Student Academic Freedom and Student Solidarity

– The NotA Collective

Recently, “The Mine Field,”1 a powerful testimonial that was published in NotA, received many heartfelt responses. Two of particular interest to us were those from faculty members in Indian institutes.2,3 Since one of the prime purposes of this publication is to start a conversation about life in Indian academia specifically and academia more broadly, we must begin by thanking them for participating.

What follows is more than 1000 words in response to a couple of tweets from months ago. This is somewhat self-evidently ridiculous. We would like to offer the following in the spirit of countering harmful ideas that we thought were reflected in the tweets, while fully acknowledging that it is unreasonable to assume that these 140 characters, or what we read into them, is a reflection of the authors’ true opinions.

On Academic Freedom

The first response we would like to address is2

This is the flip side of academic freedom. On one hand academic freedom is essential for trying out innovative approaches and on the other hand it allows PIs to create a toxic environment.

It is very important to have some kind of oversight without intrusion into academic freedom.

One concern that came up was that the sort of abuse documented in “The Mine Field” needs to be dealt with without compromising academic freedom. While it is entirely true that academic freedom has been under unprecedented attack in India recently,4 this attack is being orchestrated by the fascists in control of the government — and by the capitalists funding our institutes5 — and not by students asking not to be abused. What then is the concern here? That of academic freedom being traded off against something else. What is this other thing? Let us, instead of answering this question, make a few observations.

“Academic freedom is about the freedom of scholars; and students, not just faculty, are scholars too. They are members of a community of scholars. This is an integral part of the Humboldtian tradition, where scholarship is defined in terms of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding as a common goal, necessarily involving both students and teachers. Both are, in essence, learners.”6

Whenever conversations about academic freedom spring up, as in this case, they are largely centered around the freedom of faculty. This is rather strange, when you think about it.

Despite being active members of the community, students, because they occupy a position of dependence on the faculty (for guidance) and the institution (for awarding degrees),6 have no claim to academic “freedom.” Further, they have no claim even to the freedom of expression, and faculty often proselytize their own opinion rather than openly discussing with the student. Faculty/institutions are also rarely ever tolerant of students being critical of them; and even if they appear to take the students’ feedback seriously, this is, as far as the students are concerned, done in name only. This conflict between the students and faculty/institution is often not discussed or addressed because the faculty are considered to have authority over the discipline/research, while students are considered scholars in training.

There is often minimal consultation with the student when it comes to matters of “guidance” and instead of guidance being a dynamic evolutionary process where both the student and faculty can learn from each other, it becomes a form of proselytization, which the student may question only at their own peril. This just shows how faculty consider students lacking agency, compromising not only the student’s well-being but also the faculty’s adherence to the scholarly tradition of being a “learner”.

While there are certainly discussions to be had about how students should exercise their freedom with responsibility, these discussion can only be had once we address the fundamental lack of responsibility in faculty’s exercise of their own freedom in dealing with students.

Why should academic freedom of students (the minimal being the freedom of expression in the form of criticism of either the faculty/institution) be considered a potential threat to the academic freedom of faculty, when this sort of freedom of faculty is an actual threat to that of the student?

On Abuse and Sensitisation Training

Another response was the following:3

The abuse of power by the Professors leaps out.There is no training/sensitization for faculty. The decent ones figure out how their words have a much bigger impact on a young person than they can imagine.Others do thoughtless damage with devastating consequences on the student.

It emphasised the need for sensitisation training for faculty, saying that faculty need to realise how much their words can hurt. It is certainly true that faculty should know how much their words (and, more importantly, actions) can affect their sudents. However, if we read between the lines, we notice that the response seems to be predicated upon the idea that the primary cause of abuse is a lack of knowledge of how not to abuse. For if this was not the primary cause, why would it be the main target of our intervention?

Consider this. A student tells their supervisor something insulting as a result of their ignorance. How long before the student’s ignorance is fixed? One expects that it is not very long. Imagine now that the situation was reversed, that the supervisor insulted the student out of ignorance. How long, this time, before the ignorance is fixed? What do you think?

In reality, we learn how to be sensitive not by reading or attending training classes but by feedback. The most important sites of abuse are the relationships between powerful and powerless classes of society, so that the powerless cannot stand up to the powerful. This accounts for the abuse of children by their parents, employees by their employers, Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi people by Savarna people, and of course students by their teacher and supervisors;7 and accounts doubly for the abuse of, say, Dalit students by savarna teachers (as in the recent case of Seema Singh at IIT Kharagpur). Further, it is very important to note that, when a group benefits from continued ignorance, the ignorance becomes almost wilful; this can be seen, for example, in the way that privileged groups react to increased expression and articulation from disprivileged groups with disingenuous cries of censorship at best and atrocities at worst.8

Reading and training classes do help, of course, but it is very counter-intuitive to assume that they can be the primary tool for political change. The NotA collective believes that the primary solution to abuse we need is to give students the space for feedback; and that this will never come at a systemic, institutional level, without a radical reformation of the power relations within the academy.

In this, we are in good company, that of no less than Ambedkar. In his political project of dalit liberation, Ambedkar didn’t run diversity and sensitisation training programs; he started a labour party.

What is to be Done?

In the long term, there is much to be done. We need to flatten the instensely hierarchical structure of academic institutions, to use some of that marvellous brain-power to lead in creating a better world. For, as we have noted above, how can we expect the problem of advisor abuse to be solved without this?

