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Defending Academic Freedom in a Populist Age

BERLIN – I am the President of Central European University, which is now under attack. CEU is fighting to remain a free institution in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, following the passage of new legislation that would, in essence, require the university to close.

CEU’s battle has become a global cause célèbre. More than 650 colleges, universities, and professional associations have opposed Hungary’s legal moves against CEU. Some 80,000 people marched through the streets of Budapest in our defense. Twenty-four Nobel laureates have lent their prestige to our cause. On June 22, one of them, Mario Vargas Llosa, will join us in Budapest for a conference on the global challenge to academic freedom.

We at CEU know that we are not the only university struggling to repel government attacks. Across Turkey, universities are being padlocked, and professors are being purged. In St. Petersburg, our sister European University struggles against repeated malicious attempts to close it down.

These are but some of the threats that universities now face from without. Yet there are equally worrying threats from within.

At Middlebury College in the US state of Vermont, a crowd recently shouted down the conservative author Charles Murray, preventing him from speaking; in Oregon, a professor was harassed for refusing to join a protest against racism. And Europe is not immune: In Berlin and Dresden, professors have been harassed for their conservative views or for attempting to explain the appeal of the far right.

The people responsible for these episodes don’t distinguish between criticism and harassment. But self-righteousness, especially when couched in the language of anti-sexism, anti-militarism, and anti-racism, closes all of us off from honest self-reflection. Today, it seems, those who are doing freedom the most harm are often those who benefit from it the most.

The best way to understand the double threat that academic freedom faces today – the danger from without and from within – is to step back from these controversies and return to first principles. What is academic freedom?

The Privileged Few

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We need to be honest. Outside of university seminar rooms, research labs, and libraries, many people regard academic freedom as a privilege – and a dubious one at that. So let us tackle the issue of privilege head-on.

Those of us lucky enough to work in universities know how privileged we are, but there is a discomfort here. Our salaries are paid by citizens – through taxation, for example, or via tuition support for a son or daughter – who may never have finished secondary school, let alone attended university. We must be able to justify ourselves to them. Our doors must always be open to the public. We must communicate our research in an accessible fashion. And we must remove barriers that exclude our fellow citizens from the chance to learn with us. If we have privileges – and we do – they come with responsibilities, which we must discharge conscientiously.

Academic tenure may be the most conspicuous privilege that needs to be addressed – and defended. If you ask people on the street what academic freedom means, some will say: it means professors have a job for life and no risk of being fired. In a world of pervasive economic insecurity, sinecures for the few look hard to justify.

And yet there is a profound and compelling justification for this rather unique form of job security. Tenure for professors protects the right to pursue unpopular research and take unpopular positions. It is one of the counter-majoritarian bulwarks of a free society, like a free press or an independent judiciary.

Of course, like all privileges, academic tenure can be abused: those who get it, having written one good book, sometimes go to sleep intellectually for the rest of their lives. But others use it magnificently to advance learning and add to the stock of human knowledge. We should be proud of those who use tenure for the benefit of us all and be as vigilant as we can to withhold the privilege from those who are not worthy of it.

Tenure is not the only aspect of university life that is unpopular. Academic freedom is commonly regarded as a kind of license for self-appointed experts to talk a lot of nonsense on television, radio, and social media. As someone who has been called a “public intellectual,” I confess to a few occasions when, through laziness or vanity, I allowed myself to pontificate on issues about which I had no real competence. The moral of my story is simple: stick to what you know. Otherwise, “experts” give expertise a bad name.

The People vs. the Professors

Aversion to “expertise” and rejection of “establishment” authorities is a central element in the politics of populism. The honest, practical, plain-speaking majority is pitted against the complacent, condescending, and entitled mandarins.

The truth, however, is that populism is a politics of bad faith. Our societies would stop functioning without the expertise that comes from academic knowledge. Populist political leaders who win votes by disparaging experts – we can all choose our favorite examples – are bound to find themselves fumbling for the light switch when they come to power. Expertise remains essential to any decent governance whatsoever.

But it’s not enough to defend academic expertise if all the public hears is a defense of our privileges as an elite. The deeper problem that must be confronted is the erosion, in public opinion, of the link between academic freedom and the freedom of all citizens. Those who would say, “Academic freedom is my freedom, too,” are a minority.

Those of us who believe in universities, who love them, for all their faults, who treasure what they have taught us, must proudly affirm that our freedom is not a privilege, but a right that we have earned, when we serve truth and knowledge, on behalf of the societies we serve. But if universities are to regain the democratic support they need, it is vitally important for those of us within academia to respond honestly to outside criticism, instead of wincing in silent complicity when one of our colleagues plays around at being an “expert.”

Likewise, we must also stop jargon from taking over academic discourse entirely. I have attended too many seminars, in some great universities, which degenerated into a closed language game played by a coven of initiates who prized obscure self-referential congratulation over honest engagement with reality. So, yes, the outside world is often right. Some academics give academic freedom a bad name.

