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Academic Freedom, Autonomy of Universities: Turning Point in the Evolution of Industrial Societies

Liberté académique, autonomie des universités : Un tournant dans l'évolution des sociétés industrielles
Alain-Marc Rieu


Le débat sur les libertés académiques et l’autonomie des universités est rouvert aussi bien dans les régimes autoritaires que dans les nations démocratiques. L’objectif est de répondre à cette conjoncture en la situant dans l’évolution actuelle du processus de globalisation. Depuis les années 1960, les sociétés industrielles supposaient que la croissance économique et la consommation de masse allaient résoudre tous leurs problèmes. Face aux effets économiques et sociaux de long terme des crises de l’énergie des années 1970, les sociétés industrielles sont arrivées à l’idée que la recherche et l’innovation étaient la solution à leurs problèmes. La crise de 2008, la crise énergétique, le changement climatique et la pandémie actuelle ont montré que les sociétés industrielles devaient se réinventer. Situées à l’épicentre de ces évolutions, les universités sont prises dans une contradiction : elles subissent des pressions croissantes pour apporter des solutions, pour y parvenir elles ont besoin d’une autonomie croissance.

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Recurring Symptom of a Social-Economic Mutation

1The concept of university covers in this text all institutions of higher education dedicated to research, innovation, and training in all disciplines, in sciences and engineering (including medical and health sciences), in the humanities and the social sciences, including business and law. It includes private and public institutions, research foundations and organizations, and the wide diversity of academic institutions. The extent of this definition proves that universities constitute a major sector of activity in all economies and societies. The extent of this sector, the number of students, of professors and researchers, its budgets, its relations with foreign universities and its interactions with the other sectors of society, with the state apparatus, the economic sphere, civil society and even religion; all these parameters, characterize each type of social-economic systems. This paper excludes primary and secondary education, which play a major but different role in contemporary societies.

  • 1 Alain-Marc Rieu, “Géostratégie de la recherche et de l’innovation”, Revue Hermès, Paris, CNRS Editi (...)

2This definition intends to characterize the present situation of universities in their national context, even if only a minority of governments has the resources, or the will, to finance and develop to such an extent this sector of activity.1 This perspective explains why the autonomy of universities and academic freedom have become a contentious problem. Autonomy is a confusing notion, always a question of degree, never of separation. It means that contemporary universities in democratic industrial societies are not at the service of an external power, economic, ideological, political or religious, which decide what professors should teach or not teach, research or not research, which students have the right to register or are excluded. This theory emerged in a precise context: in response to the 1970s energy crises and its social economic disruptions, various research in Japan and Western Europe were looking for a new type of industrial policy based on Joseph Schumpeter’s characterization of capitalism’s dynamic, its capacity to escape deadlocks and overcome constraints by reinventing itself through innovation.

  • 2 Christopher Freeman, Technology Policy and Economic Performance: Lessons from Japan, London, Pinter (...)
  • 3 L. Leydesdorff, Loet and H. Etzkowitz,, “The endless transition: A ‘Triple Helix’ of university-ind (...)

3The 1970s were a period of economic stagnation, rising unemployment, strong inflation, geopolitical instability and ideological transition toward neoliberal policies. They were also a period of scientific and technological progress a transition from post-war computer science to the rise of digital technology, first industrial robotics, then personal computers and consumer electronics. Two influential concepts were invented and explored: the concept of a National System of Innovation in the early 1980s2 and in the early 1990 the Triple Helix concept. Both concepts were explaining the key role played by scientific research and technological innovation; both insisted on the key role played by universities to drive this reinvention of capitalism.3 The degree of autonomy of universities in a social economic system conditions the level of academic freedom of researchers and professors in each university and university system. In return the level of academic freedom conditions the level of performance of universities in current social economic systems.

4There is no escape: this problem conditions the capacity of societies to respond to the challenges hindering their future: climate change, energy transition, rise of neo-authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, nationalist movements and identity politics, weakened political institutions, mass immigration, increasing social violence and the return of war, world reordering. All these issues require research, training, communication and debate, institutional reforms, and new models of government. Dikes, firefighters, prayers, combat robots, flights to Mars, TV debates or surveillance software, endless debates will not bring solutions. Nowhere this paper advocates any sort of government by and of scientists or engineers. The university complex does not subsume political institutions, including government, their interactions with the social and economic spheres and their responsibilities toward these spheres. But these spheres of activity cannot dismiss or pretend to ignore the certified knowledge and competence produced by the university complex and its role in the evolution of societies. This long-term evolution has accelerated since 1945; today a different genre of industrial society has emerged.

