Statist Attacks on Academic Freedom Are a Symptom of Neoliberalism

The latitude in universities to liberal-left politics does not extend to organizing around subjects like Palestine that are volatile enough to make the well-financed supporters of the current colonial regime insecure.The latitude in universities to liberal-left politics does not extend to organizing around subjects like Palestine that are volatile enough to make the well-financed supporters of the current colonial regime insecure. (Photo: joecatron / Flickr)

What are the prospects for academic freedom both in the US and abroad?

Nivedita Majumdar — a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York (CUNY), and the elected Secretary of the CUNY faculty and staff union — argues that the growing trend of statist attacks on academic freedom are a result of the threat that the free exchange of ideas poses to neoliberal regimes.

I asked Majumdar, who has been active in progressive movements within and outside the university for more than 20 years in the US and India, to talk about the broader spread of right-wing policies and the need for localized and immediate work to protect vulnerable people in education in the face of overall right-wing policy.

Daniel Falcone: Academic freedom across Europe and the world is under extreme threat. Russia, Turkey and Hungary have recently made headlines for closing schools and punishing students and teachers. Can you comment on this trend, and what do you attribute it to? What does it say about our political climate?

Nivedita Majumdar: Yes, the threats to the European University [at] St. Petersburg and the attempts at shutting down the Central European University in Hungary are symptomatic of a growing trend of statist attacks on higher education and academic freedom much more generally. Of course, the egregious case of Turkey — where some 3,000 teachers have been fired, hundreds jailed, and many fear not just the loss of livelihood, but their basic safety — is of a whole different order. If the scale of attack on education in Turkey makes it an outlier, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s motivation is in fact very much in sync with similar attacks, however low key, elsewhere.

Neoliberal and authoritarian regimes are understandably threatened by institutions that provide the youth an environment of free exchange of thoughts and ideas; universities, not surprisingly, become breeding grounds for dissent and resistance. So it’s not just in Europe, but also in other places like South Africa and India that have recently witnessed an upsurge in student protests — there have been massive governmental crackdowns on both the students and their institutions. Here in the US, there is a robust history of both student resistance and governmental crackdown and control; at present, the regime of austerity is in fact the greatest source of statist violence against universities and the populations they serve.

I do think the escalating attacks on universities and academic freedom worldwide signals that we’re in an era of growing resistance against the normalizing of economic and political oppressions. Of course, to what extent such resistance will continue to build both in scale and in organizational capacity is a different conversation.

Recently, British universities cancelled Professor Richard Falk guest speaking on Israel, and an event with journalist Rania Khalek was also cancelled at the University of North Carolina over her support of a Palestinian student group. This is different from the experience of ultra-right-wing white nationalists who actually often make it onto campuses across the US despite resistance. What are your thoughts on such cancellations?

It’s true that the ultra-right does not usually encounter strong resistance from university administrations and their backers, and when it does, it’s because of pressure from students and faculty. Now, if university administrations had the same hands-off approach for political groups of all persuasions, it would be fine. In fact, that’s a climate that we on the left should fight for. About liberal/left groups, universities are not hostile to them in general. It’s not hard organizing events around, for instance, anti-racism or LGBTQ rights or immigrant rights.

It speaks partly to a genuinely liberal space that universities still offer, but partly, it’s also the fact that capitalist power structures are robust enough to absorb much of these energies. Think of the mantra (and also practice) of diversity embraced by university administrations as an example. But the Palestine situation is different. It’s volatile enough to make the well-financed supporters of the current colonial regime insecure, and thus they ensure that the response to all opposition is repression.

So the latitude in universities to liberal-left politics most certainly does not extend to organizing around Palestine. That’s when the repression comes down hard. Speakers, like Falk and Khalek, as you mention, have their events cancelled. Websites blacklist pro-Palestinian scholars and activists, student activists face disciplinary actions and expulsions, universities deny club status to the Students for Justice in Palestine group, faculty lose jobs, courses are canceled, state legislatures threaten to tie university funding to alleged “anti-Semitic” activity [and] city councils pass resolutions to condemn the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement. The repression orchestrated by groups like the Zionist Organization of America is organized and extremely well-funded. But in the long run, such repression is never sustainable; the intelligent and fierce organizing on Palestinian rights on campuses, especially by students, gives us reason to be optimistic.

