Academically free universities are one of the West's great strategic assets. The aim of academic freedom, as defined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in its 1915 Declaration of Principles, is "to advance knowledge by the unrestricted research and unfettered discussion of impartial investigators." The payoffs from pursuing it have been enormous. According to The Times Higher Educational Supplement, only two of the world's top 50 universities are in countries that routinely restrict academic freedom (Peking University, ranked 27th, and Tsinghua University, ranked 30th), and according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, each time a country doubles its number of academically free universities, it reliably adds 4 percent to its GDP. The firm Oxford Economics calculated in 2015 that the gross value contributed by universities to Britain's GDP was £52.9 billion ($69.8 billion), 2.9 percent of the country's total. And that is just the quantifiable, hard benefits of academic freedom. Its soft-power payout is arguably even greater, with more than 1.2 million foreign students flocking to American universities in 2018.
It might seem surprising, then, that the AAUP currently sees "a concerted attack on academic freedom" in the United States, and that The New York Times and other newspapers have reported similar assaults across Europe. In one sense, of course, academic freedom has always been under attack: The AAUP issued its 1915 declaration to push back against academic freedom's critics, and the group felt the need to revise its declaration in 1925 and again in 1940 as the threats evolved. But maybe this time is different.
Academic freedom was barely a century old when the AAUP first defended it. It had been created at a particular time (the early 19th century) and in a particular place (Western Europe and North America) in response to particular conditions. But today, despite the astounding success of the modern university (globally, 32 percent of college-age students are currently enrolled in higher education), increasing numbers of people seem to think that the conditions that made academic freedom seem like such a good idea have now changed so much that academically free universities are just a luxury. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries currently spend an average of 1.6 percent of GDP on higher education because their citizens think it is good investment, but that might be changing. For thousands of years, the world did perfectly well without these institutions. Perhaps, an increasing number of people seem to think, it can do so again.
The (Relatively Cheap) Price We Pay for Academic Freedom
In both East Asia and Europe, educational institutions that can be reasonably called universities have been around for a thousand years, but before 1800 hardly any were academically free. Rather, they were what the AAUP called in 1915 "proprietary institutions." What they meant by this was that "If a church or religious denomination establishes a college … with the express understanding that the college will be used as an instrument of propaganda in the interests of the religious faith professed by the church or denomination creating it, the trustees have a right to demand that everything be subordinated to that end." Such institutions "do not … accept the principles of freedom of inquiry, of opinion, and of teaching; and their purpose is … to subsidize the promotion of opinions held by the persons, usually not of the scholar's calling, who provide the funds for their maintenance."
The difference between proprietary and academically free institutions is that the latter do not assume in advance that they know the truth, and so cannot tell professors what to think or students what to learn. In the absence of such certainty, all the institution can do is bring together experts and students and leave them to argue it out, following the path of knowledge wherever it leads, regardless of what the people paying for it might think. This is a radical idea, and takes some getting used to. One of the few things I found entertaining about being a dean at my own university was telling potential donors that if they gave us their money, we would in return give them no say whatsoever in how we spent it or who we hired with it and what they subsequently did on the donors' dime. They often looked amazed, but not, I suspect, as amazed as I looked myself when they wrote their checks anyway.
The academically free institution brings together experts and students and leaves them to follow the path of knowledge wherever it leads, regardless of what the people paying for it might think.
But, like every radical idea, this one has its downsides. The obvious one is that if academics alone can judge what counts as good scholarship, who judges the judges? Earlier this month, a trio of disaffected scholars published an expose of 20 peer-reviewed academic journals to which they had sent spoof articles. None of the authors had any prior experience in the relevant academic fields, but despite cranking out a new paper every 13 days (most professors think one or two papers per year is pretty good), they got seven of their nonsense texts accepted for publication. At the time of writing, seven more were still under review, and while six had been rejected, four journals did ask the hoaxers if they'd like to act as referees of future submissions (they declined).
Their report — "Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship," published online by Areo magazine — makes hilarious but sobering reading. The authors admit to "considerable silliness." This, they tell us, included "claiming to have tactfully inspected the genitals of slightly fewer than 10,000 dogs whilst interrogating owners as to their sexuality ('Dog Park'), becoming seemingly mystified about why heterosexual men are attracted to women ('Hooters'), insisting there is something to be learned about feminism by having four guys watch thousands of hours of hardcore pornography over the course of a year while repeatedly taking the Gender and Science Implicit Associations Test ('Porn'), expressing confusion over why people are more concerned about the genitalia others have when considering having sex with them ('CisNorm'), and recommending men anally self-penetrate in order to become less transphobic, more feminist, and more concerned about the horrors of rape culture ('Dildos')." "Considerable silliness" is quite the understatement; yet "Dog Park," "Hooters" and "Dildos" were among the seven papers accepted for publication. "CisNorm" was one of those still under review, and the editors of the journal Porn Studies had asked that "Porn" be resubmitted without its (made-up) statistical support.
Predictably, some of the duped editors found the authors' violation of "many ethical and academic norms" (as one put it) more shocking than the exposure of their own journals' vacuity, and equally predictably, some conservatives saw the whole thing as evidence that the sky is falling. Writing in London's Sunday Times, my Stanford University colleague Niall Ferguson concluded that "grievance studies" pose more of a threat to the West than cyberwar.
