"Insidious Threats to Academic Freedom in the US and Abroad"
Delivered on March 21, 2018 in Belfer Case Study Room, CGIS South
Michael Ignatieff, Advisory Committee. President, Central European University.
"Academic Freedom and Authoritarian Populism: Lessons from the Front Line"
Thank you very much, Michéle. Thank you all for being here. This is a room I've been in many times on your side, and I think it's the first time I'm on this side. But I want to thank whoever the good people called Jodidi are for making this possible. Thank you, Jodidi, the Jodidi family. And thank you for coming.
In the division of labor that Craig Calhoun and I agreed upon, he's going to deal with the insidious threats, the kind of subtler ones, the ones that are perhaps characteristic of American or North Atlantic academic life, and I'm going to deal with the straight on, in your face, “boom boom” threats that have arisen where I am in Hungary.
I'm going to tell you just a little narrative about what's happened to Central European University, but I won't overdo the narrative. And then I'd like to talk a little bit about a characterization of these kinds of societies.
What are we to make of a place like Hungary? I'm going to make one point, which is that we sometimes draw a contrast between open societies and closed societies, as if that had explanatory value, and we think academic freedom is menaced in closed societies.
What I want to suggest to you is that the relationship between a place like Hungary and a place like here is much more complex. There is a collusive relationship, a disturbingly collusive relationship between liberal democratic societies, which enjoy full academic freedom, and societies which do not. And it's that collusive relationship that I think we need to think about. That will be my headline.
Let me give you a very brief narrative of what's happened with Lex CEU. Most of you will know that CEU is a graduate institution offering masters and PhDs, accredited in the United States. We're accredited in New York State and by middle states. We offer degrees that are accredited also by the Hungarian administration. So we're a kind of European-American institution.
We're one of almost thirty institutions of higher learning around the world that have no domestic US campus, but our American institutions think American University Cairo or American University Beirut. They have no campuses in the United States, but they operate overseas. And it's a feature of American higher education, which is kind of wonderful. This is one of the most globalized higher education systems in the world.
But note, this is the geostrategic implication. These institutions are now implanted all over the world in authoritarian societies where their capacity to operate freely is very much in question. So my story about Hungary is not just a story about Hungary. It's potentially a story about Egypt, about Russia, about Abu Dhabi—about all the places where American norms of academic freedom are suddenly under challenge because of the emergence of these kinds of regimes.
Our problems erupted exactly a year ago when, without warning, without consultation, without any notice, the Orbán government introduced a thing that quickly came to be known as "Lex CEU," which said you can't operate in this country unless you have a new bilateral agreement between the government of Hungary and the originating state that you're from.
We then spent four months pointing out to them that the Constitution of the United States does not give jurisdiction of higher education to the US federal government. And after four months, they conceded that that was likely to be true, and therefore, the person that they should talk to is the governor of the state of New York. We then forced them to talk to the governor of the state of New York to negotiate a new bilateral agreement between Hungary and the state of New York.
The new legislation said basically, we couldn't have a dual Hungarian-American identity, and we had to have a US campus. All of this doesn't make it impossible to function, but let me tell you, as a practical matter, it's real tough to function if you have to pass all those barriers.
We stood up and said basically, hell no. This is an absolutely unacceptable infringement on our institutional autonomy. We are not an NGO. We're not an opposition party. We are not trying to bring down your government. We're actually, for God's sake, a university, so please respect the specificity of us as an institution.
And we then had a global outpouring of support, which included this university and about 500 other universities. That was an important thing, I think, to notice. If institutions get attacked, institutions—universities are among the most globalized and networked institutions in the world. This is their key raw political power. If you get attacked, you've got to activate your networks immediately.
And we did, and 14,000 alumni began jumping and shouting. Everybody who's ever done a conference with anybody else stood up and got them to—and so we rallied a global network. We had 80,000 people in the streets of Hungary, marching to Parliament, chanting, "free universities in a free country." We had nothing to do with it. But it struck a chord inside a society, because they saw our struggle as their struggle.
