‘Democracy is in recession, academic freedom is in danger’

Michael Ignatieff, who, as rector of the Central European University (CEU), had to move it to Vienna, Austria, to escape pressure from Hungary’s right-wing populist prime minister Viktor Orbán, came out swinging in the inaugural lecture of the University of Ottawa’s Global Ideas Lecture series on Monday.

Freedom is not, he says, what anti-vaxxers and the libertarian fringes of the conservative and radical right claim, “personal non-interference”, the motto of which could be “Don’t touch me; hands off.”

Such views “abuse” the word and ignore the fact that we are “uniquely interdependent creatures”, he said in his lecture entitled “Academic Freedom, Free Speech and Thinking for Yourself”.

Referencing the COVID pandemic, he noted that his health could be compromised by surrendering to someone’s claim to absolute personal freedom (not to wear a mask), and so it is with political freedom. “My political freedom is unlikely to endure long if I’m unwilling to defend your freedom.”

During his brief political career as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, which lost the 2011 election, one of the criticisms against Ignatieff was that, as the son of a diplomat, George Ignatieff, who himself was the son of a Russian princess and Russian count, the younger Ignatieff was an out-of-touch toff.

His career as a public intellectual in Britain was held up by Canada’s governing Conservative Party as proof that Ignatieff was an elitist, even though his books – histories, philosophical and political science works and biographies – are written in accessible language.

It is worth noting, therefore, that early in his lecture, Ignatieff underscored the point that intellectual freedom is not the possession of a privileged few. “All human beings have the capacity to benefit from the knowledge of this capacity [but] this capacity dies in so many souls thanks to injustice and cruelty and discrimination.”

‘Democracy is in recession’

After recalling how during the 1930s British academics raised funds to assist German academics fleeing the Nazis, and how the New School in New York housed the Frankfurt school for social research after it fled Germany, Ignatieff’s talk turned darker.

The chapters of Scholars at Risk in American and Canadian universities exist today, he said, because “democracy is in recession. Authoritarianism and single party rule are in the ascendant. Academic freedom is in danger.”

His examples included Afghanistan and Turkey, where the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has “continued its crackdown on universities with show trials, dismissal and suspension of entire faculties”.

Orbán’s welcoming of China’s Fudan University in place of the CEU clearly rankled Ignatieff, who tossed it off with a riff from the American cowboy song, ‘Home on the Range’: Whatever they teach in the government department of Fudan University in Budapest, Ignatieff predicted, “will not involve a discouraging word about either Chinese politics or Hungarian politics”.

But, he told us, the problem of Chinese surveillance of its students overseas is not new. When he taught at the Harvard Kennedy School a decade ago, Chinese students would tell him “in confidence that they chose their words carefully in class lest one of their fellow Chinese students in the class informed on them to officials back home”.

Western universities are under a different sort of pressure from outside interests, Ignatieff asserted. Foundations, alumni donors, corporations and governments that fund universities all try to “exert influence over what we research, what we teach, even what students we recruit”.

Pointing directly toward the University of Ottawa’s president, Jacques Frémont, who had introduced Ignatieff, he sympathised with his job of ensuring that any monies accepted did not compromise the institutional autonomy on which academic freedom depends.

Maintaining autonomy, both the university’s and the individual’s, has become more and more difficult, Ignatieff thinks. The university’s role as the creator of knowledge “generates enormous value”, which attracts both the attention of governments and industry who seek to pressure the academe.

The University of Oxford partnership with AstraZeneca that led to its COVID vaccine is a model partnership, Ignatieff noted. Others, he said, are opaque or come with strings attached that can be pulled in secret by corporate or government paymasters.

What he called the “engine that powers the entire modern economy” (because it generates knowledge) is in danger of becoming an adjunct research lab for private corporations.

“Universities and academics must also be allowed to pursue apparently useless knowledge for its own sake, pure science, pure archival research, pure experimentation, divorced from social use in the confident expectation that, in the course of time, the most apparently useless research often turns out to benefit us all.”

Intellectual winds

In the middle of the final section of Ignatieff’s talk, after speaking about how in the 1970s and ’80s “intellectual winds blew through the campus sweeping all of us students before them”, he sketches the image of the autonomous scholar trying to keep his or her “footing in the middle of a gale”.

Marxism, he tells us, gave way to structuralism, which was displaced by post-structuralism, which was replaced by deconstruction. For a time each of these stimulated thought and allied themselves with progressive movements beyond the campus gates, he said.

He was especially critical of deconstruction, accusing it of “degenerat[ing] into closed language games” that closed themselves off from the general public, unable to speak the language as used by writers such as Jacques Derrida.

The scholar who resisted these intellectual winds, the one Ignatieff himself would like to be seen to model, is one who takes as his or her motto Nullius in verba, the motto of the Royal Society founded in 1660: “Take no one’s word for it.”