  • 4 John Aubrey Douglass, Neo-nationalism and Universities, Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Hig (...)

5Academic freedom should be considered as a transnational principle, an extension of human rights and freedom of expression, an instrument of democracy. It establishes a right of resistance to illegitimate pressure within a university, from any government, economic interest, or faith. These freedoms and rights have been historically criticized, denied, or rejected in the name of the reason of state, the state or popular sovereignty, religious or cultural identity. The present situation is different: neo-authoritarian (illiberal) and neo-totalitarian regimes consider these freedoms and rights as an historically constructed European invention, an imperialist projection of (West) European institutions, norms, and values on all nations in the name of a singular European ideology.4 Because such controversies always are a matter of cases, circumstances and opportunities, the objective of this paper is to analyze the present conjuncture with the goal to propose a research platform for joint research and debates, rectified by individual researchers and institutions toward a joint research program.

  • 5 J.F. Lyotard, La condition post-moderne. Rapport sur le savoir, Paris, Editions de minuit, 1979. Ul (...)

6Indeed, the recurring debate on academic freedom and the autonomy of universities cannot be reduced to a rhetorical trope of academic life or modern science. It is an expression of a continuous, always specific and situated, conflict of power. In each case, this debate and tension signal a critical moment in the evolution of a nation, a cold or hot conflict: an established political, economic, social or religious ordering tries to extend its interests, values and objectives first to knowledge institutions and all reflexive activities of this nation, later to transnational research and training communities. Academic freedom is not a private interest of some professors, researchers, or laboratories. It is the sign in a society of an objective conflict of power. Beyond academic life and universities, knowledge and reflexive processes constitute in a society a large and specific sphere of activities, connected to artistic activities, intersecting with the media and publishing industries. This open sphere influences the future of a nation and even of a civilization.5 The rise of conflicts about academic freedom and increased autonomy for universities has transformed a long-term tacit and constructive tension into a destructive divide in all industrial societies. However necessary and even urgent, I do not intend to add to the criticism of the academic policies of neo-authoritarian and totalitarian states. My objective here is to focus on advanced industrial societies and to explain how academic freedom today requires a shared investigation and understanding of academic autonomy.

The Changing Role of Universities, the Claim for Autonomy

  • 6 Alain-Marc Rieu, Managing knowledge, governing society. Social Theory, Research Policy and Environm (...)

7The complexity of the conjuncture requires in my view the perspective of institutional epistemology, a field of investigation studying in societies the role and evolution of knowledge activities and their institutions. This epistemology is not a substitute for sociology or economics; it just brings in a different angle. The period under consideration is characterized by neoliberal ideologies and policies.6 This paper focuses on the energy crises of the 1970s, the aftermaths of the 2008 systemic crisis and the current environmental transition.

8How institutional epistemology contributes to an explanation of the meaning of autonomy for universities? Its perspective opens a genealogy of the current conjuncture based on an analysis of the evolutionary trajectory of industrial societies since the 1970s, since the first energy crises. In retrospect, the chaotic 1970s were the moment of a multiple transition, which determined what mature industrial societies have become today. The post-war world ordering started to deconstruct. Established connection and hierarchies between the state apparatus, religion, techno-industrial regime and environmental exploitation, so-called consumer societies and international power relations were destabilized, bringing to its end the cold war and soon the demise of the Soviet bloc. New connections and hierarchies were established between fields of activities already connected but not yet aggregated. These connections were generating a stable cluster, which became a matrix of evolution reconfiguring the industrial social economic system. Available evidence indicates that this transition was happening beyond the control and awareness of governments, societies, and economic communities. Emerging connections were not initially taking place in businesses, nor in government, nor in civil society. They concerned technologies, research, innovation, training, interacting with government, society and businesses of all sizes. They were profiling and generating the emergence in industrial societies of a transversal function where all these ideas, problems and issues would be raised and studied, researched and debated. This emerging public sphere, confusingly called at first high-tech (or new tech) was slowly shifting toward universities. Since the 1980s, their meaning, role and reform led to a recurring controversy about autonomy: their interactions with companies and government were becoming more opened and cooperative. New connections, social values and ideas, ideologies and technologies were also emerging. In a confusing reference to modern liberalism, they were condensed into the project of a new liberalism, a neoliberalism.