Does the current administration make you approach your craft in a different way whether it be teaching and or writing?

Well, apart from incorporating the specifics of the current political moment, the administration does not really change anything in the analytical framework that guides my work. I do not see the rise of Trump as an aberration or even terribly exceptional; in substance, his agenda will not be very different from the Bush presidency. He does bring an added dimension of racist rhetoric and even commitment to such politics. But in terms of policies, Trump will be very much in sync with not just the Republican Party, but also the larger neoliberal framework within which both parties work. I think the tendency to view Trump as exceptional diverts us from more fundamental issues of the operation of capitalism, the routine suffering it generates for large parts of the population and a political system that, for the most part, functions in service of that very system.

So in my writing, teaching and political work, I locate the Trump phenomenon as an ugly symptom of a system that’s been with us for a long time.

How important are teacher unions in the Trump era of cutting education in the push to make it a for-profit system?

The attack on public education in the Trump era is undoubtedly going to be vicious. The nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, someone whose political mission has been the destruction of public education, signals the trajectory of the administration. It’s necessary to make the point, however, that the neoliberal approach to public education was very much underway in the Obama administration. The Obama era was invested in expansion of charter schools, standardized testing and teacher evaluations based on student scores, rather than on adequate and equitable school funding.

Similarly, in higher education, because of the same misplaced faith in performance metrics, the administration wanted to tie federal funding to a college ranking system based on graduation rates. There was little commitment in quality education that would require addressing the increasing reliance on poorly paid adjunct instructors, strong investments in infrastructure, in faculty and support staff. Now, no doubt the Trump administration’s concerted attack on public education will make the previous era look very good; we have already seen a sharp reduction in Pell grants, for instance, a lifeline for poor students. Science, arts and humanities agencies face massive cuts with the Trump budget. But the larger point is that the attack on public education is nothing novel in the Trump era; in fact, the right has successfully made teachers, for a while now, the face of everything that’s “wrong” with public services.

Teachers have been under attack because they’re most visibly associated with a service that’s still not monetized; a service that overwhelmingly benefits the working and middle classes. But the orchestrated attack is also because teachers are strongly unionized; it’s quite simply an attack on unions. Remember also that, with Janus v. AFSCME, a case that’s making its way up to the Supreme Court — and with Gorsuch entrenched there — it will almost certainly mean that unions will lose the right to collect agency fee, making what’s called “right to work” a national policy. The attack on teachers unions (and the union movement in general) is extremely well funded and well planned. For us to survive and even thrive in this era requires teachers’ unions to be more organized than ever, strive for the greatest possible member engagement, and most importantly, strategize beyond immediate goals and work toward building a class-wide movement.

Can you comment on how your professional research and academic work intersects with your role as a union leader at CUNY?

My research focuses on theories and representations of power, of oppressions and of resistance. More specifically, I study how literary texts, primarily from the non-West, reflect and shape issues of class, gender, terrorism and nationalism. Both my research and activism are framed by the drive to interrogate and resist oppressive power structures. Though, of course, while my research spans vast areas of space and long periods of time, as well as multiple dimensions of social experience, my political work is much more localized and immediate, as such work must be.

I’m fortunate in many ways to be working at CUNY with its mission as a people’s university and a progressive union committed to fighting for that mission. As a union leader, what becomes very concrete on campuses, on the street, across the negotiating table is the violence of a capitalist order that denies (to the extent it can) both resources and control to working people. In the university setting, the emissaries of such an order are politicians and university administrators wedded to regimes of austerity.

Union work also concretizes the contested nature of power and the continuing necessity of organized resistance. But the most rewarding aspect of working at CUNY, the one that crystallizes my intellectual, emotional and political drives is the work with our students. Our talented, driven students, mostly working class and diverse, negotiate complex work and familial responsibilities and exemplify an amazing commitment to learning and growth. Their rich life experiences, their strength and talent makes teaching joyous; and when our students organize, it always reminds me that we have the power, and our side can win.