The Function of the University at the Present Time: On Julia Schleck’s “Dirty Knowledge”

By Michael MeranzeJanuary 21, 2023

The Function of the University at the Present Time: On Julia Schleck’s “Dirty Knowledge”

Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism by Julia Schleck

PERHAPS THE ONLY uncontroversial statement one can make about the contemporary American university is that it is a deeply controversial institution. Indeed, universities appear besieged from multiple directions. Parents and students have become increasingly disenchanted as both prices and student debt have increased. Long-standing conservative criticisms of new forms of knowledge have morphed into claims of “ideological indoctrination”; right-wing governors and legislators have used these claims as justification to intrude into college teaching and research, banning certain subjects and demanding greater control over the curriculum and the ways that the curriculum is taught. The growing influence of financialization and the evidence that higher education reproduces rather than overcomes inequality has led to a growing conviction on the left that universities function primarily as neoliberal institutions. The most visible signs of this financialization — student debt and labor precarity — have each produced significant opposition movements. Activists have forced student debt onto the national political agenda, demonstrating that the reduction in public funding and the rise in tuition have left multitudes of students carrying crippling debt from their efforts to get a college education. In the last few months, a remarkable upsurge in labor action by the most precarious academic workers — adjuncts and graduate students — has spread across the country and made clear that we inhabit an ultimately exploitative, and untenable, labor system of higher education.

Taken together, it is not hyperbole to say that student debt and the labor strikes have called into question the future of the research university itself. Take the recent strike at the University of California. For over half a century, the University of California has served as the research university of the state and as a leading trainer of scholars and scientists for the nation. But if, due to ongoing cuts to public funding and increasing financialization of the university, we no longer provide graduate students with enough support to pursue advanced degrees, the only people able to become the next generation of teachers and scholars will be the independently wealthy. And if we fail to provide enough funding to science faculty to enable them to train graduate students rather than simply hire professional researchers, we will destroy the future of scientific research.

I am not suggesting an equivalence between the Right and the Left here: the Right has power and the Left insight. When state legislatures ban subjects or methods, or when they move to eliminate tenure, they are seeking to undermine academic freedom and universities from the outside. When students organize around debt or precarious workers strike, they are trying to preserve the university by asserting the rights of those who actually do the teaching and learning. The future of the research university has been put into question.

At the same time, universities are arguably of greater importance today than at any time in the past. Universities are society’s main site for the concentrated production of knowledge across a wide range of fields. Institutions like think tanks, research sites, professional organizations, and community groups exist to approach specific sets of problems, and informal networks of individuals, especially in the arts and humanities, operate throughout society. But the university remains the primary site for inquiry across a multitude of domains. This role, always central, has become even more important due to the enormous challenges facing the contemporary world: from climate change to the intensification of global inequality, from the challenges of new pandemics to the resurgence of national and racial conflicts. The university is so controversial because its functions are so critical.

To a great extent, these controversies circle around the always-contested notion of academic freedom. Indeed, barely a day goes by without some new argument about the contours of academic freedom. This situation should not surprise us: after all, at its core, academic freedom is about the relative autonomy of knowledge production and the material support of knowledge producers and disseminators. Academic freedom exists because knowledge can be threatening: to values, social structures, political programs (of both left and right), and the supporters of universities themselves. Scholarship, research, and teaching are potentially transgressive but in a way that is distinct from the transgressions of free speech. Free speech is a right that inheres within an individual as a member of a political community; it is designed to ensure the continued freedom of opinion. Academic freedom, on the other hand, is a collective right that is rooted in the disciplinary pursuit of knowledge; it is designed to ensure that that pursuit can continue unchecked. The challenge today is that the threats to academic freedom come both from society outside the school and from within the structures of the contemporary university. Few are willing to take up this double challenge.

Luckily, Julia Schleck is willing. Her Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism seeks both to redefine academic freedom and to tie that redefinition to a theory of the growing importance of the university. In the course of her effort, she links together labor conditions and academic freedom, challenges the common conflation of academic freedom and free speech, and grounds academic freedom anew in the essential function of the university rather than in an individualized right. Dirty Knowledge is a concise and precise argument for the idea that sustainable labor practices within the university are an essential precondition for the maintenance of academic freedom, and that the maintenance of academic freedom is an essential precondition for the ability of universities to fulfill their social tasks. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of universities and society.

Schleck’s argument centers on three points: first, that academic freedom is ultimately an employment relation; second, that it has been transformed over time and needs to be thought anew; and third, that that rethinking can only be done within the context of a theory of the university itself. If we are going to successfully defend academic freedom from its critics, we need to place academic freedom within the changing political economy of the university:

The real threat to academic freedom is not the interference of morally outraged conservative politicians insisting on an unequal assertion of free speech rights on campus. The real threat to academic freedom is contractual, economic, and woven into the very structure of contemporary American higher education. It is the insinuation of neoliberal market values into almost every aspect of university life, into faculty contracts and into the faculty’s behavior and mindset.