  • 7 Sakaiya Taichi, The knowledge-value revolution or the history of the future, Tokyo, Kodansha Intern (...)

9The first step of this transition is characterized by the concept of high value-added society (in fact economy) based on the project to substitute technology, in fact scientific research (basic, fundamental) for natural resources, for fossil fuels.7 The project of high value-added society is to neutralize the increasing costs of energy and natural resources by the increasing value of the products and services designed and produced by the adoption of the latest technological wave (computer technology) and its adaptation to all sectors of the economy and society as innovations increasing creativity, adaptiveness, productivity and competitiveness. Technological substitution was also applied to fossil fuels in search for a high-tech source of energy one could control the cost, quantity, and reliability of access. A solution was indeed available since the 1940s and the connection was activated. During the war, advanced physics had been translated into a nuclear bomb, in peace time nuclear technology could be converted to civilian uses. In this linear path, nuclear energy was considered a rational solution and it still remains today the backbone of the national energy policy of industrial nations.

  • 8 Meadows, Donella, Meadows, Dennis, Randers, Jörgen, and Behrens, William (ed.), The Limits to Growt (...)

10The conversion of the nuclear industry was in tune with the end of the Cold War, even with the Peace movement of the 1980s, which had different objectives. The 1972 Club of Rome report, Limits to growth, addresses in chapter 2 “The limits to exponential growth” the question of nuclear energy from the perspective of the substitution theory (p 73).8 Based on the laws of thermodynamics, the authors raise doubt about the prospect of a full substitution: “all the energy used by man must ultimately be dissipated as heat” (p 73). Even if such a level of substitution were to be achieved and limitless nuclear energy could be produced, its consumption would have a strong negative impact on the “world system” (p 131). There is no clean energy: the question of waste, nuclear waste and global heating is unsurpassable. But, because populations in Western Europe, Japan and North America were mobilized against industrial pollution, the idea of energy sovereignty was overwhelming.

11In the late 1970s and early 1980s, another connection was ready to be activated: the energy crises of the 1970s coincided in the 1980s with the diffusion first of computer science, later of Information and Communication Technology, in all sectors of the economy and society. In the 1950s, computer science and the first “business machines” were conceived as calculus, information storage, transfer, and communication. In the 1970s, the substitution theory extended digital technology first to industrial processes (robotics) and later to human behavior associated with industrial processes, including management, marketing, stock management and later all production and commercial information and communication processes. It also extended digital technology to human information transfer and communication. This led to the Internet. This knot was becoming more inclusive. It became the matrix in which mature industrial societies were evolving; it explains how mature industrial societies were becoming advanced industrial societies. The idea of Artificial Intelligence took shape and developed with the extension of the substitution principle to all standardized activities. A further shift from programing processes to automated learning took place, leading to the self-programming of digital artifacts and today deep learning. From this perspective and until recently, Artificial intelligence had been an outcome and extension of the substitution concept. These cumulative associations have generated the strong complex now in place at the core of political institutions, the economy and civil society, with a potential powerful impact in each of them. The key point is that this complex matrix of evolution aggregates three initially unrelated poles: the environment, digital technology, and universities.

12The second stage was not predicted, but was a predictable effect of the first step, the project of a high added-value economy. A full understanding of the opportunities opened up by the Internet made this second step possible around the mid-1990s, reinforced by progress in digital technology, mainly capability, speed, hard and software development. Conceptually the idea of an added-value society had introduced into the economy a tacit divide between a high value-added sector and an industrial manufacturing sector. The first sector concentrated on research and innovation activities regulated by the substitution principle; the second was made of all industrial tasks related to the exploitation and transformation of natural resources toward the fabrication of goods and services. This prime source of innovation, based on scientific research, stood outside the industrial sector. Both sectors were evolving in different directions at different speeds and in different geographies. The Research and Innovation concept introduced a different institutional process from Research and Development: R&I is a process articulating university laboratories and different partners in industry, services and society; R&D is mainly located within industrial firms. Research did not have the same meaning in both cases; they had different cultures and values; they even had different economies and geopolitical interests.