The struggle still goes on. We got a new agreement between the state of New York and the government of Hungary, but the prime minister has not signed it. The prime minister is running an election campaign whose sole subject is stop Soros. Meaning stop migration, stop immigration, stop the threat to Christian civilization in Europe posed by unelected NGOs that receive the funding of a billionaire, et cetera. There's a whole trope here that is being mobilized.
And we have some concerns that after the election on April the 8th, our days in Budapest will be numbered. This is not an existential threat to the university. We're privately endowed, and we will continue. The issue is whether we'll be able to continue in Budapest, and we want to stay in Budapest. That's as simple as that.
So that's the narrative of our situation, and it is ongoing. And your continued support is most appreciated. Let me now shift and try and characterize this regime and characterize the other regimes where this is happening. And let me just add, because there may be Turkish students in the audience, I think it would be lachrymose and self-pitying of me to describe the Hungarian situation is uniquely awful. It's much tougher in Turkey, you know? It's really tough in Russia. You know, it's very, very tough in China, it seems to me.
The slow suppression of institutional autonomy and academic freedom in China is a major issue, particularly for any American institution that has bilateral and ongoing relations with some of the great universities in China. American academic life needs to be deeply attuned to the ways in which the hands of single-party states are around the throats of academic freedom and institutional autonomy in at least those three countries and other ones.
But what I want to say about these places is that to set up a contrast between an open society and a closed society gives a kind of unseen alibi to open societies. The really interesting thing about a place like Hungary is that if you go to Budapest, there's a free press. The people can exit and leave and come back.
They have—to use Albert Hirschman's characterization—they've got exit rights. So if you don't like Hungary, you can leave. If you don't like China, you can leave. If you don't like Turkey, you can sort of leave still if you can get a visa. If you don't like China, you can exit.
These are societies that depend for domestic stabilization on exit rights. 500,000 Hungarians are living and working in the European Union. This is a stabilization for the regime in two ways. Remittances flow back into the Hungarian economy, and the discontented can get the hell out. Same thing in other places.
You know, one of the ways to understand the deep stability, the long-term stability of the Russian regime, it seems to me, is to look carefully at the ways in which oligarchs can offshore their money in London. That is the parasitic dependency of these tyrannies on the capacity to use safe offshoring of resources in London where you don't have rule of law in Russia, which is why they have to offshore their ill-gotten gains. You can offshore them in a rule- of-law country where they escape the confiscatory impulses of Vladimir Putin.
But notice what then happens. That then means that there's a safety valve. The oligarchs can leave. And then there's this kind of weird division of labor in which the people who could overthrow Putin remain content with the regime, because there's no existential threat to having their kids go to Harvard, their real estate in London, etc.
Same thing in relation to China. If you look at the ways in which the Chinese offshore to real estate acquisition in Vancouver, you begin to understand one of the deeper reasons why these supposedly closed societies are parasitically dependent upon the openness of their open society competitors. They're particularly dependent on the rule-of-law safety provided by these societies.
And this means that the whole configuration in which we understand the difference between open and closed societies has changed completely from the image that we started with when Karl Popper wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945. In 1945, the closed societies we were looking at were autarkic. A-U-T-A-R-K-I-C. That is, they were attempts to create socialism in one country. To bound, to close the frontiers, to prevent exit, to suppress voice, and to compel loyalty.
We're now in these new authoritarian populist forms that are single-party tyrannies that are absolutely at ease with globalization 3.0. And it's globalization 3.0 that seems to give them a very long lease of life.
So the idea that these are brittle, single-party tyrannies that are going to fall because they suppress the needs and wants of their population rather miss the facility with which they afford exit, the facility with which they afford limited voice, and the rather relaxed way in which they compel loyalty. You can be a perfectly happy internal exile in Hungary. You're not being compelled to march in the May Day parade. If you don't like Orbán, you can lump it.
