The Universities in Historical Context: Conrad Russell’s ‘Academic Freedom’

March 23, 2012

‘There must be some things recognized as academic questions, to be decided by academics according to academic standards. It is this sphere which is being whittled away to nothing… Research is not an area in which “the customer is always right”’. This may seem like an intervention into current debates on higher education, but it dates back to 1993, when Conrad Russell published his Academic Freedom. In the CEMS series on ‘The Universities in Historical Context’, Robin Briggs examined this book with its multiple levels of interest: its author was a leading historian of seventeenth-century Parliaments; at the time of writing he was also a Liberal Democratic peer, fighting for universities in the House of Lords. Did his own historical perspective lend force to his arguments? Did it to some degree undermine them, given Russell’s own scorn for Whiggish interpretations of a long march towards liberty? Professor Briggs noted both that Russell the historian could seem ‘tone-deaf to ideas and beliefs’ and that his book itself failed to establish a long-term continuity between medieval principles of corporate independence and the contemporary world. Briggs carefully outlined the long-term tensions between the particular professional goals of English universities and broader ideals of libertas philosophandi. And yet when it came to articulating principles academics need to fight for, the book proved in discussion to have much of contemporary pertinence – not least because the question of academic freedom has effectively disappeared from the current parlance of higher education administration. Moreover, Russell is far from denying that public money should be accounted for; rather, he gives a careful breakdown of different means and levels of accountability. In some ways his book may seem as distant from today as the seventeenth century: it comes from a different world, in which the lives of academics were a great deal less regulated. Briggs noted that Russell’s conclusion that government policy was wrecking the central goals of universities will have seemed overstated at the time of writing, but perhaps less so today.

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