13This situation introduced two different conceptions of work, competence, revenues, and related lifestyles. It has reinforced a divide between two main social classes, economies in the same city and even the same country, between high-tech California and post-war mechanical industries on the East coast. Inequalities in salaries, values and expectations would grow almost daily in the late 1990s. Beyond these two main classes there emerged an underclass of people excluded from this class division, being and feeling marginalized and bypassed. This new underclass found its historical revenge in extremist religious and political movements, voting in the end for Donald Trump and revolting on 6 January 2021 against the American political and social regime. Similar right-wing movements are to be seen in other national contexts.

  • 9 Studies show people being and feeling marginalized or bypassed are the majority of anti-wax, those (...)
  • 10 Managing knowledge, governing society. Social Theory, Research Policy and Environmental Transition (...)

14Empowered by the Internet, this divide was projected around the world, with major consequences. It ignited an uncontrolled wave of nationalism and violent disorder reinforced by the disruptive local effects of global climate change and recently the Covid 19 pandemic.9 The divide between those who conceive and those who fabricate turned over the past twenty years into a global divide. Delocalization is the generic version of this decoupling introduced in the late 1990s-early 2000s becoming a worldwide division of labor and added value between regions of research and innovation activities and areas of industrial production, between regions of high competence and salaries and nations with an abundant labor force and low salaries. It changed the world with far-reaching consequences. The global economy became all a question of added value and value chains, of logistics, transport, containers, freight, free trade and trafficking in extended airports and harbors. This is how China became the “world factory” and why also the Chinese state apparatus decided to climb the value chain, increase the added value of its production, to delocalize industrial fabrication toward China’s western provinces, across East Asia and to East-Africa, to imagine and implement a new Silk Road to reach its contiguous markets through so-called Eurasia.10 The predictable and unpredicted effects on national economies and societies were highly disruptive. In mature industrial nations, it generated a loss of industrial employment and the multiplication of low-paying jobs considered less qualified and eventually expendable. This type of economy generated exponential inequalities between those specialized in value creation in the globalized economy, and those reduced to local economies and services, low-value jobs, poorly paid and potentially robotized.

  • 11 For an overview, see Rana Foroohar, How the Financing of Colleges May Lead to Disaster!, New York R (...)

15This divide amplified and justified the growing role and responsibility of universities, their increasing interactions with business firms and government. The difference was they were the center of this triangle. This divide classified universities in different categories (classes) according to specialization, academic salaries, services and students’ expectations, opportunities, national and social origins. The role and responsibilities, even culture, of the professors, researchers, of students and administrators, were increasingly divided; these different groups did not share the same interests and values. Their relations were bound to deteriorate. Research and teaching fields, training methods, achievement criteria were modified. Tuition and related services became more and more expensive.11 Students from wealthy African or Asian families would be, or would feel discriminated against by fellow students, by some subjects, courses and lectures. Middle-class students, researchers and professors felt marginalized, even excluded in function of their social, ethnic or national origins. According to this hypothesis, these cascading divides explain (at least partially) the present disturbance on campuses: the controversies about freedom of speech, multiculturalism, political correctness, injustice, and discrimination of various sorts. When common goals and values vanish, all differences intensify and become conflictual. Universities have been internalizing the world’s conflicts in which they prospered and now they face rising tensions and even a risk of deconstruction. They have acquired an increased autonomy, but academic freedom has been contested.

16The third stage is the world’s current condition. Mature industrial nations have become fully aware that the trend toward decoupling of their economy between knowledge regions, natural resources-rich regions and industrial manufacturing is an ecological, economic and social dead end, with unsustainable geopolitical consequences. Signs and proofs have multiplied since 2008 systemic crisis and its unfolding effects: it was first financial, then at once economic, social, monetary, international, cultural, political, ecological and climatic, and academic. Then there came a pandemic. In this systemic crisis and its latest entropic stages (including democratic failures in the U.S.A.), the neoliberal deconstruction led to the project of reconstructing economies, societies, political institutions and research policies. This turning point can be observed in Japan and in Western Europe, where the neoliberal deconstruction was less intense than in the United States and the United Kingdom. Global disorders and related violence have been increasing to the present day. Still, a turning point toward reconstruction is taking shape. It is not a question of naïve optimism but rather a sign of rational despair. A third stage erupts when environmental constraints cannot be ignored and start driving the evolution of industrial societies and the world economy. The environmental situation is indeed unsustainable, but this diagnosis and its related ideologies are obscuring knowledge. An institutional epistemology does not deny the overall situation, but it searches a more precise diagnosis. During the second stage, since the late 1990s and early 2000s, territorial specialization and delocalization processes have intensified global warming, its impacts on societies and its collective awareness. A specific conjuncture has emerged, with a different collective intelligence of these problems. Universities are the function in our societies where this awareness and intelligence are collected.