So the loyalty demands that these regimes make because they're kind of a little bit post-ideological, all of this looseness, it seems to me, is a guarantee that these regimes are going to be around for a long time. That's what I'm trying to get us to think about. If you think about, are we looking at authoritarian, populist, single-party, mafia states as being durable political formations?
I'm trying to suggest a way in which, if you think about the relationship between open and supposedly closed societies, you get an answer that says, they're going to be around for a long time. And they're going to be around for a long time because we are collusive in their stabilization. Unwillingly collusive. I'm not suggesting anything other.
So that's, I hope, a way of understanding these regimes. It's certainly why being in Hungary has been so unfailingly interesting, because I feel I'm looking not at some little poor, backward, provincial, Eastern European, uninteresting little thing that only area specialists look at. I think I'm looking at the future.
I think I'm looking at a new regime form, one of whose features—and this directly impinged upon me—is a relentless, consistent hostility to counter-majoritarian institutions of any kind. They remain legitimized as the voice of the people. They remain—Mr. Orbán's legitimation is that, "I got elected. I won an election. I am the voice of the people." He uses the idea of this—this borrows heavily from Jan-Werner Muller's wonderful work on populism—He's created a people that he is the faithful voice of, and my university is the enemy of that kind of people.
But the attack on CEU is not just an attack on one university. It's an attack on a genuinely pluralist, civil society sphere. It's an attack on a fully independent judiciary. It's an attack on all of the counter-majoritarian institutions that were created after 1989 to guide these societies from communism to what we hoped would be a free society.
And so Hungary is interesting for this other reason, that this was supposed to be a narrative of transition, and it's gone to an absolutely unexpected, new kind of regime formation that is counter-majoritarian, single-party, rent-seeking, mafia state that is systematically destructive of all the counter-majoritarian counterbalances to the rule of the single party.
And just to kind of put the spin on the European dimensions of this, when I said that open societies are collusive in the maintenance of these regimes, you see it very clearly in Europe. The Hungarian regime receives four billion euros in structural transfers from the European Union. That is a lot of their budget. It allows them to siphon off some of that into the very profitable business of being a single-party state. It stabilizes the regime.
And then there's Schengen, or the ability to travel freely. Both of these are crucial stabilizations of the regime long term. And so I don't predict Hungarian exit from the European Union. The European Union is critical to the stabilization of this long-term, single-party, authoritarian project.
It also means when I look for help to defend a free institution, I'm not getting much help from Europe. All the blah, blah, blah is fine, and I've had lots of authoritative statements from European leaders. But when it comes to it, I don't look to Europe to protect me.
It goes without saying that the United States, I think, walked away from the project of stabilizing Europe and stabilizing its security architecture basically after Dayton. I'm trying to provoke you. I mean, I made that up slightly. After Dick Holbrooke, after Dayton, after the attempt to bring the Balkan Wars to an end. Basically, the United States stepped away.
And so the utter, total disinterest of the Trump administration in European security has a backstory that began long before this regime. It's been a feature of both Democratic and Republican regimes. There's simply no one really home. We've had good support from the State Department of the United States, God bless them.
But the full weight and force of the American administration in defense of academic freedom just isn't there. Again, don't cry for me, Argentina. I'm just trying to tell you what the facts are. I'm trying to give you a sense of what cards are in my hand. And I don't have a US card in my hand, to be blunt.
Let me come to a conclusion, because I'm slightly intruding on Craig's time. What does the CEU case teach us about academic freedom? My experience has been that universities need to understand two things about themselves.
One of them is that they are part of the constitutional fabric of liberal democracies in a way that we don't often think. They are counter-majoritarian institutions. You know, the courts are there to define what the law is. The media are there to define and shape and structure the public debate on opinion. Our job is to curate, save, preserve, contest, and question the knowledge upon which liberal democracy depends.