Both reactions are silly. This is just the cost of doing business. Free riders find ways to flourish in every walk of life, and in some academic fields — particularly the humanities, where it is often quite difficult to specify what would constitute falsification of a hypothesis — it is all too easy for pseudo-scholars to set themselves up as cartels, validating one another's writings and extracting rents from everyone else. Nor is this new. Ever since peer review was established as the only real basis for judging research, professors with nothing much to say have been building careers on dry-as-dust, jargon-ridden nonsense that no one ever reads. This is the price we pay for academic freedom, and it is relatively cheap.
The obvious response to the absurdity is for academics to redouble their efforts to root out pseudo-scholars, silliness and rent-seeking. However, increasing numbers of people seem to suspect that what journals like Porn Studies and their self-righteous defenders really show is that academically free universities are not in the public interest. The ridiculous professors are not a few bad apples: They are part and parcel of a rigged system, run by self-serving elites for their own benefit.
Students of American higher education often divide colleges into four "tiers." Tier 1, at the top, contains the 154 main research universities; Tier 4, at the bottom, contains more than 1,000 less-selective, less research-oriented institutions, which between them grant 60 percent of the nation's bachelor of arts degrees. Graduates of Tier 1 colleges are roughly 10 times as likely as those from Tier 4 colleges to get into Tier 1 graduate programs. Even if a student with a Tier 4 bachelor's degree does obtain a Tier 1 higher degree, he will earn 30 percent (or, if a she, 40 percent) less than students who went to Tier 1 institutions throughout.
Nor do the advantages of getting into a Tier 1 undergraduate program end there. American higher education is staggeringly expensive. My own university, Stanford, says it costs $64,729 for one year. However, these universities are also staggeringly rich — Stanford's endowment is worth about $25 billion; Harvard's, $36 billion — and they share this largesse with their undergraduates. In 2014-15, the most recent year for which I have figures, the typical Stanford student actually paid $17,952 — still a lot, but a lot less than $64,729, and less, in fact, than students typically pay at Tier 2 and Tier 3 institutions.
Access to Tier 1 universities can produce personal wealth, and personal wealth can produce access to Tier 1 universities.
This, of course, is how a meritocracy is supposed to work, with the academically strongest universities attracting the best students, rewarding them and adding value to them throughout the process. However, it is also the case that fully 64 percent of the undergraduates in Tier 1 colleges come from families in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. At Stanford, legacies — the offspring of previous generations of Stanford students — are three times as likely to be admitted as anyone else. Access to Tier 1 universities can produce personal wealth, and personal wealth can produce access to Tier 1 universities.
With American student debt currently standing at $1.5 trillion, and the average member of the class of 2016 carrying $37,172 of that debt, it is easy to see how those who have not had access to Tier 1 universities might conclude that the entire system is rigged. If we then add in the mounting suspicions that much of what is being studied and taught in Tier 1 universities is in fact nonsense, it is no great leap to the conclusion that academic freedom is just a smoke-screen, behind which a self-perpetuating elite is exploiting its cultural capital to extract rents. As one scholar of education told The New York Times in 2014, "even if you distinguish yourself as a great student at a Tier 4 school, and by some miracle you get into a good grad program, you aren't likely to wind up with the tools you need to ever catch up to those people who went to a more selective four-year college … By high school, it's pretty much over."
This is why, if you Google the phrase "colleges are just businesses," you will get 50.7 million hits. And it's why, in 2017, Congress imposed an endowment tax on nonprofit universities that have more than 500 students and net assets of more than $500,000 per student. Even though this excise tax is only 1.4 percent, it may well be merely the opening shot.
Glimpses of a New Norm
Modern higher education is a massive, complicated structure. Even if Western electorates do decide that academic freedom is a scam, rather than a vital part of liberal democracy, it will probably take decades to unwind it — although, in what I suspect is the closest analogy, when England's King Henry VIII persuaded Parliament in 1534 that the Catholic Church was a similar scam, it only took five years to close every monastery in the land and plunder their assets.
But we can perhaps already see what the institutions of higher education might look like in a world without academically free universities. For most students, online education will probably be the norm by the mid-21st century. Early experiments with massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have had only mixed success, but if university tuition keeps rising at twice the rate of inflation, technology carries on improving and costs go on falling, it is hard to see how the trends can take us anywhere else.
Scholarship is morphing from a career into a gig.
Much of the online infrastructure might be provided by institutions that grow out of the old, campus-based universities, but a handful of residential, Tier 1 institutions — the Harvards and the Stanfords — probably will survive too. Shorn of the need to pay lip-service to 20th century egalitarian ideals, they will be free to concentrate on their core mission of providing an extremely expensive, face-to-face, individually tailored experience for the children of the global elite (much as universities did before the 20th century). The rich will get richer. But plenty of the best and brightest 18-year-olds will probably decide that they don't need even these services from brick-and-mortar universities. Already, the maverick tech billionaire Peter Thiel is offering some students up to $100,000 to drop out of college and start their own businesses.
The professoriate, which currently boasts 1.6 million members in the United States alone, will surely shrink sharply. The 20th century ideal of academia as a lifelong vocation is already in retreat — 45 percent of American academics were tenured in 1975, but by 2015 the figure was just 25 percent, and full-time positions now make up just half of the total. Scholarship is morphing from a career into a gig.
Profound as this transformation would be, none of it will necessarily affect the West's domination of both the hard- and soft-power dimensions of higher education. American institutions seem far better placed than any rivals to control the new platforms and revenue flows. But is it something to be wished for? As a fan of academic freedom, warts and all, I suspect that the only way to decide will be by frank and forthright argument among communities of experts. But that, of course, is just what you would expect a professor to say.