17Within the Anthropocene phenomenon and long-term climate change, it is time to evaluate the multiple impact and consequences of the globalization and delocalization processes in response to the energy crises of the 1970s. To limit global warming in the next thirty years as advocated by recent United Nations Climate Change Conferences and mature industrial nations, one should also consider the transformation of the world economy in the last half-century. The transfer of industrial manufacturing in regions of abundant and cheaper labor have intensified in these countries the destruction of their ecologies, the increase in imports of raw materials, including fossil fuels, from Africa, Brazil, Southeast Asia, the construction of polluting factories, internal immigration and concentration of labor in cities with inadequate infrastructure, low salaries combined with political repression in order to enforce the competitiveness of these regions. The exploitation of natural resources and their massive transfer and processes have hugely aggravated the scale and speed of damage. These economic strategies led to over-pollution, over-exploitation of natural and human resources, and extended internal transportation in the name of rational value chains. Delocalization did not even significantly reduce industrial pollution in mature economies, rather it extended the same exploitive strategies on a global scale to regions with weak economies, poor populations but which were rich in natural resources. In these conditions, the delocalization strategy increased and intensified global warming and climate change. It even weakened, in certain countries, the regulations limiting pollution, waste management and recycling, which were simultaneously developed in all mature industrial nations in the late 1970s. The evolution of the Anthropocene and long-term climate change might be difficult to control and reduce. But the global warming of the last fifty years results from the combined effects of policies, strategies, models and interests, which can be identified, criticized, and reformed. They are on a scale adapted to collective research, policies and actions. Their effects might not be fully neutralized, but they can certainly be brought under significant political and civil control.

Academic Freedom beyond the University Paradox

18The objective of the third part of this article is to propose a framework for further research and debate. Derived from institutional epistemology, this framework introduces problems and concepts, proposes explanations and arguments according to which the present dead ends of industrial societies in addressing climate change become an object of investigation and policies. Solutions will not come from government, industrial firms or civil societies; they can only come from research and innovation developed in universities in collaboration with governments, industrial firms and civil societies. The first challenge is to overcome the current university paradox: the more research and innovation are considered as the only solution to contemporary problems, the more governments consider they are entitled to develop reforms and strategies to reduce the current autonomy of universities in line with political, economic and social objectives. But the more they restrict the autonomy of universities, the more they reduce the innovative capacities of the latter. The solution to this paradox is to protect and reinforce academic freedom: the capacity of researchers, professors as well as students to develop open research and experimentation on all these issues. The meaning of this third part is to clarify what is academic freedom and to propose a version of academic freedom fit for the current conjuncture. In my view, and I stand to be corrected, what matters is this conceptual framework and the debates and reforms it introduces. They are intended to focus the research activities of academic communities on technological, institutional and social innovations embedded in societies.

  • 12 Alain-Marc Rieu, “Innovation today. Building research diversity” in Ulrich Hilpert (ed.), Diversiti (...)
  • 13 For instance, de Wit and Altbach, “Now is the time to get serious on the climate crisis”, Universit (...)
  • 14 Managing knowledge, governing society. Social Theory, Research Policy and Environmental Transition (...)

19Academic freedom has different aspects and layers. The trend toward greater institutional autonomy has reinforced international cooperation but also, more significantly, the exchange of researchers, students, and ideas beyond the radar of governments and even the control of the administration of their universities. This trend has accelerated the cumulative effects of knowledge transfer, including the negative effects of a growing standardization of research resulting in increased competition on similar priorities and topics.12 It has facilitated the formation of networks of research and joint projects beyond national interests, cultural nationalism, institutional constraints and political control. As a result, the environmental transition and its multiple impacts are becoming the epicenter of the globalization process.13 This powerful dynamic is reaching a critical moment: what is the next step? How will universities respond? Will worldwide university networks formally emerge? There would be many empty shells and bureaucratic nightmares as a result. What will probably emerge and prove manageable is a coordination (or collaboration) of large-scale science and technology policies developed in universities in association with governments, business firms and civil society at the national or regional level. The European Union research policy has institutionalized this trend and transformed it in a joint European research policy, one of the Union’s major achievements. The United States, China, Japan, Canada have also designed and implemented such comprehensive science and technology policies. Just as was the case with space programs, at a certain moment extended collaboration will start.14

  • 15 University World News on the increasing trend to control or reduce academic freedom. The current Ch (...)