Or, as she puts it elsewhere: “Academic Freedom was designed not as an individual right, but as a particular employment relationship. That relationship has changed.”

To some extent, the story that Dirty Knowledge tells is a familiar one. Engaging with the work of Mathew Finkin and Robert Post, Henry Reichman, Joan Wallach Scott, and others, Schleck demonstrates that for much of the 20th century, proponents of academic freedom linked together the idea that universities functioned for the “common good” and the notion of faculty self-governance. Tenure was designed to allow faculty to determine the parameters of their own research; tenure was employment security that would protect researchers and teachers from being fired for their pursuit of truth, enabling higher education to provide the research and learning needed by an advanced democracy. Most forcefully presented in the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, this claim was never unchallenged. It led to ongoing struggles between faculty, administrators, and political leaders. Still, by the early 1940s, some general consensus on principles, if not of practice, had emerged and were codified in agreements between the AAUP and college and university administrations. This agreement, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure remains the formal framework for the regulation of faculty employment rights and academic freedom.

But, Schleck argues, this formal framework has long since ceased to operate in an effective way. To a certain extent, this is conventional wisdom: after all, it is well known that most higher education instructors don’t have tenure or the possibility of tenure. Dirty Knowledge emphasizes two main drivers of the unraveling. The first, and this is an ongoing theme of the book, is the construction and imposition of neoliberalism on society and higher education. Drawing on the work of Wendy Brown, on the one hand, and Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades, on the other, Schleck demonstrates that the insertion of what Slaughter and Rhoades term “academic capitalism” has reshaped the material conditions of academic life and the displacement of academic freedom as a “public” freedom to its current situation as a “private” freedom that leans towards letting faculty define and consolidate their own value. The intrusion of market mechanisms into higher education has led, in turn, to the idea that universities and faculty must be entrepreneurial, leading, as Brown argues, to the formulation of the academic as a neoliberal subject. As the academy becomes a site for market competition over resources and prestige, any notion of a common good disappears in the vortex of individual struggles over market share in the “marketplace of ideas.”

But for Schleck, that is only part of the problem. Instead, she focuses on the obsolescence of the notion of “the” common or public good. In her telling, the common good articulated in the early and middle 20th century was always partial — it just didn’t recognize that. Based in a higher education system that remained relatively uniform in its membership, and surrounded by foundations, a press, and a state that shared a relative uniformity, the notion of “the” common good was always a delusion. From the 1960s onward, this delusion began to unravel.

Schleck places stress on the importance of what she calls the “postmodern critique” in undermining any notion of universal truths and therefore a single “common good.” Implicit in this line of reasoning is the linkage between two factors: neoliberalism’s reduction of learning to the promotion of human capital, and the efforts of cultural and social critics to reveal the contingency of our notions of “truth” by examining the history of knowledge and its philosophical justifications. But this move seems to me to be a misstep. It overstates, I think, the actual importance of poststructuralist critique in the wider society (it is true that it has been mobilized by the Right to attack the supposed relativism of the educational system, but that is more a target of opportunity than an acceptance of postmodernism). Instead, our attention needs to be placed on a problem that she acknowledges in a secondary way: the impact of the new social movements on higher education and society more generally.

Any full understanding of the current crises of academic freedom cannot avoid the ambiguous legacies of the social movements of the 1960s and after. It was the upsurge of civil rights, feminist, antiwar, and LGBTQ+ militancy that forced colleges and universities to reckon with their prior exclusions, the conflicted histories of knowledge production, and, in the case of slavery and dispossession, their connections to systems of racial subordination. It was also the threat posed by these movements (both within and without higher education) that triggered the ethnonationalist reactions that have been so apparent in the Trump presidency and the ongoing effort by Republican legislatures to forbid the teaching of “divisive concepts.” But the ambiguous legacy of the new social movements extends even further. It is not the concern that these social movements caused a conservative counterrevolution that is at stake here: that is a sign that the forces of class and racial power were too entrenched to be overthrown. Instead, it is that the impulses of the new social movements could just as easily be directed to claim that personal experience was “truer” than academic discourse and therefore that it was personal perspective that determined access to knowledge. This claim was far deeper than any postmodern challenge to ahistorical Truth. If the entry of new groups and perspectives into higher education demonstrated the fallacy of a single common good, neoliberalism and academic capitalism mobilized them to transform politics into a matter of perspective, and personal experience into a commodity in the academic marketplace.

