Academic Freedom and the Renewal of Generosity

Academic Freedom and the Renewal of Generosity

Anne Pirrie (University of the West of Scotland) and Omar Kaissi (University of Edinburgh)

In an age when it has become customary to engage in shouting matches, frequently in episodes of no more than 140 characters, it is perhaps not surprising that the tenor of the debate on academic freedom has become increasingly strident. So much so that it appears that academic freedom is now narrowly construed as the right to give offence. ‘Hot-button’, polarised debates based on often spurious appeals to a universal have become normalised forms of discourse. These developments frequently entail ostentatious examples of grandstanding, often on the part of privileged academics with tenure, apparently in direct contravention of the principles enshrined in the policy statement of the International Association of Universities (IAU). This comprises the following definition of academic freedom: as social institutions, universities are obliged ‘to promote, through teaching and research, the principles of freedom of justice, of human dignity and solidarity, and to develop mutually material and moral aid on an international level. We believe that these lofty ideals are only attainable if people become less fixated on the right to self-expression and more disposed to listen to each other in a climate of mutual respect. This suggests a view of academic freedom as the will to pursue, both in speech and conduct, not factional triumphs over real or imagined adversaries, but rather bridges of laboured understanding and reconciliation, of dialogue guided by the possibility of self-transcendence. In short, more social, less self.

It appears that some contemporary defenders of academic freedom base their arguments on the rather anachronistic assumption that academic freedom is an entitlement of ‘fully paid-up members of the academic community’. This expression was coined long before students in England might ruefully aspire to being ‘fully paid-up’ rather than saddled with debt. The fact that this definition is routinely invoked in discussions of academic freedom places the emphasis firmly on rights rather than obligations. This coarsens the terms of the debate, effectively excluding the perspectives of students and a large percentage of the academic workforce. A restricted definition of academic freedom does not take into account the precarious circumstances of the large percentage of early-career academics who are on fixed-term or zero hours contracts.  This contributes, knowingly or inadvertently, to the alienation, if not nullification, of ‘voice,’ so distinctive of the modus vivendi of neoliberalised higher education (see Couldry, 2010). In England, it is estimated that 46 per cent of universities use zero hours contracts to ‘deliver’ teaching; and that 68 per cent of research staff are on fixed-term contracts, with many more dependent upon short-term funding for continued employment. In this climate, it is not surprising that many aspiring academics are reluctant to exercise their rights. Indeed, they are more concerned with whether they have any in the first place. Dignity, solidarity and mutuality seem to be in terminal retreat.

These developments, we suggest, are indicative of the extent to which the political and social order of the university has been imperilled. The fact that discourse on campus has become increasingly combative is but one worrying symptom. In recent years, being a ‘fully-paid up member of the academic community’ has taken on an even darker hue. It generally entails failure to comply with Lesson 1 of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny.  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: do not obey in advance. Obeying in advance marks a serious threat to democracy. Governance by diktat has taken root in the contemporary university (at least in the anglosphere) and impacts upon teachers, students and university administrators to varying degrees. For instance, academics are routinely expected to demonstrate compliance in relation to professional competence in teaching and learning, for instance, by submitting to various forms of ‘certification’. Other examples include producing ‘outputs’ in a model of academic production modelled on factory farming; engaging in ‘knowledge exchange partnerships’; demonstrating progress by meeting key performance indicators, learning outcomes, etc. Such developments have paved the way for ever-more pervasive and repressive mechanisms of surveillance and control that require widespread compliance to sustain them. These are the parts that the contemporary debate on academic freedom fail to reach, and future generations of academics are being short-changed as a result. In the language of political philosophy, instead of championing a political and social order built on the duty to realise Erfahrung (i.e. experience that can be shared through democratic-deliberative relations), the latter-day champions of academic freedom engage in identity politics by actively seek an order of perpetually discordant Erlebnis (i.e experience that, by virtue of its identitarian constitution, might not necessarily be sharable) (Fukuyama, 2018) In short, the danger of privileging the interests of the few, the ‘fully-paid up,’ is that the experience of the many is rendered insignificant.

The following example illustrates another equally invidious but more covert form of compliance, which is to stand out, in the pernicious sense of distinguishing oneself from one’s colleagues or fellow students by engaging in strident forms of exceptionalism. As we shall see from the case below, this might entail turning up the volume on a particular issue and assuming a wilfully provocative position, often at the risk of derailing the object of inquiry in pursuit of an opportunity to score a point. Let us consider the following mundane example from everyday practice. During a teaching session, a student politely requests that their tutor refer to them by their preferred pronouns (in this case they, them, theirs). The tutor acknowledges this by offering a brief apology, and uses the student’s preferred pronouns thereafter and returns to the main theme of the lecture, which is not related to gender politics. He decides that to pursue the topic raised by the student’s intervention to the nth degree would have derailed the attention of the group from their immediate concerns, thus sabotaging their common purpose. He recounts this incident to a colleague after the event. The colleague is outraged at what she perceives as his failure to address a key issue in gender politics. Yet it was ‘staying on the surface’, as it were, that allowed the tutor to stand out, in the more modest and ethically sensitive sense of the term employed by Timothy Snyder (2017). That is to say, the tutor continued to do what he set out to do, to pursue academic inquiry. He was sensitive to the particular context in which the student’s observation about pronouns arose. The fact that he was selective in his treatment of the issue should not be read as an indication of any incapacity or moral cowardice on his part. He was all too well aware of the issue bubbling under the surface (otherwise he would not have recounted the anecdote). However, on that occasion—in these particular circumstances—he chose to subordinate badges of an individual’s particularity to the emblems of our common humanity in order to enable everyone to continue doing the work, together.

In sum, we contend that (academic) freedom inheres in such joint exposure, in this fundamental openness to difference and uncertainty rather than a retreat behind the barricades of identity politics and pre-existing interests and certainties. To conclude, we endorse the point Timothy Snyder makes in a lecture that previews some of the arguments in a forthcoming book: (academic) ‘freedom is something that you do together, not something you do yourself’.



Couldry, N. (2010). Why voice matters: Culture and politics after neoliberalism. Sage.

Fukuyama, F. (2018). Identity: Contemporary identity politics and the struggle for recognition. Profile Books.

Snyder, T. (2017) On Tyranny. Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The Bodley Head.

Snyder, T. (2022) Thinking Truth and Freedom with Zelens’kyi and Havel



Dr Anne Pirrie is Reader in Education at the University of the West of Scotland. She is the author of Virtue and the Quiet and the Quiet Art of Scholarship and Dancing in the Dark. A Survivor’s Guide to the University, an illustrated pocket book for early career researchers. Read a review here.


Dr Omar Kaissi is Teaching Fellow (MSc Education) at Moray House School of Education and Sport, The University of Edinburgh. His research interests are the sociology of education and the politics of education. He is co-convenor of the Higher Education Research Group (, where he has previously posted on  the ontology of academic freedom debates. He is member of the British Educational Research Association and the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies. Omar's Arabic blog ( features in-depth critical reflections on politics, society, culture and education in Lebanon.