In the short term, members of the faculty must stop imagining that there is a conflict of any sort between student and faculty academic freedom, and that the problem is one of knowledge; they must incorporate the openness to new ideas they expect students to have into their own social practice, and have discussions with their research groups of students and scientific staff. Most importantly, they must take steps now to collectively democratize their classes, labs and institutions. Without this action, there is no right to speak.

Until there are moves towards openness and collective democratization, we at NotA aim to build solidarity by publishing students’ and staff’s honest, unapologetic experiences in the form of testimonials. It is our aim to unite students and staff from all sections of the academy to normalize freedom of expression and create a better world.

Erratum: in the piece above, we used the word savarna to mean ‘forward caste,’ when in fact it includes both forward castes and OBCs. Since we’re talking primarily about the elite rungs of academia, the word we should have used in dwija. See the helpful comment by Peaky Blinders for more details.

  1. Anonymous. (2021, March 28). “The Mine Field.” Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  2. @jsbagla. (2021, March 29). Jasjeet Singh Bagla [Tweet]. Twitter., ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. @shubhatole. (2021, March 29). Shubha Tole (she/her) [Tweet]. Twitter. ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Sundar, N., & Fazili, G. (2020, August 28). Academic Freedom In India. The India Forum. ↩︎

  5. The NotA Collective. (2021, March 26). “Critical Comments on the Mehta Affair.” Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  6. Macfarlane, Bruce. “Re-framing student academic freedom: a capability perspective.” Higher Education 63, no. 6 (2012): 719-732. ↩︎ ↩︎

  7. This observation has been made by many. See e.g. Graeber, D. (2012). Dead zones of the imagination. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2(2), 105–128. and bell hooks (1992). Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination. Cultural Studies, 338-346. Note, however, that observations of this sort are very common and these two are by no means the first or the only ones to make such observations. ↩︎

  8. The huge spike in atrocities on dalits starting in the 1960s that can be directly traced to increased articulation and agitation of dalits caused by the onset of capitalist social relations, as discussed in Teltumbde, A. (2011). The Persistence of Caste: India’s Hidden Apartheid and the Khairlanji Murders (Illustrated ed.). Zed Books. The author also discusses how this is a more general lesson from around the world, including for example the atrocities by the Ku Klux Klan. Another example that comes to mind is the Maruti company’s retaliation to the formation of a union at Manesar, which ended in at least one death, 1000s of people fired, and 13 people with life sentences. See PUDR (2018, May 7). ‘A Pre-Decided Case: A Critique of the Maruti judgment of 2017’ Report by PUDR. தொழிலாளர் கூடம் (Thozhilalar Koodam). ↩︎

2 thoughts on “Student Academic Freedom and Student Solidarity

  1. I thank NotA for writing this piece and trying to start the conversation, which is often avoided.

    The article correctly points that “Whenever conversations about academic freedom spring up, they are largely centered around the freedom of faculty.” and “they [students] have no claim even to the freedom of expression, and faculty often proselytize their own opinion rather than openly discussing with the student.” Even though I agree that faculties hold positions of power and the dialogue between faculties and students is limited, it is, however, not correct to conclude that the students have no say in decision-making. Or, in other words, would it be possible to run colleges peacefully if there seized to exists any form of dialogue? I don’t think so, and this is what I have learned. In fact, the closer observation tells us that there is a constant dialogue and debate between the students and faculty. Now the right to question ask would be who are these students that talk to the faculties regularly and aid them in knowing the difficulties and problems faced by the student community (and if those issues really bother the majority of the student community)? Or, who is influencing the opinion-making? This podcast [1] with The Buffalo Intellectual might help understand what I am trying to say. I believe without critically addressing these questions, any discussion on the freedom of students is incomplete.

    As most of the retweets, quote tweets, and comments to the article ‘The Mine Field’ mainly came from the people affiliated with elite institutions, I make this point – Who runs these places? Is it all of the Savarna? [2] I often wonder why do authors avoid the word Brahmin-Dwij to describe what they mean.

    1. Anurag Minus Verma Podcast: With Buffalo Intellectual.
    2. Where Are The Shudras?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peaky,

      Thank you for your comment, and the links.

      We fully agree that there is a nexus between dwija students and the faculty (who are almost all dwija, as you and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd point out) that oppresses bahujan people, and this needs to be addressed. We think that there are also conflicts between the interests of dwija students and the faculty. Both the unity and the conflict exist, and different aspects are operative at different times (or the same time!).

      In other pieces, we have attempted to examine the conflict between the dwija groups and the bahujan groups within the academy, and we hope to continue doing so and improving at it. In this piece, we were of the opinion that it was the conflict between students as a whole and faculty as a whole that was operative in the discussion of advisor abuse. Of course, the stakes are higher for dalit-bahujan-adivasi students, and it is important to understand the specific ways in which these dynamics affect these students.

      If you believe that our analysis is mistaken, we would love to hear more about it. We are eager to either discuss further or publish something you write (while maintaining your anonymity). We as a collective have our limitations, and we hope to grow with conversations like these.

      Regarding your last point: the word savarna is often used not in its historical way — as the opposite of avarna — but as forward caste (dwija + the more powerful shudra castes). An example of this usage is the movie “The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas,” which was certainly not aimed at a group that includes OBCs. We were under the impression that it was this newer meaning that was more common. Looking into this, it seems that this impression was wrong, and further that this ambiguity is in fact problematic in the eyes of some (eg Thank you for making this point, and we will use less ambiguous language going forward (and also add an erratum clarifying our piece).

      The NotA Collective


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