Why Now? Episode 18: No Ivory Tower

A conversation with Julia Schleck about her recent book, “Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism.”

Politicians are trying to legislate what is taught in American public colleges and universities—and they want to enforce their own ideological preferences by firing faculty who disagree. It’s time to take the defense of academic freedom seriously.

As University of Nebraska English professor Julia Schleck explains in her book, “Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism” (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), academic freedom is the linchpin of excellence in higher education, and it relies on the protection of tenure. The erosion of both are one consequence of how higher education has been transformed by the market-based thinking—known as neoliberalism–that pervades 21st century institutions.

But tenure isn’t just threatened by politicians in Florida, Texas, and other states who want to take it away. It’s threatened by the vast number of contingent faculty who don’t have it and who, as a consequence, have no academic freedom. Three-quarters of the personnel teaching in American colleges and universities teach on short-term contracts. They are not, and will probably never be, eligible for tenure. 

Although contingent faculty they have free speech they are not entitled to the core principle of academic freedom: judgement of their work by faculty peers—not administrators, politicians, or political appointees. Furthermore, as Schleck explains, academic freedom and free speech are too often conflated in the public mind. Whereas we are all entitled to free speech, except in the rarest of circumstances, only the principle of academic freedom protects professors—their research, their teaching, and their public utterances—from the powerful.

And why should anyone who isn’t a college professor care? Because, as Schleck argues, the Ivory Tower has always been a bad metaphor for what higher education is and does. Knowledge isn’t pure, or separate, from the society in which it exists, and scholars do the messy thinking that benefits everybody.

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