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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Myth of Freedom in Academia

Bright, inquisitive, and free-spirited minds are often lured into academia by the promise of intellectual freedom they will enjoy. Starting my first year in my PhD program I began noticing that censorship in academia is even more rampant than in the corporate world.

I've seen quite a few cases of someone in the corporate world telling his or her boss that he is an idiot and slamming the door in front of his nose. I think this is largely due to the fact that employment is much more fluid and dynamic in the corporate world. If you are a good specialist, you can always find a job in your field no matter where you live. The boss does not control the entire industry. Moreover, a few years from now he may not be a top dog anymore.

But I've never seen an academic doing anything of this sort. Academics are afraid to criticize senior scholars and administrators. Even criticizing a well-established theory may be impossible due to the fact that people to assigned to review these papers are often the ones who build their careers around it. This is due to the fact that even a good professor may have to spend years and relocate to another part of the world to change his or her job. Another factor is that senior scholars stick around for decades. And they are the ones controlling the publication processes - the backbone of any academic career. Once you get on their bad side, you will have to wait for 20 or 30 years for them to leave the field so that they are of no threat to you.

Those at odds with the system feel like they are not just losing their jobs in this specific school. They are ending their careers. I knew a professor who was threatened by his dean with the following words: "Finance is a small field. If you don't do X, I will make sure you will never find another job in finance!". And I'm sure he could do this if he wanted to. That's why shooting sprees are so common in academia. People feel like their life and career is over once they get into an argument with the system.

I started to think about this today after reading a few articles from the Chronicles of Higher Education website. I was surprised to see so many people writing under pseudonyms. And I suspect that many of those authors writing under pseudonyms actually have tenure.


  1. Everything you've said is so true. I can confirm it because I've worked on boths sides in academia: as support staff at universities, and as a PhD student. I quit my PhD because I realized that your success as a PhD student is based on your 'networking' abilities--it's who you know in the end, well and truly. If you've had conflicts with some senior academic in your field, it is very likely that they will appear later down the line-- on some peer review of an article/book that you've written, or as an editor of a journal you submit work to, or a friend of an editor, etc., etc. As a PhD student, you begin to learn just how incestuous your field is--everyone knows everyone else, somehow.

  2. yes, that's what I'm saying. I also saw many cases of someone getting his or her paper published largerly because of his or her good relationship with a senior editor.

  3. There is censorship of a less obvious type too: you cannot pursue whatever intellectual ideas you like, or even what ideas you think are useful... you must publish within established lines, and to get funding, will probably have to chase the hottest topics in your field. (While I was in my program, we made 3 new hires; all 3 did work on global climate what they actually liked).

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