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Public Intellectuals in the Era of Privatization: An Examination of Academic Freedom and its Protection of Dissident Scholars at U.S. Public Universities


The university is often celebrated as a site for critique where intellectual laborers, protected by academic freedom, may address the pressing social issues of their time and thus contribute to public opinion and to the advancement of knowledge. As the public university increasingly adopts neoliberal practices, however, such as shifting its governing power to private funders and by emphasizing its marketable versus non-marketable benefits to wider society, critical university studies (CUS) argues that academic freedom—the bedrock of the U.S. university system—is under threat. This project contributes to CUS scholarship by examining how academics who are committed to advancing social justice and who actively engage with broad audiences, experience the protection of academic freedom while employed at U.S. public universities. Are faculty members who publicly critique systemic injustice protected by academic freedom? More specifically, using in-depth interviews, I inquire: 1) What are the motivations for, and experiences of scholars when exercising their academic freedom in politically controversial ways? 2) To what extent do economic, racial and gendered politics, as well as faculty members’ institutional status impact public universities’ commitment to academic freedom? I draw on 31 in-depth interviews with publicly-engaged scholars from three Research One public universities who reflect a diverse range of academic ranks and disciplines as well as racial and gender positionalities in order to better understand what it is like for those who consistently take stands on controversial political issues. This project reveals that, in general, academic freedom is a stratified freedom drawn across academic-rank lines, reflecting the racial and gender hierarchies of larger society. This research argues that while the culture of the academy encourages conformity rather than ethical risk-taking, the university is still a space of edifying possibilities. By examining the effectiveness of academic freedom and the commendable dissidence of activist-scholars, this dissertation aims to contribute to higher education accountability efforts that seek to reinforce the academy’s connection to, and responsibility for the public that it is tasked to serve.

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