It's a constitutional role, although we never talk about it in that way. And it's a vital role. And it is a role that is under attack from these regimes, because their hold on power also depends on systematic mystification of the real.
We're in the middle of an election campaign in which there might be 2,000 Muslims in the whole of Hungary. And yet the entirety of the election campaign is saying, if we don't stop Muslim migration, Christian civilization in Hungary will die.
This is what I mean by systematic mystification. It is really a full court. And these regimes use all the twenty-first-century technologies, the political technologies. Another reason why, in my view, they've got a long future. These are very sophisticated regimes. They're using all the black arts.
And so our role, which is simply trying to say, this is what the real world actually is, this is what it is, like it or not, this is what our best guess after falsification, peer review, and trial and error, and all the experimentation that's at the core of the social sciences, this is the real. They really are going after that. And we have to understand that we're on the front line of a battle to actually defend the capacity of a society to see the real. See it as it is.
And the second conclusion I draw, and I will stop here, is that as long as universities defend academic freedom tacitly as the privilege of a skilled elite, they're done for. The only way we can turn this thing, both in societies like Hungary and societies like this—and now I stray into Craig's territory—is to make the simple case that when we fight for academic freedom, we are defending counter-majoritarian institutions, and we are fighting for you.
We have not been able to convince our fellow citizens that the battle we're fighting is not a battle simply to defend our own privileges and prerogatives and our long summers and tenure, and all the things that we are resented for. We're fighting for you. We're fighting for the very capacity of a society to see itself truly. And so it's a battle we've got to win. Thank you.
Craig Calhoun, Advisory Committee. President, Berggruen Institute.
"Insidious Threats to Academic Freedom"
Well, let me thank Michéle for the invitation to be here, and for writing all of those letters to President Trump that she referred to earlier. They have been enormously effective.
Let me thank Michael Ignatieff, not just for his remarks this evening, but for his leadership of the CEU. The Central European University is an important institution, a wonderful institution. Those who haven't visited should. It is an intellectual community, something we say all the time. I'm sure people have said that about Harvard, and that's why everybody at Harvard is constantly engaged with all the other people at Harvard in distant departments and schools, and living the life of community.
Central European University actually does exemplify something important about a conception of academic intellectual life as an intellectual community. And it is valuable for that as well as for the special role that it plays in Eastern and Central Europe, and indeed in Europe as a whole. So defending and advancing the Central European University is an important cause, and I just want to mention that and thank you, and thank the CEU. It really is important.
Academic freedom is a responsibility. In a sense, Michael ended with that note as well, and I would say he ended by telling us that we have to explain something that we also have to make sure is true. That is that our claims to academic freedom are deployed in support of a system of higher education and individual universities that really does deliver something important for society as a whole, that really does deliver something important for all the members of society. And being sure that is true is an important part of being able to make the case for it, and one that is sometimes forgotten.
Because we do too often get into claiming academic freedom as a sort of right. We deserve academic freedom because we're brilliant. We got great GRE scores and we wrote great theses, and our books and articles got us jobs at Harvard or similar universities. Therefore, obviously, we should have academic freedom.
That is not actually an argument that justifies academic freedom, and we should be clear about that. What we do is something that depends on academic freedom. Academic freedom is not only a responsibility, it's a necessity if we are to have vital institutions of knowledge creation that are fully open to playing the role of bringing honest self-awareness to society that Michael spoke about, but also to be fully effective in the pursuit of science, of humanistic knowledge, of the full intellectual mission of the university.
Knowledge creation, and especially critical knowledge creation, the role of criticism. Not just criticism like, I don't like Donald Trump. It's true, I don't. But that's not something that is very important. Criticism in the sense of being able to debate the ideas, the theories with which we work. To be counter-majoritarian not just in the sense of the politics of the larger society, but in scientific debates over what is the right way to look at an intellectual or a policy or a practical question.
