neoliberal era;
- Can academic freedom be devised in non-democratic societies? What happens to universities and societies when academic freedom is overtly reduced?

The first panel will focus on the engagement that higher education (either as a national system, single universities or academics) may have whenever sensitive societal issues are at stake. What kinds of engagement ought universities have when an issue is “hot” and may shape students’ and society opinion (Posner, 2001; Rider & Peters 2018)? What kinds of different forms might this take and how do they respect the legitimation and the mandate that society gives to universities/academics? Within this general background, what has changed since the appearance of post-truth in contemporary society? Post-truth is challenging a possible redefinition of the role of academics (Devine 2018; Golsorkhi et al. 2009). In this political domain, trust in “experts” and consequentially; “truth” are apparently overcome by larger portions of the public opinion. This leaves a hiatus for further research in the traditional understanding of universities’ missions and the implications for the academic profession.

The second panel is aimed at critically discussing neoliberalism and its different implementations. This panel is particularly fit for authors who would like to discuss specific metrics and other constraints aimed at implementing a certain idea of academia. Panel assumes academic freedom is being redefined, rather than denied. In what ways is neoliberalism challenging learning experiences in universities? (Oleksiyenko 2017)? Are new ways of organising academic organisations functional to all higher education missions (Oleksiyenko 2018)?

The third panel will explore the extent to which countries – not necessarily non formally democratic ones – may possess academic freedom as defined in the present section. Particular attention is to be paid to countries in strong hegemony in science and generally speaking in geopolitics, such as China. The panel is also open to papers that would investigate the reduction of academic freedom in democratic countries that are currently led by “populistic” politics (e.g. Hungary, Turkey, Russia, etc.). In this regard, research should discuss the extent to which what societies lose in reducing academics’ “privileges”, going beyond the simple description of specific events.

Collini, S. (2006). Absent minds: intellectuals in Britain. Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Collini, S. (2017). Talking of University. London: Verso.
Hofstadter, R. (1955). The development of academic freedom in the United States.
Fuller, S. (2018) Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game. London: Anthem.
Golsorkhi, D., Leca, B., Lounsbury, M., Ramirez, C. (2009) Analysing, Accounting for and Unmasking Domination: On Our Role as Scholars of Practice, Practitioners of Social Science and Public Intellectuals. Organization. 16(6):779-797
Posner, R. A. (2001). Public intellectuals: a study of decline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Meyer, J. and Rowan, B. (1991) ‘Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony’ in W. Powell and P. DiMaggio (eds) ‘’The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis’’, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press: 41-62.
Oleksiyenko A. (2017) Enhancing University Staff Capacities for Critical Inquiry: Organizational Change, Professional Development and Cumulative Powers in Higher Education. In: Postiglione G., Jung J. (eds) The Changing Academic Profession in Hong Kong, vol 19. Springer
Oleksiyenko, A. (2018). Zones of alienation in global higher education: corporate abuse and leadership failures. Tertiary Education and Management. DOI:10.1080/13583883.2018.1439095
Rider, S., Peters M.A. (eds.) (2018). Post-truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity and Higher Education. Dordrecht: Springer.

Panel List

Code Title Details
P009Academic Freedom Under Threat View Panel Details
P413The Relevance of Higher Education for Political Systems: Academic Freedom as a Double-Edged Sword View Panel Details
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