But it is equally true that the scholars I have revered all my life – true giants like Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, David Landes, and Judith Shklar, to choose but four – all had the gift of clarity. Their work expressed a moral obligation to the truth and to their society: to be accessible to their fellow citizens about the problems we face together. These are our great ones, the men and women of deep learning whose use of their academic freedom gives luster to our own.

The Battle in Budapest

Enough said about the threats from within. I put them first, because if we can’t defend the best among us and criticize the worst, if we can’t discharge our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, if we can’t prevent our independence from serving coercive political correctness, academic freedom will perish at the hands of its privileged beneficiaries.

But the threats from without are no less serious. I will not rehearse our “little local difficulty” as the British might call it, in Budapest. Negotiations are underway between the Governor’s office in the state of New York, where CEU degrees are accredited, and the government of Hungary. I want negotiations to succeed, so that my colleagues and I can resume the daily – and now, it seems to us, blessed – life of a normal academic institution.

So the less said in public about the battle with the Hungarian government the better. But I can reflect on what the episode has taught me about the relationship between the freedom of universities and democratic freedom itself.

We have shrunk the scale and scope of academic freedom when we use it to refer only to the private privileges of individual members of a corporate caste. For academic freedom surely also means a community’s collective right to govern itself in order to serve the wider society. We have given so much attention to the meaning of academic freedom for individuals that we have neglected its implications for the organization of society. And yet those implications are essential: unless institutions can defend their right to govern themselves against outside forces, they cannot effectively defend the individual rights of their members within.

As for CEU, we have demonstrated that one common cliché about freedom happens to be true: it is worth what you are prepared to pay for it. Those who do not fight for their freedom will lose it.

But I must emphasize that we have been able to do so because a private endowment gives us the resources to do so. Turkish and Russian academic institutions lack these resources.

Our endowment comes from a single philanthropist: George Soros. No man has done more for Hungary, and no man has been more unfairly traduced. In the battle that we have fought to keep CEU in Budapest, Soros has respected academic freedom a good deal better than the Hungarian government has.

Private Threats

The larger point is that the state is not the only source of external pressure on universities. No academic institution is free if its executive is controlled by its benefactors. No institution will receive authoritative accreditation, as CEU has done – with both New York State and the US Middle States Commission on Higher Education – unless it can demonstrate that it is entirely independent of those who provide it with resources.

So CEU’s academic freedom – and that of any academic institution – must mean both freedom from the state and freedom from any private interest. Neither freedom is unlimited. All rights should be bounded by obligations. In relation to private interests, the university accepts a fiduciary responsibility to account for its use of resources and to use them exclusively for the purposes of teaching and research. In relation to the state, a university, while free to challenge the law and dissent from it, must also obey it.

I come out of the battle for CEU more convinced than ever that financial independence is a critical guarantee of academic freedom. So universities that are exclusively dependent on government funding should diversify their sources of support. Academic freedom is always more secure when it rests on many pillars.

Defending academic freedom successfully means multiplying a university’s network of connections to the wider society. There are, no doubt, both perils and opportunities in a university’s engagement with the private sector. It is good for research and good for our students to welcome partnerships with private companies. We can produce knowledge together, share the income from patents, and train students to be their future employees.

But every contract we write with the private sector must safeguard the integrity of our research agendas, our curricula, and our appointment criteria. Universities are not businesses: we are self-governing non-profit institutions with purposes that are distinct from those of commercial enterprises. When both sides understand the rules of engagement, both can benefit from the knowledge we create together.

Targets of Authoritarian Opportunity

Ultimately, academic freedom depends on the health of democratic institutions. When democracies are weak, when majoritarian populists erode checks and balances, press freedom, and judicial independence, universities are especially vulnerable. That is what has happened in Hungary.

To survive, universities need to do whatever they can to strengthen the democratic institutions that protect them, and they must seek and earn the solidarity of the societies they serve. That is the ultimate guarantee of their freedom.

Democracy, after all, is much more than its machinery. All of its institutions – majority rule, minority rights, checks and balances, independent judiciary, free press – are animated by the noble ideal of self-government, the idea of free communities choosing their aims for themselves, giving themselves rules by consent, and discharging obligations of protection and care to their members.

This ideal first took root in Europe, in the medieval universities of Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne, and the great early modern universities of eastern Europe: Charles University in Prague, Jagiellonian University in Kraków, and Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. All of them, founded centuries ago, are still self-governing institutions, embodying the ideal of self-rule that is the very core of the democratic faith.

The battle for academic freedom is never over: we must defend it against its enemies from within and without. On both fronts, our success ultimately depends on convincing our fellow citizens that when we fight for ourselves, we are also fighting for them.

Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, is President and Rector of Central European University.

By Michael Ignatieff

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