Corporatisation ‘threatens academic freedom’– AAUP

Higher education’s “romance with entrepreneurialism” puts the hallowed principle of academic freedom at risk at universities around the world, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, told comparative education researchers on Wednesday.

And while there's plenty of blame to go around for that, she said, faculty members themselves share some of it.

Be it through the seductive allure of corporate funding or the risk of complacency as a byproduct of tenure, the ways in which some faculty members have "failed to resist the corporatisation of the university (is) what I worry about most", Risa Lieberwitz, a law and labour professor at Cornell University, told attendees of the Comparative and International Education Society, or CIES, at their annual conference in Washington.

She urged her colleagues to "exercise that dissenting muscle".

"You gotta keep a hand in. You gotta piss people off on a regular basis,” she said.

Incoming CIES president N’Dri T Assié-Lumumba, professor of Africana studies at Cornell, said faculty activism is a “very important message for this conference", which was organised around the theme of "Ubuntu", an African concept that evokes inclusiveness and equality. "You can't separate (yourself from) the well-being of others... It's a collective project, education.”

Lieberwitz spoke mostly about US higher education but said threats to academic freedom extend well beyond the United States. While the form it takes varies from country to country, the underlying issues – increasing privatisation, commercialisation of research, the growth in administrative staff and diminished role of shared governance – are similar.

Citing AAUP data showing that 70% of US instructors are non-tenured, she said US universities are systematically reducing the ranks of tenured professors as administrators move toward a more corporate-like model. The United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework, which determines where publicly funded research dollars are best spent, similarly limits faculty members’ autonomy, she said.

“We have this kind of triumphalism of global capitalism,” she said.

Faculty urged to act collectively

To protect academic freedom and ensure shared governance, Lieberwitz urges faculty to act collectively, through faculty senates, strong collegial relationships and alliances with students and staff. That can be a tough sell in the United States, with its ethos of individualism, she said.

“This relationship between individual and collective… is sometimes painted as being in opposition to one another," Lieberwitz said. "The opposite is true. Collective action is essential to protect the individual.”

The globalisation of higher education has raised the profile of academic freedom in the United States. Cornell’s decision more than a decade ago to establish a medical school in Qatar, financed by the Qatar Foundation, was made without faculty discussion or debate, Lieberwitz told University World News.

But more recently, academics nationwide have protested against the fast rise of Confucius Institutes, academic centres that promote Chinese culture on host campuses worldwide. The Institutes are funded by an arm of the Chinese government, which, the AAUP and other groups argue, stifles academic freedom. The University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University last year cut ties with institutes on their campuses.

At Wellesley College, which in 2013 instituted a partnership with Peking University, more than 140 faculty members signed an open letter last year to Peking University to protest against the firing of a Chinese professor.

And in December, US Representative Christopher Smith, chair of a House subcommittee on foreign affairs, launched the first in a series of hearings examining whether Confucius Institutes and other Chinese initiatives are undermining academic freedom in the United States.

During a question-and-answer period, Namgi Park, a professor at the Gwangju National University of Education in Korea who served as its president from 2008 to 2012, offered an alternative perspective. "When I was president, faculty had too much (power)," he said. Now, "the system is changing a little bit. But still faculty self-governance is very strong."

Other attendees said Lieberwitz's comments struck a chord. Padmini Swaminathan, a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences told University World News that donors "dictate the agenda" for researchers at her institution. The US-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has targeted funding at HIV prevention, while basic research gets very little support, she said.

Lieberwitz acknowledged that economic realities can get in the way of ideal goals. “We are doing our work for the public interest... (but) capitalism is a system that does not allow for us to really explore the public interest,” she said. “So we’re constantly struggling to try to promote a democratic vision within an undemocratic structure.”