It is no coincidence that this unraveling of a justification for the common good occurred simultaneously with the increasing privatization of science. Indeed, it is arguably within science that academic capitalism first took root; the arts, humanities, and social sciences were offshoots of this fundamental transition. As Schleck reminds us, the new neoliberal regime shifted support (both public and private) towards scientific activity that promised a return in commodifiable products; tech transfer became the new mantra. At the same time, the nature of contractual obligations within science was transformed. Whereas grants had been crucial for scientific advancement at least since the emergence of large-scale federal support in the 1950s and 1960s, from the 1980s and 1990s, one’s employment and status were increasingly dependent on the grants a researcher could generate. The long-term shift of funding from basic to applied science is one key sign of this development.

It is not hard to see the parallel with the transformations of both teaching and the professional autonomy of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. As institutions turned science more towards serving the demands of the market and subjected scientists to the rule of grant agencies, teaching and the arts, humanities, and social sciences submitted to the logic of accounting and “flexibility.” No longer organized around the stability of traditions of knowledge production, administrators pushed to expand the hiring of precarious faculty. What mattered in this new logic was the ability of a higher education institution to respond to fluctuations in students’ academic interests. These interests in turn increasingly followed the dominant narratives that the only reason to get a higher education was to prepare for a job. Both the professional autonomy and the ability to define the purpose of knowledge and education that underlaid the classical conception of academic freedom entered into free fall.

The question, of course, is what to do with this analysis. And here, Schleck is particularly sharp in her arguments. She rejects any effort to return to a classical defense of academic freedom rooted in the “common good” or the possibility of disinterested knowledge. Instead, she argues that we must accept both that there is not going to be an agreed-upon common good and that all knowledge is “dirty” (i.e., rooted in social interests). There is no escape from the current crises of academic freedom and higher education except to go forward to new definitions of the academy’s tasks and justifications.

First, Schleck proposes that instead of treating research and learning as operating in terms of the public good, we consider it, as an economist might, as a public good. In this sense, it would no longer be necessary to claim that higher education was essential to democracy or society or the economy in order to justify public support. Instead, public support would be sought by pointing out that research and teaching are a public good whose benefits would be available to everyone in a non-rivalrous way. Of course, this would mean overturning the fundamental argument of academic capitalism: that higher education is important because it gives private individuals an advantage in markets. But treating it as a public good, Schleck argues, would both recognize the diversity of interests and purposes that make higher education important and create a framework to defend colleges and universities insofar as they provide benefits to multiple publics.

But for this to happen, the university needs to be redefined as what Schleck terms a “seed bank.” In certain ways, this idea that the university is the place where society plants and protects seeds of knowledge and thought is not that far from the definition of the university that the AAUP formulated in 1915:

It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world. Not less is it a distinctive duty of the university to be the conservator of all genuine elements of value in the past thought and life of mankind which are not in the fashion of the moment.

Crucial to this idea is that a university as seed bank, or “experiment station,” cannot be simply of the moment. Insofar as it has been reduced to simply responding to the present — as arguably is the case in academic capitalism — it has ceased to be a university.

The AAUP linked this sense of the university to a sense of disinterested professional expertise. Schleck rejects this disinterestedness. First, she insists that we need to acknowledge that all intellectual work is engaged in expressing the passions and interests of researchers. There is no disembodied view from above. But second, she sees no future in attempting to keep private interests outside of the university. Instead, she argues for a greater monitoring of funding so that it can be clear to all where funding is coming from and which interests are being served. The point here is not to prevent that funding but rather to highlight exactly how it is “dirty,” how its social basis shapes the production of knowledge itself.

Where would this leave faculty, and where does it leave academic freedom? Here it is important to return to Schleck’s first assumption: that academic freedom is a “particular employment relationship.” It is an employment relation that demands security because without it, there is no way to allow for the fullest planting of seeds. When instructors are pushed onto short-term, precarious contracts, they simply don’t have the time or opportunity to pursue new and different (or old and challenging ideas). When departments are shrunk or shuttered because of a short-term drop in student demand, the range of seeds being planted are reduced and the future shortchanged. Instead, the struggle over resources should take place on intellectual grounds as different views and forms of knowledge contend within the university itself. This ongoing contention can only truly exist under the protection of Schleck’s redefined notion of academic freedom.


Michael Meranze is professor of history and served as chair of the Academic Senate at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently a member of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

LARB Contributor

Michael Meranze is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in US intellectual and legal history, and a member of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He is the author of Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia 1760–1835 (North Carolina, 1996), co-editor (with David Garland and Randall McGowen) of America’s Death Penalty: Between Past and Present (NYU, 2011), and numerous essays on legal and intellectual history. He also co-edits the blog Remaking the University.


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