Academic freedom and Santa Claus

by Chris Bertram on June 9, 2005

Nice to know that our trade union apparatchiks are in tune with their membership. AUT Vice-President Gargi Bhattacharyya has “a piece in the Guardian”:,9826,1502676,00.html that seems to be arguing (though the article’s rambling incoherence makes it hard to be sure) that “academic freedom” is a kind of fantasy which probably gets in the way of fighting for better pay and conditions, but that, sadly, it is a fantasy to which academics are rather attached. The lesson of the AUT boycott is, apparently, that union activists upset this world of myth and illusion at their peril, so they’d better be more careful in future. Just as Christmas would be ruined if parents told their children that Santa doesn’t exist, AUT leaders better pay lip service (for purely pragmatic reasons) to the values their members actually hold!



Keven Lofty 06.09.05 at 3:10 pm

That is possibly one of the most idiotic columns I’ve ever read that wasn’t written by Ann Coulter. She seems to be arguing that if Academics didn’t like their jobs so much it would be easier to fight for better pay and conditions. So the most important thing is to make academics realize that their jobs suck.


Donald A. Coffin 06.09.05 at 3:19 pm

Of course, there’s some truth to the notion that academic freedom really is something of a substitute for wages. It gives us the ability to pursue the ideas we want to pursue, not those our bosses consider important. It gives us the ability to structure our courses as we believe best, not to teach to a syllabus, and with pedagogical techniques prescribed by management. Academic freedom is, then something of real value to many (I suspect most) of us, and is something we are, in fact, willing to pay for by accepting somewhat lower pay.

Tenure fits in here as well, although I don’t know much about how tenure works in British institutions.

Ask yourself the question, though. What would it take to compensate you for the loss of academic freedom?

I would rather have a union that places very high importance on academic freedom (as the AAUP does) than a union in which the leadership seems to consider academic freedom a deterent to proper militancy.


ab 06.09.05 at 4:41 pm

I’m not sure I understand this article. I better return to marking my undergraduate exams; they seem more comprehensible.


Michael Otsuka 06.09.05 at 5:03 pm

Rambling incoherence, indeed! (A pretty striking contrast, in this regard, to the last Guardian Education column to which Chris devoted a post.) And I thought the AUT executive were supposed to be the voice of reason in comparison with the council delegates who voted in favour of the boycott. I’m sure that anti-union university managers are pleased by what fools the AUT have been making of themselves recently.


JR 06.09.05 at 5:30 pm

Of course academic freedom is a substitute for higher wages. Most academic work does not add value to any product or service that anyone is willing to pay for unless highly subsidized, and usually not even then. (How much did that journal pay you for your last article?) Anyone who is smart enough to have acquired a PhD and is unhappy being a scholar should have the sense to find a more highly paid career to be unhappy in. You’ll be doing yourself, your family and your students a favor.

But what is truly bizarre about Bhattacharyya’s article is that she doesn’t recognize that academic freedom is the only reason that the boycott was even a possibility. Any ordinary employee who decided to stop doing business with a supplier or contractor on the basis of the employee’s own personal political beliefs would be sacked.


vivian 06.09.05 at 8:19 pm

Gee, I thought the author’s point was that (1) most members have no interest in participating in their union’s decisions on any matter, (2) unless they get fired up about something the few regular attenders did. At that point, (3) the rank and file bash the union for guessing wrong about what the apathetic members wanted.

I’m firmly with Chris B on the boycott issue, but Bhattacharyya seems to be calling ‘you lot’ the academic equivalent of ‘the 101st fighting keyboardists’. Socialism does take a lot of evenings – a lot of meetings and xeroxing and email and inefficient consulting of lots of people. Given a choice, few academics would choose more committee meetings over research time, family time or even teaching. Heck, even committee work in one’s field is probably more rewarding professionally and personally; union work would feel pretty selfish in comparison. So I’m not criticizing the reasonable AUT members by any means, simply acknowledging there may be some sense to union officials’ bitterness.

The column definitely rambles and digresses though – okay for a blog comment, bad form for an op-ed.


seth edenbaum 06.09.05 at 9:04 pm

I remember a mention here of someone being fired from Yale recently for a breach of decorum, standing accused of ‘shitting in his own backyard’ (following his principles on his own campus rather than everywhere else) Didn’t the post at CT even accept that there was an ‘unwritten rule’ about such things?

Academic freedom has its limits. What else is new?


JRH 06.09.05 at 10:19 pm

Yes, it’s complete rubbish. Particularly the claim that AUT members see the union as a threat to academic freedom because the employment regulations unions typically advocate would undermine it… hmmm, I am pretty sure some well placed regulations of workload and working conditions would help most of us get on with more of the work we value.

She’s right that the AUT is a ‘largely ineffectual body’ though. I briefly quit a few years back when my local association missed the news of a (paltry) new national pay settlement because they were too busy assembling a campaign against campus car park charges… as a lowly paid junior lecture earning too little even to trigger repayment of my student loans I couldn’t even afford the petrol never mind a whole car!


Michael Mouse 06.10.05 at 3:58 am

Donald A. Coffin> The way tenure works in British Universities is that it was abolished in the mid-80s by the Thatcher Government. A dwindling handful of people who had tenure before then – and have not accepted a promotion since – still have it.


Michael Otsuka 06.10.05 at 5:41 am

But if by tenure one means ‘the status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis without periodic contract renewals’, then tenure still exist in the UK. After an initial probationary period of 3-5 years in the case of those hired as lecturers, most of our contracts extend to the age of retirement (65-67 years of age). Nobody in the UK is able to move straight from a PhD to a contract which extends to the age of retirement. But a few are fortunate enough to move straight from a PhD to a Lectureship with an initial 3-5 year probationary period and the possibility of renewal to the age of retirement thereafter. Such jobs are considered as good as permanent, since a vanishingly small percentage of people fail to have their contracts renewed to the age of retirement after the probationary period.

Has anyone got evidence that it’s easier to fire a post-probationary UK academic than a post-probationary (i.e., tenured) US academic?

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