Insidious Threats to Academic Freedom in the US and Abroad

Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture
by Michael Ignatieff and Craig Calhoun | March 21, 2018

Image of Jodidi Lecture speakers and Michele Lamont

"Academic Freedom and Authoritarian Populism: Lessons from the Front Line"

Delivered by Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

Image of Michael IgnatieffIn the division of labor that Craig Calhoun and I agreed upon, he's going to deal with the insidious threats, the 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 a little narrative about what's happened to Central European University (CEU), and then I'd like to talk about a characterization of these kinds of societies. 

The relationship between a place like Hungary and a place like here is 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. 

Most of you will know that CEU is a graduate institution offering masters and PhDs, 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 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, the Orbán government introduced a law 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. 

The new legislation said we couldn't have a dual Hungarian-American identity, and we had to have a US campus. All of this makes it really 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 to notice. Universities are among the most globalized and networked institutions in the world; this is their key raw political power. 

Everybody who's ever done a conference with anybody else stood up and 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." They saw our struggle as their struggle. 

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 as uniquely awful. It's much tougher in Turkey. It's really tough in Russia. It's very, very tough in China. 

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 leave and come back. 

These are societies that depend on domestic stabilization for 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. 

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 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. Are we looking at authoritarian, populist, single-party, mafia states as being durable political formations? 

Closed societies are 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 countermajoritarian institutions of any kind. They remain legitimized as the voice of the people. Mr. Orbán's legitimation is that, "I got elected. I won an election. I am the voice of the people." 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 countermajoritarian 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 countermajoritarian, single-party, rent-seeking, mafia state that is systematically destructive of all the countermajoritarian counterbalances to the rule of the single party. 

Michael Ignatieff quotation image

And just to 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. 

It also means when I look for help to defend a free institution, I'm not getting much help from Europe. 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. 

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. 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. 

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 countermajoritarian institutions. You know, the courts are there to define what the law is. The media are there to define and shape the public debate on opinion. Our job is to curate, save, preserve, contest, and question the knowledge upon which liberal democracy depends. And so our role is simply trying to say: this is what the real world actually is, like it or not. This is our best guess after falsification, peer review, and trial and error, and all the experimentation that's at the core of the social sciences. 

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 what is real. 

And the second conclusion I draw 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 countermajoritarian 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. 

"Insidious Threats to Academic Freedom"

Delivered by Craig Calhoun, president of the Berggruen Institute

Image of Craig CalhounAcademic freedom is a responsibility. In a sense, Michael ended with that note as well, and he ended by telling us that we have to explain something that we also have to make sure is true: 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. 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. 

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.

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. 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 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. 

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. 

This erosion of the institutional provision of public goods 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. We’ve seen  shakeouts in media and journalism, for example, but also in many professional fields. 

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 a part of a very large higher education system, which is expensive and complex. And so there are pressures that may lead to a kind of institutional shakeout. 

It is something that reflects a larger systemic transformation. 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, 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. 

I've essentially hinted that academic freedom is bound up with the overall character of societies and their public spheres and their institutions. Michael made much the same point. 

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 neoliberal capitalism, or whatever we’re 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. 

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. 

Craig Calhoun quotation image

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. 

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. It's now, something like three quarters. And there is a huge diversification of what counts as colleges and universities, and there's a huge hierarchy. 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. 

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. 

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 of accountancy, management, finance, and 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. This is a trend in US higher education generally. 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. 

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 London School of Economics—a place where George Soros was educated and a model for the Central European University—is not so 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. In 1979, when 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. 

What's happened? High student fees, a need to tell faculty members constantly to seek grants, and a reliance on private philanthropy. Those aren't all bad. My predecessors were brilliant in doing this. But they created a system in which academic freedom is challenged in many ways by the way the system works. 

Let me 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. That affects academic freedom. 

Professional specialization also affects it. The rise of research, too. 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 we have to ask how that fits into academic 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 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. 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. 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. 

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. 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. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Visit our Lecture Series page for the full transcript. Watch the lecture video on our Vimeo page:

Video still of Jodidi Lecture panel

Photo caption, at top:

On March 21, 2018, the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture was delivered by advisory committee members Craig Calhoun (left), president of the Berggruen Institute and Michael Ignatieff (right), president of Central European University. Photo credit: Martha Stewart