It's important for universities to have academic freedom in academic intellectual terms, as well as in broader public terms. We need it in order to do the intellectual work we're charged with doing. And it is lost, moreover, if there is a tyranny of one point of view on a question of scientific knowledge, as well as if there is a repression of freedom in relation to the larger society.
In that regard, it's important to recognize that academic freedom is distinct from general rights to free speech. I'm not going to go into a long history of academic freedom as provided either in the German historical case or the US historical case with the founding of the AAUP and all of that.
What I want to just point out is it's not simply the general right to free speech. We should defend the general right to free speech, especially in democratic societies. But academic freedom has a distinct and strong message that it is necessary for the existence of universities, for the existence of associations and academies in their teaching as well as in their research in the pursuit of and the sharing of knowledge.
And we need to keep bringing academic freedom back to that grounding. Not belittling the general right of free speech, which I think is extremely important, but much broader. I'm suggesting that there is a claim to something more specific.
Free inquiry is the production of knowledge as a public good, a public good in the strong sort of sense. A good that needs to be produced, shared in nonrivalrous ways, and contributes to society in a variety of ways—though it can't be reduced to one of these. And I'll come back to the idea that ultimately, academic knowledge is to be judged by, say, its economic productivity, and the ways in which that can become a limit on academic freedom as well.
But what I want to stress simply is that academic freedom is a kind of public good that we need to keep working to produce, to provide for our societies. It's not just a right we defend in that sense.
Like other public goods, free inquiry depends on institutional support systems. Universities themselves, first instance and others. And these are subject to erosion. And we live in an era in this country and more widely in which there has been a great deal of erosion in our general valuing of and commitment to the provision of public goods.
It's not unique to universities. It's true of what's happened to so-called legacy journalism in the country. It's true in what's happened with regard to cities and housing. It's true in a range of areas that we have become less good at both valuing and providing many sorts of public goods, and we suffer for it.
It would be a different talk to go too far down that path, but let me just stress that we have gone through some forty years of learning to value the public less, to think that the public is an inefficient, unglamorous, unsexy sort of institution that is clearly second rate compared to the private, the individual. Read The Great Persuasion if you want a book to think of this in, and the way in which the followers of Hayek and Mises and the Mont Pelerin Society spreads this in one domain economically.
But it's not just there. It is in a variety of areas. It's in career choices of students. It's in the fields that are studied. And these have transformed universities, because universities are reshaped into institutions that provide what students want to study to some extent, what corporations want to sponsor, and what may or may not always meet the demands of, say, speaking truth to power or giving an honest reflection of society.
This erosion of the institutional provision of public goods I want to suggest is widespread, but universities face it in particular. And it is accompanied by another factor, which is a large-scale sort of transformation.
And here a transformation of institutions affects us, but isn't unique to us. The shakeouts we've seen in media and journalism, for example, but in many professional fields. The learned professions—law, accountancy—have all gone through shakeouts that universities have so far been spared.
So that careers and the businesses that were made out of the often partnership structures of legal and accountancy, just to take those two, have been transformed in new corporate structures and financial shakeouts and new managerial hierarchies in which what were partners, and sometimes are still called that, become employees and are managed from above—something that is occasionally familiar to academics as well, and an issue for us, and an issue that cuts two ways. It's not just that people who hold jobs like I've held recently or Michael holds are some sort of terrible, nefarious sort of managerialists. I mean, Michael and I are, of course, both managerialists. But nonetheless, it's not just that accident. It is that these are large, expensive, complex institutions.
Harvard isn't some sort of tiny, fly-by-night institution. It's big and complex and has challenges to run, and it's just part of a very large higher education system, which is expensive and complex. And so the pressures that may lead to a kind of institutional shakeout, I called it, analogous to the restructurant of law or accountancy, or perhaps even more, medicine, which used to be a field in which individual owner operators of small businesses played a crucial role in this country, and they are almost gone.