20This dynamic generates suspicion of academic freedom often considered a source of disorder and tension. This self-reinforcing trend is considered a disruptive evolution for those political parties who see universities as powerful and expensive institutions under the guidance and support of governments and/or businesses. Many nationalist governments consider this trend an obstacle to their political authority and cultural identity, to the role of the nation-state. Recently various governments closed international collaboration programs on topics reputed controversial, accusing foreign or foreign-born scientists of spying activities.15 Various teaching and research programs on gender, cultural identity, minority rights, race, religion and moralityhave ignited tensions among students, faculty and administrations on campuses. Conservative and neo-authoritarian regimes are on alert. The disruption introduced by the changing role of universities is so deep there is a risk of a conservative attempt to deconstruct universities into specialized schools or institutes in response to special interests and strategic domains under the control of a new type of state apparatus. This is already promoted and undertaken by certain regimes. I am not preaching here in favour of saving the Humanities, social sciences or culture. I am attempting to explain the function and responsibility of universities in the current evolution of social economic systems which require political awareness and public understanding, further investigation and extensive debate. The challenge is to reinforce universities for them to be able to negotiate these demands without being disorganized by these constraints. Contrary to an ivory tower, autonomy is a condition for their immersion in societies and their evolutions.

  • 16 For instance, the University of California System and its ten campuses employs half a million peopl (...)

21The degree of autonomy of a university conditions the degree of freedom of the academic community, but also the power of the academic community to sustain and expand the autonomy of each university. The autonomy of an academic institution does not exist without the freedom of its members. Academic freedom defines the status, role and responsibility of professors, researchers and students as well as the administrative personnel working, studying, or even living on campuses. Relayed in the media as disturbance, this debate might concern only a minority of the population, but this minority still constitutes a large number of people with considerable cultural and social influence, and economic and political power.16 In the last decade, various media tended to explain campus disturbances as deriving from an excess of academic freedom in teaching and campus activities disrespectful of the equal rights of everyone on campus to express their opinion, as well a lack of authority, leadership and responsibility on the part of the administration and faculty. Such news coverage and reporting weaken the dynamic toward increased autonomy and are used to justify increased control by external authorities, reduced autonomy, and freedom. These disturbances exist and cannot be denied. But this intolerance and violence do not come from academic activities; they are the irruption on campus of off-campus violence. Large and famous campuses have always been an open space where the conflicts dividing societies have been expressed and debated. As will be explained in the conclusion, the meaning of academic autonomy and freedom is to offer the possibility of translating conflicts into informed debates, further research, experiments and negotiations. Universities are a knowledge-based democratic space vital for society, even more so today. The challenge is not to reduce freedom but to increase autonomy and freedom. Academic freedom does not have the same meaning and urgency for everyone, but it is a major concern for all universities, even more so in neo-authoritarian/totalitarian nations. Authoritarian governments never fully trust their professors, researchers and students, who of course in return never trust authorities.

22The conception, organization and role of universities have drastically changed since the 1980s, after the 2008 crisis and again recently with the Covid-19 lockdown and the concomitant empty campuses, on-line courses and seminars. Academic communities have changed and are changing again, are even receding. This situation partly explains a higher level of tension on campus, and among students, of anger, anxiety, and resentment. But the risk of vanishing and sense of loss have turned into a powerful nostalgia. After all academic communities are constantly changing and reinventing themselves with each generation of students and professors. Each university develops over time its own pattern of behavior, loose but real, left informal or made explicit, reinforced by certain ceremonies or rituals. This pattern of behavior strongly contributes to the collective awareness of both academic freedom and autonomy; it conditions the degree of involvement of each actor in their institution. Except in the more prestigious institutions, this issue is unfortunately grossly underestimated because it determines the daily life on campus, the will to participate or not to this institution, the meaning of academic life for the private life of each actor. With the changing role of universities, their specific culture, the patterns of behavior shared by its members, are becoming, even in France, a critical issue; an issue completely absent for academics of my generation. The history, culture and memory of each university (in all its aspects and without censorship) need now to be investigated and taken into account for a university to fulfill its function and responsibility, for its members to feel involved. It is not a question of prestige (which is scarce), but a question of daily democracy, which is rare and cannot be solved by a “general assembly” or two per year.