What keeps this radical scepticism from falling into the solipsistic freedom claimed by the libertarians, Ignatieff argues, are the structures of academic disciplines. Paradoxically, he admits, it is “impossible to think creatively or originally without first learning the disciplines of thought”.

In defining the university’s mission, Ignatieff echoes John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689): “(I)t is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.”

Locke was a member of the very same Royal Society Ignatieff admires. Speaking from Vienna, Ignatieff highlighted the “vital work that universities do for society, curating knowledge that still illuminates, clearing away knowledge that has failed us or needs to be improved”.

Ignatieff moved from this point to the most difficult part of his lecture, sounding a warning about the dangers he sees that identity politics pose to the university and freedom of thought.

He embraces “the new thinking about race, empire, colonialism and gender” and how we “now understand how much the wealth and privilege of European and American institutions, including universities, was built on slavery and colonial exploitation”.

Though he did not mention the fact that more than a thousand unmarked graves of Indigenous children have been found on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada and that thousands more are likely to be found, Ignatieff said: “All of us know, as we should have known before, that the schools supposed to teach Aboriginal children did many of them unconscionable harm”.

“This has shaken, as it should, the Canadian national narrative itself, forcing us all to come to terms with the profound challenge that the Aboriginal experience in Canada poses to the integrity of our national story.”

Yet, he fears that, along with these currents, there is a dogmatic, intolerant strain that gives the conservative forces something to rail against – he did not mention Fox News and Former United States president Donald Trump’s supporters, but, then again, he didn’t need to.

More problematic for the academe he so obviously loves and the scholar’s freedom is what happens when “intellectual movements [that] have such liberating potential” become dogmatic. “Their adherents,” he says, “accord themselves the right to argue as if no sensible person can possibly disagree.”

Paradigmatic cases are familiar: “Whether statues should be torn down, whether certain speakers should be disinvited, whether certain texts should be discarded from the canon, whether words whose meaning we once thought were settled, like ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, now need to be redefined.”

In what many will find to be a contentious argument, he moves to divide “intellectual claims” from “identity claims”, a division which harkens back to one made earlier in the lecture about the distinction between “creativity” being social but “truth is not”, while discussing how the Royal Society functioned.

Truth, he emphasises, is “not what a community says or what a majority of its members say is true, but, rather, what the facts and evidence will support. And this process of falsification [essentially the scientific method] and validation must not be dependent on opinion or received wisdom”.

Scholars, individuals in search of truth, he argues, must strive to separate themselves from the community from which they come. When doing academic work, too close an alliance with one’s group, ends up undercutting the intellectual enterprise, he says.

“When intellectual claims become identity claims, people feel radically threatened because their identities are challenged and their reactions are likely to be strong precisely because they feel something essential, integral to their very selves, is being challenged.”

Ignatieff’s belief in the individual scholar’s even-handed approach to his or her subject allows him to assert, just before the end of his talk, that the corrective to what he sees as the corrosive campus politics that would police speech is this very same independence of mind.

“Academic freedom and intellectual liberty that goes with it presumes not just an ethics of civility, that’s not impossible to achieve,” he said. Rather, what is “much more difficult [to develop] is a capacity to distance yourself from the propositions you uphold”.

“It’s only possible to admit that you’re wrong if you can separate your identity claims from your truth claims, if you are sufficiently independent, even of progressive thought, even of your race, even of your gender, to assert your own right to ascertain the truth for yourself,” he said.

A swipe at administrators

At the end of his lecture, Ignatieff takes a swipe at the way university administrators handle students’ claims about speech that they find assaulted their dignity.

First, Ignatieff makes clear that there are times when an instructor’s words do “so much harm to another person’s integrity or dignity that dismissal should be considered”. Yet, both his tone and the thrust of his lecture made it clear that he believes these are rare – and without an example, it was hard to determine exactly where he set the bar.

His solution, however, turns toward the bar, that is, toward the legal formulas of libel and defamation developed over the centuries. No doubt, this solution, which looks beyond the university’s gates, will not sit well with either administrators or students who claim that a professor’s words demeaned them.

What Ignatieff, the former rector of a major university, finds unconscionable, however, is that rather than considering both sides in a speech controversy, those university administrators “rush to manage the speech controversy because it harms their reputation”.

This almost always damages the rights of either party in a dispute, he says. When such controversies arise, what universities need is not “public relations talk or reputation management” but, rather, discussion of these “painful matters [that] meet the basic standards of justice, due deliberations, careful consideration of the evidence on both sides, impartial justice and fairness”.

The rector who had led his university to safety in Vienna didn’t need to say that these habits of mind and procedures had vanished from the Hungary where he had first taken up his post at the Central European University.