Self-censoring away from the public sphere

In recent weeks, Academic Matters has devoted some of its attention to the importance of academics’ participation in public debate. Two panels at the Worldviews Conference on Global Trends in Media and Higher Education today spoke to some reasons  why this kind of public engagement can be difficult for academics. The increasing precariousness of academic work makes it challenging for professors to speak up and speak out in public debates of national and international importance.

Discussing the differences between academic research and the research conducted by think tanks, a panel featuring Adrian Monck, David Miller and Trish Hennessy spoke to the reality that university-based academics are often hesitant to take on the role of public intellectual, unlike their colleagues in think tanks. When their research and expertise are featured in the media, academics attract significantly more public attention than when publishing in more narrowly read academic journals. As a result, public intellectuals make themselves a more ready target for criticism, which can threaten their academic reputation.

On a panel with Vinita Srivastava and Frank Furedi that explored academic freedom and freedom of the press, Mark Kingwell pointed out that in addition to concerns about vulnerability to criticism there is a perception within academia that those who participate in public discourse demonstrate a lack of serious commitment to their academic work. For those in precarious positions or those seeking to gain tenure, there is a strong disincentive to speak publicly and to participate in public debates because doing so is seen to work against the goal of career advancement.

So while the university is seen as a place where academic freedom prevails and academics have the freedom to speak out about issues of national or global concern, the reality is that many academics are silenced by self-censorship that in many cases is the response to powerful institutional imperatives.  Nonetheless, as the first panel pointed out, there is something incredibly valuable about methodologically rigorous and peer reviewed academic research that cannot be replicated in non-university contexts where academic freedom is not protected.

Despite significant pressure not to speak out, the speakers on both panels all seemed to agree that there is far more to be lost by not doing anything than by taking a stand.