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On July 15 and 16, Maria Sybilla Lotter of the Netzwerk Wissenschaftsfreiheit organized a workshop on the topic at the University of Bochum. In addition to several members of the network, two critics were invited: Patrick Bahners from the FAZ and me. The Theorieblog publishes here a shortened and revised version of my talk. In it, I reflect from the perspective of critical political theory on the concepts of freedom and objectivity that are central to the debate about academic freedom and, on this basis, come to a very different assessment of the current problems of academic freedom than the Academic Freedom Network. My position is close to that of the recently founded “alternative” Network for Academic Freedom, where academic freedom is problematized under the aspects of lack of participation and diversity as well as unquestioned power structures.

Dieter Schönecker opened the workshop with a presentation of the academic freedom network and an explanation of some of the cases of “cancelling” by “leftist” theories that the network documents. Sandra Kostner and Susanne Schröter criticized the concept of “anti-Muslim racism.” Reinhard Merkel presented in detail how Georg Meggle was deprived of a teaching position at the University of Salzburg after he was brought close to the BDS movement. Vojin Sasa Vukadinovic described in his polemic contribution four “cancelling” cases from the field of gender studies.

Patrick Bahners pointed out in his presentation that the Network for Academic Freedom unilaterally accuses “left-wing” critics of politicization, while the “canceled” professors themselves engaged in politicized academic activism. For example, Susanne Schröter’s conference entitled “The Islamic headscarf - symbol of dignity or oppression?” was not a classical scientific conference, but had the clear intention of intervening in a socio-political discourse. Freedom of opinion (for the simple expression of political opinion) and freedom of science would thus be inadequately mixed by the Network for Scientific Freedom, without this being made clear. Through its non-political concept of science, the network thus conceals the fact that its members are more concerned with political plurality than with freedom of science. The question that arises after Bahners lecture is how exactly the relationship between science and politics can be understood and how political or apolitical (i.e., less or more separate from freedom of expression) scientific freedom can be understood. My talk took up precisely here and serves as a first proposal for the elaboration of a critical theory of academic freedom that explicitly reflects the link between science and politics. The goal here is to better determine how objectivity can be understood as that which distinguishes science as opposed to politics.

The conversations at the workshop were productive, but did not lead to agreement because of our different theoretical policy backgrounds. The members of the Academic Freedom Network see an overall hegemony of certain “leftist” theoretical approaches in the German academy and understand academic freedom as “viewpoint pluralism,” i.e., the representation of all political opinions at the university. I consider both assessments to be wrong, based on critical social theories that show that thinking at the university is shaped by positions of the majority society, which are not sufficiently questioned. The commitment to academic freedom should be to ensure more diversity of viewpoints at the university, which also goes hand in hand with sanctioning sexist, homophobic, and transphobic statements.

The fact of the different theoretical-political starting points is a challenge for the elaboration of a critical political theory of academic freedom. For the critical theories, on the basis of which standpoint diversity can be demanded, have as theories themselves no universal claim, which, however, one implicitly assigns to them if one wants to reform the framework conditions of science from them. The task of a critical theory of scientific freedom is therefore to navigate the fine line, to develop a notion of scientific freedom as a diversification and privilege critique, and to deal reflectively with the fact that this notion is itself shaped by a particularist theory-political position.

In order to justify this position, I first analyzed two basic concepts of the debate on academic freedom in the lecture: freedom on the one hand, and objectivity on the other. On this basis, I then differentiated different phenomena that are discussed as limitations of scientific freedom and assessed them with the help of the introduced notions of freedom and objectivity. In doing so, I have shown that the phenomena problematized by the Network for Scientific Freedom are for the most part not critical restrictions of scientific freedom. However, there are indeed threatening restrictions of scientific freedom and to deal with them I made institutional proposals.

Here is the link to the presentation at Theorieblog:

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