This is a little bit analogous to some transformations of academic roles. We may be working at the Kaiser Permanente of academia soon. Kaiser's not the worst place if you're in medicine. But you get the idea. There are larger pressures that affect us.
And by and large, I think we have abdicated our responsibility for these institutions we live in. Changes in governance, changes in faculty participation in governance are not something that has simply been done to faculty by people like Michael and me.
It is something that reflects a larger systemic transformation. I've come from some meetings where I've heard—it's shocking—but I've heard, people at Harvard often say that they don't have time for intellectual conversations. They're too busy with all the other features of being a professor at the University.
Sometimes they come forward for collective conversations about the future of the university or about its values or about how it should be run, but only sometimes, episodically, when there's a crisis. As a whole, not just at Harvard, academics are busy being professionals in their special areas more than they are engaged in determining the future of the institutions in which they work.
That's not shocking. It's pretty much like citizens of democratic societies that don't bother to vote and don't always become terribly well informed before they vote. But it's a problem. If we want strong versions of academic freedom, we need to be engaged in our institutions in some stronger ways.
Now let me move a little quickly through these things. I've essentially hinted that academic freedom is bound up with the overall character of societies and their public spheres and their institutions. I'm not going to say much more about that. I hope that you will grant that it's true. Michael made much the same point.
And this has shifted with globalization. It's shifted with new technologies. It's shifted perhaps most crucially with the scale of complexity of these societies. And it's shifted during the last forty-some years with what people give shorthands to like neoliberal capitalism, whatever we going to call it, with a world that has been remade with a set of largely winner-take-all economies that have produced Google and Apple and other giant corporations, intensified globalization, transformations of industrial bases and society, and transformations of the ability of people to participate running those societies.
Academic freedom then needs to be thought about as a freedom of individuals, of institutions, and of systems. It's not just the freedom of individual academics. It's not called professorial freedom, and there's a reason for that. That's a very central part of it. But you really can't understand the full institution, the full phenomenon of academic freedom if you don't understand it in relation to institutional freedom.
I will use CEU as an example. The politics there really don't have a lot to do with individual academics or particular people. They have to do with the institution and what the institution means to its enemies and to its friends in the world. The institution needs a certain level of freedom and protection.
The institution is also—and this is something Michael stressed—part of a larger system of higher education. He talked about the complicity of the rest of the world in thinking about what's an open and closed society. But I would say in positioning universities in a larger reality, we need to think about all of these.
And it's also a matter of teaching, research, and service. It's not just a matter of ex-cathedra public statements. The fact that I don't like Donald Trump isn't at the core of academic freedom, as I said before. What I teach in a classroom, what I choose to do research about—not just what conclusions it has or what politics it represents—how I engage in connecting this to larger publics, communities, these are all things that have to be on the table when we talk about academic freedom.
In the background to this is the transformation of universities and higher education systems. The very scale of them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, 3 percent of Americans went to college or university. Not graduated from—went to for a little while.
It's now, depending on what you count as a college or university, something like three quarters. And there is a huge diversification of what counts as colleges and universities, and there's a huge hierarchy. Let me just make a point about hierarchy in general. I'll come back to another feature of it.
We have dramatically enlarged opportunities for Americans to go to university or to some form of college or higher education. The same thing has happened in some other countries, and is happening around the world. We have done it in the United States overwhelmingly and especially since the 1970s in the form of a hierarchical inclusion. You can get in, but the price of getting in is not just the tuition. It is that you get in at some point in a hierarchy.
And since the 1970s, we have been more and more focused on this hierarchy with the proliferation of ranking systems, for example, that expand, clarify, and intensify some of the impacts. Harvard was always a more prestigious university than the University of Oklahoma, but the distance in many ways has grown. The chances for a graduate of the University of Oklahoma to get admitted to a PhD program at Harvard have shrunk.