23In a deeper sense, a university is a community of individuals sharing at least a conception of knowledge best characterized by the idea of science as a specific cognitive attitude and a methodological requirement across disciplines. Such an idea of science is aware of its history and presuppositions, of its function and responsibility in the development of industrial societies. Its meaning and mission today are to analyze and evaluate the current world situation, and to develop the sciences and policies responding to current challenges. While the function of universities and the meaning of science have nothing to do with religion, politics or geopolitics, or with the economic sphere of interests, from the contemporary perspective of universities, religions, social problems and economic interests, political institutions and politics are not ignored. On the contrary they are strong fields of inquiry and research, of teaching and debate. Such assertions are themselves objects of research. Institutional autonomy and academic freedom today define the responsibility of universities, the pertinence of its research and teaching, its recruitment of fully qualified researchers and achievements of its students, to address problems that concern the present and future of social economic systems and ecologies. The mission and task of universities are expanding: this transition requires extending collaboration around the world, recruiting and training the best students wherever they come from, creating jobs on and off campus. It also requires developing media programs and on-line training to empower and train people to the environmental, social and economic transition.

  • 17 Revenues, health, nutrition, pollutions, access to digital communication, education and energy.

24This transition requires deep institutional, economic, and social reforms. Such reforms are incompatible with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, which consider universities, science and technology, human and social sciences, as being at the service of "society", in fact the state apparatus, the Party, and its interests. But many conservative governments (for instance in Japan) and societies adverse to change (for instance France) are also resisting or postponing such reforms. By limiting university autonomy, they delay and even distort this transformative dynamic. The objective of the above second part was to underline how academic communities have to become aware of the context in which they operate and need to intervene. They need to come forward to sustain the autonomy of their institutions, to prove the legitimacy and responsibility of their work, the meaning of science, of validated and shared knowledge. This evolution extends the role of academic freedom and gives it a new meaning and urgency. What is at stake in the current debate on academic freedom and autonomy is the global threat of climate change and the role of universities in studying this threat and its causes, predicting, and evaluating the different risks, developing and implementing adequate responses. This function, mission and responsibility of universities are slowly reconfiguring research and training. They require transnational collaboration and coordination between regional and national research and innovation policies. Finally, because environmental constraints directly harm and transform the life of people, their habitats, revenues and resources, activities developed by universities and projects are increasingly concerned more by the conditions of daily life, the organization and adaptation of social economic systems17 than economic interests and political strategies. It is not a leftist bent, just the evolution of the world.

Conclusion. Uncertainties as Opportunities

  • 18 In the sense of Jürgen Habermas, “The public sphere: an Encyclopedia article” (1964), New German Cr (...)

25Universities are a common space situated in the public space, but outside religion, political institutions, social classes, ethnic groups or family ties, and businesses of all sizes. To enter a religious space is to accept certain rules and values. To enter a company or an administration is to enter a certain type of activity, its regulations, goals, and models of rationalization. It is the same for a private family, nuclear or extended. Historically these patterns of behavior, hierarchies, spheres of influence and power have been competing and they still compete. Individuals and groups constantly circulate between these different spheres of activity; they momentarily adopt and quit their patterns of behavior and values. Constant interferences between these different spheres (including the private) constitute the public sphere and the present experience of freedom.18 Universities have become a symbolic sphere of their own. People working in this symbolic space do not forget their social class, national culture, or nationality. Universities do not solve their private or ethical concerns, economic or social problems. But people learn in universities how to translate their external differences and private problems into a question, an object of inquiry and research within the different methods and disciplines developed and taught on campuses. This translation toward research and debate, defines universities and their place in society. This art of the translation requires universities to be autonomous and its members to enjoy extended academic freedom. In historical perspective, this is quite a change. If one thinks of existing societies, modern or non-modern, it is a new type of social economic system. The current object of joint investigation and the related mission of universities are complex but clear: to respond to environmental transition by reforming epistemologies, economies and societies.

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1 Alain-Marc Rieu, “Géostratégie de la recherche et de l’innovation”, Revue Hermès, Paris, CNRS Editions, n° 50, 2008, p. 67–73 http://halshs-00360140/fr/.

2 Christopher Freeman, Technology Policy and Economic Performance: Lessons from Japan, London, Pinter, 1987.

3 L. Leydesdorff, Loet and H. Etzkowitz,, “The endless transition: A ‘Triple Helix’ of university-industry-government relations”, Minerva, vol. 36, no. 3, 1998. Mazzucato, Mariana, The entrepreneurial state. Debunking public vs private sector myths, London, Anthem Press, 2015.

