Kultura Prawna, tom 5, 2022
DOI: 10.37873/legal.2022.5.90

Academic Freedom in the Age of Cancel Culture

Stephen Baskerville

Discussing academic freedom really involves discussing the larger purpose of universities – what Cardinal John Henry Newman called „the idea of a university.” Does any such „idea” exist? Evidence suggests that the origins and development of universities involved mostly improvisation, and no master plan guided the operation. And yet, something identifiable does distinguish universities from other kinds of education.

We seldom hear about the need for academic freedom in secondary schools. Secondary education is mostly a matter of transmitting a body of knowledge that has been agreed as appropriate by whatever authority operates the school: the church, the state, the parents, the local community. If instructors engage in scholarship, it is on their own time and not among their principal duties.

But higher education involves not only the transmission of knowledge but also its production. It involves scholarship as well as teaching (notice that I did not say „research,” which is a relatively recent addition to the idea of the university).

Higher education is based on the principle that most advanced students should learn from those who have not only acquired knowledge but also contributed to it. Most professors are not trained in the techniques of teaching or „pedagogy.” They are lecturers who impart knowledge with the nuance characteristic of how the acquired it. Scholarship and teaching are expected to complement one another, not conflict. The fact that this ideal has largely been lost in the modern universities is due to several trends, but they are trends that can be challenged.

So, academic freedom is a value without which higher education itself is impossible, because without academic freedom, scholarship itself cannot exist with integrity.

But academic freedom is a tricky concept. It cannot become a license to allow scholarship and instruction to degenerate into mere opinions and inflict those opinions on a captive audience of students or on a public readership using the university's imprimatur. Doubtless opinions do enter into scholarship. But the scholar must elevate any topic being researched above mere opinions by providing larger contexts: facts and documentation, certainly, but also perspectives from history, philosophy, science, art, religion – the larger body of human knowledge. Otherwise, there is no lasting contribution to knowledge and no institutional benefit.

Above all, academic freedom cannot be a license to introduce political ideologies into the classroom or scholarship: re-casting all human knowledge as political grievances. This is precisely what has led to the current deterioration of higher education throughout the West[1], and not only must we not repeat or continue the mistake, we must find ways to reverse it, which is precisely what we are trying to do with the Collegium Intermarium.

Recently, we had a stark example of this right here in Central Europe. Ironically, it involved another, quite different university that was also founded relatively recently with the avowed purpose of restoring the integrity of higher education[2]. The Central European University (CEU) introduced programs that were openly ideological and expected the taxpayers of Hungary to pay for it (something similar had happened to the CEU in the Czech Republic and in Poland some years earlier). When the taxpayers refused, and objected specifically to the subject matter, the University claimed its academic freedom was being violated. Yet this was a perfectly legitimate response by the Hungarian government and people[3].

This episode was especially ironic because the ideology they introduced – Gender Studies, or what some now call „Gender Ideology” – has itself been documented to be responsible for intimidating instructors and students who hesitate to accept its academic legitimacy because of its clearly ideological character. In other words, those aiming to curtail others' academic freedom were invoking and distorting the very principle they were violating. Paraphrasing Antoine de Saint-Just during the French Revolution, they might have proclaimed, „No academic freedom for the enemies of academic freedom”[4].

So, while academic freedom has been terribly abused in recent years by ideologues who politicize the curriculum and purge those who do not share their ideology („Cancel Culture”), those who are purged or „cancelled” can still invoke the principle to defend themselves. It is no reason to abandon the principle itself (as some seem tempted to do). But we must discern carefully how it is being invoked and for what purposes, in order to decide if it is legitimate and worthy of being defended.

Various schemes have been devised in recent years to guarantee protection for academic freedom. None has been very successful.

The tenure system has succeeded only in creating different castes of scholars: first, those who are privileged and protected, to the point where they can comfortably enjoy the fruits of their employment, often without having to produce any scholarship at all; and then a growing body of adjuncts, who have almost no protection but can be victimized at will.

As an alternative, some propose that government authorities who fund universities should use their leverage to legislate statutory guarantees for academic freedom. But it is difficult to see how this can work. First, it involves state authorities determining what views are acceptable and worthy of protection. Then we would get into questions of how to judge the value of scholarship and who judges it, how far various ideas should be protected, and so forth. This seems to be a prescription for endless quarrels – and continued politicization.