There is an intensification of the hierarchy. We get into the hierarchy. Student loans helping to pay for this now exceed the value of automobile loans in the United States. This is a huge investment in finance. And a story that could be told is of the financialization of our society and the way the education system gets into it, and how that affects academic freedom, including what the students choose to study, a form of academic freedom: “Mom, I want to be an anthropologist.” Well, what will you do if you're an anthropologist? Well, if you go to the London School of Economics and study anthropology, you pretty much have to work in the city of London in finance.
The majority of all graduates of the anthropology program work in the city of London in finance. But the anthropology program is not quite as obvious a path to finance jobs as the finance department or the accounting department or the management department or the economics department, all of which have grown enormously.
So let me just use an LSE story as Michael used CEU. The LSE styles itself a social science university. During the last forty years, the fields I just listed—accountancy, management, finance, economics—have grown to be the majority of the LSE. If you add in a very large law department, 65 percent of the LSE is in these career paths.
Now that's not something totally different from Harvard. I hear you have some professional schools, that they loom large in the budget and the image of the university. This is a trend in US higher education generally. Much of the growth has been in professional schools. But that changes what the academy is, what academic freedom means, and it's a result of and it presses students for choices about what they're going to do. It doesn't mean that any of these are not honorable things. But it means that we are unfree in ways that are not just the open oppression of political leaders, but the more insidious paths that I think we sometimes inflict on ourselves.
The LSE stories may be instructive, so I'll give a two-minute version of this. It was founded by Fabian socialists in the 1890s who wanted it to be a force for practical change. It was for workers, and it was going to do workers' education, people who weren't going to Oxford and Cambridge. It was among the first British universities—it wasn't the very first—to admit women on an equal footing with men, a time when Oxford and Cambridge didn't.
But it was also going to pursue practical pursuits like the improvement of urban life. Having street lighting, sewers, and better housing. It was part of a movement, and it was also an intellectual place where people did significant work.
It appointed its first economist, because Oxford University voted not to have that newfangled subject. It wasn't really going to amount to anything, and besides, it hadn't been invented there. So LSE was able to hire the lecturer who was denied the chance to be a professor when Oxford did that, and go on to quite a distinguished career in economics, a distinguished history.
It was, however, founded in a challenge to conventional universities. And it is not a challenge to conventional universities anymore. It has been absorbed into the British state system of higher education. Into its hierarchy, it competes for position.
One of the bittersweet moments of being the head of the LSE was the enormous feting and celebration when we went up in the rankings from twenty-fifth to twenty-fourth in the world. There was no statistically significant change in the LSE's overall performance. It was a meaningless achievement. I was toasted by the board for my achievement. In a single year, having produced this remarkable improvement, we went from fifth to second in the UK. That actually did involve some game playing that I participated in.
But my point is, we are caught up in a mission of pursuing high status, of pursuing higher rankings, of pursuing the positional good and often forgetting the purpose behind it, which is, among other things, the kind of things that academic freedom is for.
Now the LSE is a very particular university. It was actually a place where George Soros was educated and a model for the Central European University, so not irrelevant to today's discussion. But also not irrelevant because it's really not very much like Harvard.
What it's like is the flagship state universities in the US. What it's like is the Chapel Hills and Virginias and Michigans and Wisconsins and Berkeleys and UCLAs. Not in scale, but in its funding structure, in its relationship. And like them, it has suffered a transformation, that I'll just sum up by saying in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected. The LSE received a little over 80 percent of its funding from the British government, 78 percent of it in a single block grant, which it could distribute as it wanted. The figure is now below 10 percent. This is the story of Berkeley. This is the story of Wisconsin-Madison. It's not just that story.
Now what's happened? High student fees, a need to tell faculty members constantly to seek grants, and a reliance on private philanthropy. Now those aren't all bad in every way. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have done that. My predecessors were brilliant in doing this.
I'm saying that they created a system in which academic freedom is challenged in many ways by the way the system works. I'm going to be going too long if I don't wind up, so let me just revert to listing some threats to academic freedom that are insidious.
