Free Speech and Academic Freedom in the American Corporate University

Phil Knight Management Center, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. Photo Steve Castillo. CC BY 3.0

Free speech and academic freedom  are under attack in American higher education.

From the right the allegation is that wokeness and political correctness  have taken over, articulating  a political agenda that is  anti-white, anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, and pro LGBTQ.  From the left  the indictment is that schools continue to replicate stereotypes in their curriculum that perpetuate discrimination against marginalized groups.

Efforts by administrators to police curriculum raises concerns  of academic freedom among  faculty, whereas  doing nothing  leaves students  feeling they are victims of institutional biases and unresponsive to them.

The  fundamental issue here is not of ideology—it is the inherent problem of the corporate university where free speech and academic freedom are not seen as core to the education mission. Instead both are compromised by the needs and pressures of the corporate structure of contemporary higher education in America.

The idealized vision of higher education is one that emulates and reinforces the values of an open and tolerant society.  Going back 1,000  years to the birth of universities in Europe there was this myth that higher education was a crucible of free speech and thinking.  This belief was reinforced with the creation of American higher education where the hope was that colleges would replicate the values and mission of pluralist democracy.  John Dewey, perhaps America’s greatest visionary of American education, talks of how education should be about teaching students how to be good citizens and that the aim of education was to inculcate the values in school that are necessary in a democracy.

To accomplish this democratic mission,  the American Association of University Professors articulated principles of academic freedom. Put into place to secure these principles was the  concept of tenure.  Together they were supposed to insulate professors from retaliation for advocating controversial ideas, thereby exposing students to a diversity of viewpoints critical to  learning and education.  Higher education was supposed to permit a marketplace of ideas, producing truth and yielding tolerance and respect for a diversity of opinion.  It was both supposed to be insulated from political pressure, but at the same time replicate the values we claimed we wanted our society to support.

Yet the reality is that higher education, including in  America, seldom lived up to the myth.  Schools were neither never  neutral nor insulated  from outside pressures.  Medieval universities in Europe generally had religious missions, yielding to the orthodoxies of their schools. Galileo was barred from ever teaching again after he was condemned by the Catholic Church for arguing that the Earth was not at the center of the universe.  Rene Descartes, often considered the father of modern philosophy, taught in Belgium and so feared that the publication of one of  his books questioning  God’s existence would make him the next Galileo, waited until his death to publish it.  Other professors over time were fired for challenging religious orthodoxy too, or later by teaching Darwin and evolution.

In the twentieth century battles over free speech and academic freedom in America centered on allegations of communist influence with many professors dismissed.  The McCarthy era of the 1950s purged many institutions.  Fights in the 1960s over the Vietnam War  proved controversial, with efforts by students to prevent CIA or ROTC recruitment on campus  or to bar objectionable speakers.  Academic freedom and free speech policies seldom insulated professors from dismissal if schools wanted them out.  Higher education has always been at the crosshairs of social conflict.

But now the pressures are far different than before.  This is especially at a time when political polarization is at an apex and when schools have priced themselves beyond what most people can afford and when the pool of college-ready students has and will continue to decline.  Higher education is desperately searching for students and revenue, and it has all but abandoned the mythic model and replaced it with the corporate university.

 If at one time higher education declared free speech central to its mission, the corporate university is less likely to do that. The corporate university, as I have previously written, is one with a top-down management structure that views faculty as  revenue producing workers and students as customers.  Often administrators and board of  trustees have corporate private sector and not higher education backgrounds.

The corporate university, in response to declining public support for  higher education,  took control of the curriculum in order to generate revenue.   These universities, to save money and maintain flexibility, have significantly eliminated tenured faculty and replaced them with part timers.  The reality is now that barely a third of all faculty in America have tenure or are tenure-track.  For most faculty, there is no real academic freedom.

Academic freedom and free speech on campus serve corporate university imperatives.  It reflects a brand it wishes to sell. For Christian or conservative colleges as for private or public liberal institutions, whose speech and viewpoint is protected or privileged is a byproduct of which students it wants to recruit or donors or foundations it wishes to solicit.   Protecting students from ideas that offend them is less about ideology than it is about recruitment for a target market.

 The free speech or academic freedom that is protected is the one that furthers the bottom line of the specific school in question.  Few schools, if any truly have enough money to really be neutral, and in truth, do not want to be. They are selling a viewpoint or perspective and hoping that it will further their market niche.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.