4 John Aubrey Douglass, Neo-nationalism and Universities, Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021 ( This remarkable project covers a variety of cases, from the U.S., the E.U., post-Brexit UK, to China.

5 J.F. Lyotard, La condition post-moderne. Rapport sur le savoir, Paris, Editions de minuit, 1979. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986), New Delhi, Sage, 1992). This institutional mutation was considered a cultural and political phenomenon introducing new values, life styles, including the gender theory. This cultural evolution is considered progressive; but it is supposed today to explain the American neo-fascist values promoted by the Donald Trump and the Republican party.

6 Alain-Marc Rieu, Managing knowledge, governing society. Social Theory, Research Policy and Environmental Transition, London, Routledge, 2022, chapter 4.

7 Sakaiya Taichi, The knowledge-value revolution or the history of the future, Tokyo, Kodansha International, 1992. The history of the substitution principle starts before Robert Solow’s pioneering work.

8 Meadows, Donella, Meadows, Dennis, Randers, Jörgen, and Behrens, William (ed.), The Limits to Growth, A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, New York, Universe Books, 1972.

9 Studies show people being and feeling marginalized or bypassed are the majority of anti-wax, those refusing to be vaccinated, crowding hospitals and in large number fatal victims of the Covid-19 pandemic.

10 Managing knowledge, governing society. Social Theory, Research Policy and Environmental Transition (2022), chapter 4.4. “The case of contemporary China”.

11 For an overview, see Rana Foroohar, How the Financing of Colleges May Lead to Disaster!, New York Review of Books, October 13, 2016.

12 Alain-Marc Rieu, “Innovation today. Building research diversity” in Ulrich Hilpert (ed.), Diversities of Innovation, London, Routledge, 2019, pp. 69-82.

13 For instance, de Wit and Altbach, “Now is the time to get serious on the climate crisis”, University World News, 4 December 2021,, accessed 31 September 2021.

14 Managing knowledge, governing society. Social Theory, Research Policy and Environmental Transition (2022) studies these various issues.

15 University World News on the increasing trend to control or reduce academic freedom. The current Chinese government intends to replace international cooperation between universities by transnational programs negotiated between sovereign governments.

16 For instance, the University of California System and its ten campuses employs half a million people, 280 000 students and 227 000 faculty and staff. Its pension fund is the largest in the United States. In many regions, universities are a major employers and source of economic development.

17 Revenues, health, nutrition, pollutions, access to digital communication, education and energy.

18 In the sense of Jürgen Habermas, “The public sphere: an Encyclopedia article” (1964), New German Critique, n° 3 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 49-55 (on-line). This is what G. Deleuze and F. Guattari called the schizophrenic condition of contemporary industrial societies (Capitalisme et schizophrénie. L’anti Œdipe, Paris, Editions de minuit 1972).

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Alain-Marc Rieu, « Academic Freedom, Autonomy of Universities: Turning Point in the Evolution of Industrial Societies »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 16 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2021, consulté le 07 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Alain-Marc Rieu

Alain-Marc Rieu is Emeritus Professor, Department of philosophy, University of Lyon – Jean Moulin (France) and Visiting Professor, Center for Collaborative Design, Osaka University. His fields of research are contemporary philosophy and institutional epistemology. His work articulates theoretical research, case studies and comparative analysis. He studies the mutation since the 1970s of the role, conception and organization of knowledge activities in advanced industrial societies. He is also a specialist in Global Studies in human and social sciences with a focus on European Studies and modernization theory.
CV and various publications on,,
Last publication: Managing knowledge, governing society. Social theory, research policy and environmental transition, Routledge, 2022.

Alain-Marc Rieu est Professeur émérite, Faculté de philosophie, Université de Lyon-Jean Moulin et Professeur invité, Center for Collaborative Design, Osaka University. Sa recherche articule la philosophie contemporaine et l’épistémologie institutionnelle. Son travail porte sur la mutation, la conception et l’organisation des activités de connaissance depuis les années 1970. Il est aussi un spécialiste des Études globales en sciences humaines et sociales, principalement les Études européennes et la théorie de la modernisation.
CV et publications :,,
Dernière publication: Managing knowledge, governing society. Social theory, research policy and environmental transition, Routledge, 2022.

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