Career pressures: In the academic job market, in the transformation of our careers, productivism, the need to be doing certain kinds of things to make your career is at odds sometimes with doing things that directly speak to the public good in various ways.
And along with that, tenure is a form of age discrimination increasingly in universities. It is something that people with gray hair and gray beards can enjoy, and something that very few of our PhD students will ever enjoy at any institution. Though only a small tier of institutions really are able to continue to make it part of their routine practice. That affects academic freedom.
Professional specialization also affects it. The rise of research. Ideas of academic freedom were developed in an era when research was a much smaller part of what universities did. And it has become a very costly part of what universities do, and one of the reasons we have the kind of public challenges over cost that we have that so much goes into research is a dominant faculty pursuit.
And we have to ask how that fits into academic freedom. Is it simply the freedom to do our research? Is that what was being defended by the AAUP in the era of World War I? Or is it our freedom to speak to bigger and broader public issues? And how does the narrowing of academic fields and subfields affect our ability to do that?
How does the institutional isomorphisms, as sociologists say, the conformity of the system in which institutions imitate each other and pursue places in this hierarchy, affect freedom? If freedom should be bringing innovation and different ideas and new thinking, isn't there a certain amount of suppression of this freedom by the very almost monolithic model of what a university is and should be?
Now as it happens, I think that's breaking up in problematic ways, and we should be thinking about this. But it's not breaking up because there isn't this pressure to conform. It's breaking up because of things like Apple and Microsoft deciding that they're going to go into the higher education business and be competitors. In fact, both operate accredited universities now. Microsoft employs 2,000 PhD social scientists. That's a pretty big social science faculty. That's just the social scientists, not the computer scientists.
These models then also are exported to China, to South Africa, to Hungary in various ways. And there are questions about the international production of what it means to be a university. And as Michael said, all connected.
In this, the costs go up and the dominance of techno-economic criteria looms large. Not just technology, not just scientific fields, but business definition of what counts as achievement in scientific fields so that the investment in late-stage innovation may prosper. Some fields prosper, as I've said, at the expense of others.
The shifts then in what's valued come partly from shifts in how universities are financed. Issues with donors are old news. If Columbia University is one of the stories the founding of the American academic freedom institution with John Dewey and various colleagues demanding the right to be against the war, World War I if they wanted to be, no matter what Nicholas Murray Butler thought, the other big story is people like Thorstein Veblen being fired from Stanford.
So people with money have exercised their power in universities for a long time, sometimes much more brutally than is common now. So we shouldn't think that this is a new thing.
We should think it's an issue, though. And the issue is not just meddling from donors, but what it means if faculty members are always chasing grants. If that becomes a central part—not just teaching, research, and service, but grants getting—of faculty life, and what it means for students and their families to be financing as much of higher education as they are, and as much on credit as they are in this system.
Finally, there is a declining respect for knowledge in society at large, alluded to already. With regard to Donald Trump as an example, there are others. The stories of Viktor Orbán are not completely in a different world.
There are questions about the "systematic mystification of the real," as Michael put it. There are questions about an attack on knowledge that is much more than just an attack on certain kinds of academic statements about the public sphere and about public.
It is, for example, leaving most of the senior positions in the US State Department vacant. The kind of positions Harvard used to train people to take, by the way, when the US State Department was hiring people to take those positions.
And it's not just the State Department. Throughout the government, there is a choice not to have the experts who would bring knowledge of different key domains whether it's the environment or it is foreign policy or it is health care. That kind of choice is fundamentally at odds with the respect for knowledge, which the country needs, and which is central to the institution of universities. And it is something that we need to confront directly.
So I will close. We need to persuade our fellow citizens that what we do is really for them. We need to be sure that what we do is really for them. By which I don't mean that it simply has short-term payoffs rather than having long-term endurance. And I would ask, have we really done very much yet to confront the changing place of knowledge in our society? Because I think that is at the root of much that's going wrong.