Increasingly, I am convinced that, in the end, one effective method exists for ensuring academic freedom, and that is publicity. Universities that punish lecturers for their research or views need to have their actions known publicly, so that the public and interested parties can assess for themselves if the measures are warranted.

Like any freedom, after all, academic freedom is not absolute. For one thing, creedal institutions have a legitimate right to insist that their lecturers adhere to certain core doctrines of their faith as a condition for their employment and for the privilege of publishing their scholarship under the institution's name. But in any institution, if we find professors that really are espousing doctrines that are beyond the pale of decency – Nazism or Stalinism, for example – we might well decide that they should be disciplined or removed. But it must always be done openly, with the reasons clearly stated, not furtively and by stealth. The public and interested parties – oversight bodies, students, professors, parents, donors, alumni – have a right to know why a professor (or a student) is reprimanded or dismissed, so they can judge for themselves if the institution has acted properly[5].

An added benefit of this is that academic scholarship may become less cloistered, and wider groups may take an interest in it, demand that it be made accessible, and develop the critical faculties necessary to understand and evaluate it.

In the first instance, such responsibility rests with oversight bodies such as boards of trustees and faculty senates. But one of the great lessons of today's crisis is that these bodies have become unreliable: the watchdogs have become lapdogs. „Boards of trustees, college presidents, faculty senates – they all looked on and did nothing” as the universities deteriorated, writes John Ellis.

„They were all either too cowardly or too complicit to act”[6]. Yet these bodies still have a critical role to play in ensuring quality education, and nothing is stopping them from resuming that role[7].

But in a democratic society, the rest of us also have a responsibility to know what is being researched and taught in our universities. We cannot complain about the state or trends among the universities if we avert our eyes from them until it is too late.

The corollary is that those of us who work in the universities must hold constant discussions about the state of academic freedom in our own institutions, to ensure that we are respecting the principle and that potential problems are addressed before they get out of control. An institution that is afraid to discuss academic freedom is one that threatens it. And once academic freedom becomes threatened, then it is much more difficult to protect. For then open discussion itself is difficult, a fear factor arises, and those who would otherwise protect their colleagues themselves begin to feel intimidated and paralyzed. I have witnessed this more than once.

Controversy, after all, is not harmful for a university. It can be very beneficial. It demonstrates intellectual health and courage. What is fatal is when scholars or universities are unable or unwilling to defend themselves in the marketplace of ideas and instead hide behind secrecy. This is the death of institutions, as we have recently seen repeatedly.

The striking feature about today's loss of freedom in the academy is that it does not come from outside. It does not come primarily from tyrannical government, monied interests, or dogmatic religion[8]. The foremost threat comes from within, from the academy's own privilege, arrogance, and cowardice. That is why reforming existing institutions is not enough and why we need new institutions, like the Collegium Intermarium.


  1. J.M. Ellis, The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done, (New York 2020).
  2. S. Baskerville, The Open Society through Education: The Central European University, „International Educator”, (Winter 1998).
  3. S. Baskerville, Academic Freedom and the Central European University, „Academic Questions”, vol. 32, no. 2 (Summer 2019).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Such openness is precisely what is now under attack at some American universities. New devices conceal unethical actions, silence terminated professors, and protect unscrupulous administrators. Colleagues, students, alumni, donors, even legitimate oversight bodies, such as trusteed, and the public are all kept in the dark. See S. Baskerville, Scholastic Gag Orders: NDAs, Mandatory Arbitration, and the Legal Threat to Academics, „The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal”, (January 2021), https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2021/01/scholastic-gag-orders-ndas-mandatory-arbitration-and-the-legal-threat-to-academics/.
  6. J.M. Ellis, Breakdown…, p. 33, 69.
  7. See J. Shalin, Bolstering the Board: Trustees Are Academia's Best Hope for Reform, „The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal”, (July 2020).
  8. The exceptions prove the rule. Academic freedom is often violated at today's Christian colleges and universities, but the violations are not driven by religious dogma or the institutions' legitimate right to preserve their religious character. They are driven by imported secular ideology. See S. Baskerville, Purging Christian Higher Education, „American Thinker”, (10 May 2020).