Without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. -Rosa Luxemburg
By Armando Chaguaceda
HAVANA TIMES – Universities are essential vehicles for a democratic culture. They become citizenship schools, where people learn to live with ideas different from their own and exercise critical thought. If we live in a democratic system, we can verify the power’s lies – whether these are political, economic or pastoral – in its classrooms and forge alternative opinions. This is why universities and research institutes are the favorite targets of those who, regardless of their ideology and legitimacy, hope to concentrate the power of a nation into a few hands.
There are three main paths to neutralizing thinkers and staff who rebel against official discourse. These take on different hues in different places, depending on domestic policy. But they are replicated in every corner of the Earth, time and time again. Sometimes they are pure; other times they are a combination of the three.
Suppression happens when radical political processes and groups eliminate any chance of disseminating different ideals to the prevailing ones. The State’s take-over of universities, in addition to the abrogation of the right to an education independent of the State, are suppressive trademarks of modern-day tyranny. Over the past century, autocratic governments – Communist, Fascist, marginal military dictatorships, etc.- always crushed any kind of education that rebeled against official thought. A factual destruction, which most of the time is supported by punitive legislation and comprehensive ideology.
Cuba is an example of this, where the Party-State has suppressed, de facto and de jure, university autonomy and academic freedom for six decades. Nicaragua and Venezuela, where the autocratic drift of what used to be a populist government has led to the extreme isolation of universities and independent further education centers, lie somewhere between suppression and the next model, erosion.
Devious and harmful erosion can be seen in populist governments under every ideological sign, similar in their partially authoritarian traits. This is what Viktor Orban did with the obsessive attack on the European University in Budapest and Tayyip Erdogan with the dismissal of the dean of Bogazici University in Istanbul. Agendas that spread beyond universities with additional restrictions and dismissals at other research and learning centers in Hungary and Turkey. Not daring to eliminate, de jure, every form of education outside of the State, the strategy here is to corner critics de facto; pinning them down with financial ruin, public ridicule and the loss of their spaces of expression.
With the arrival of loyal business owners and allied directors – out of ideology or business – to trusteeship power, the erosive wave ruins academic freedom, protected by a hegemonic mindset, that doesn’t seek to impose a single ideology, but does want to establish mass conformity. Populism tolerates universities that train technocrats and business owners of the new elite, as well as useful teachers. But is wary of these institutions becoming a space for informed dissent and civic action.
Demolition is the least recognizable way, but it is perhaps also the most perverse, because of its nature. It doesn’t need the State to occupy a University building. Nor do military boots need to storm onto a university campus. Just like their counterparts in civil engineering, demolishers destroy from within the very foundations of free education. At the heart of open societies, demolishers are those cannibal intellectuals who, with the imposition of messianic narratives and hysteric activism, kill the very conditions that encourage critical thought and eat away at the chance for an informed debate, far-removed from secular dogma. This has happened in Latin America, with militant intellectuals applauding the arrival of authoritarian governments that impose their domination of further education in their countries. Or in the US, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a critical analysis of the focus of (poorly) called Social Justice, without being accused and isolated as a vile reactionary.
Threatened across the globe today, academic freedom is understood as academic personnel’s unrestricted right to freedom of teaching, opinion and discussion, when carrying out their research and the dissemination of their findings. It brings together different requirements and converging phenomena, such as freedom of research and teaching, freedom of exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, the integrity of the campus, and freedom of academic and cultural speech, to name a few. In order to defend them, you don’t need to choose between different ways of censoring academic freedom, by ideology or degree of control, but you need to uphold a common complaint about its effects on human rights and democracy.
Suppression, erosion and demolition are the paths against these freedoms and they converge with their threat to freedom of education, speech and investigation in modern-day universities. Freedoms which, alongside the right to mobilization, protest and civic participation, are the epistemic, legal and factual foundations of our democratic coexistence. In countries such as Mexico, where there is a perverse cross-over of erosive institutional agendas today – such as the one the community at the Center of Investigation and Economic Teaching is facing – it’s worth understanding individual demolishing attitudes – that are justifying the devatuation of public universities and its researchers from the heart of the academic union – and political horizons of suppression – with increasingly authoritarian and party-line characteristics.
*Originally published on the website of Letras Libres magazine (Mexico)