Happy Book Birthday to Dirty Knowledge

Book Birthdays celebrate one year of a book’s life in tweets, reviews, and more. This month we’re saying Happy First Book Birthday to Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism (Nebraska, 2022) by Julia Schleck.

About the Book:

Dirty Knowledge explores the failure of traditional conceptions of academic freedom in the age of neoliberalism. While examining and rejecting the increasing tendency to view academic freedom as a form of free speech, Julia Schleck highlights the problem of basing academic freedom on employment protections like tenure at a time when such protections are being actively eliminated through neoliberalism’s preference for gig labor. The argument traditionally made for such protections is that they help produce knowledge “for the public good” through the protected isolation of the Ivory Tower, where “pure” knowledge is sought and disseminated.

In contrast, Dirty Knowledge insists that academic knowledge production is and has always been “dirty,” deeply involved in the debates of its time and increasingly permeated by outside interests whose financial and material support provides some research programs with significant advantages over others. Schleck argues for a new vision of the university’s role in society as one of the most important forums for contending views of what exactly constitutes a societal “good,” warning that the intellectual monoculture encouraged by neoliberalism poses a serious danger to our collective futures and insisting on deliberate, material support for faculty research and teaching that runs counter to neoliberal values.

A Word from the Author:

It’s been a banner year for attacks on tenure and the academic freedom it was designed to protect. Since Dirty Knowledge was published a year ago, lawmakers in Florida, Texas, Iowa, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have all pushed to end tenure in their state institutions. They are following up on arguably successful efforts by regents in Georgia and Kansas to do just that.

It’s no secret that many politicians, particularly those on the right, dislike tenure. They’ve been loudly voicing that opinion for decades. What’s been striking to me this year is that some of the recent attacks on tenure have come from politicians and trustees who stridently insist upon their support for tenure and academic freedom even as they fire tenured faculty “at will”, without cause.

This points to a serious difference in understanding on what exactly tenure and academic freedom are, and what they’re supposed to do for society.

A Kansas regent recently asserted “[t]enure was put in place to ensure academic freedom, which the Board highly values, and handcuffing a university’s ability to ensure financial strength in the name of tenure is counter to its purpose.” Traditional understandings of the purpose of the university tie it irrevocably to tenure and the academic freedom it protects. So this begs the question: what is the purpose of a university when tenure and academic freedom can be suspended, ignored, and, as is happening across the country, virtually phased out?

Clearly, higher education is experiencing serious mission confusion. Until we figure out as a society what we feel the purpose of universities should be going forward, the confusion – and the widespread attacks – will continue.

In response to these attacks, faculty groups have insisted ever more forcefully that universities “serve the common good”. But what exactly is that good and who gets to define it? I argue in Dirty Knowledge that those who wish to preserve academic freedom at US universities should invite everyone to make a case for the good that higher education provides (or could provide) our communities, including how it benefits large enough groups of people – including those without college degrees – to be considered a “common” or “public” good.

I have my own strong opinions on the ways (some) university work is good for our society (and how some of it is not). I’d love to debate them. How about you? Comments are open.


“Beyond the tired arguments about politics and scholarship that the two other books under consideration here engage but cannot escape, Dirty Knowledge takes us to an imagined alternative that seems to me more promising precisely because, without offering a moral-political endorsement of any given political position, it knows that irreducibly political contests are indeed the terrain of the university.”— Joan W. Scott, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“In Dirty Knowledge Julia Schleck shows how the conflation of academic freedom with freedom of speech erodes the academic nature of academic freedom and serves the atomizing purposes of neoliberalism; she also shows how the casualization of the academic workforce undermines academic freedom altogether. This is one of the very few books on academic freedom that ties the concept to the economic conditions of the profession—and one of the very few books on neoliberalism in the university that treats ‘neoliberalism’ as a coherent body of belief rather than as an all-purpose epithet. Required reading for anyone interested in the future of academic freedom and the future of the academy.”—Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University

“Julia Schleck’s Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism mounts a creative and spirited defense of a particular theory of academic freedom…” —Diane Kemker, Academe

Dirty Knowledge is a concise and precise argument for the idea that sustainable labor practices within the university are an essential precondition for the maintenance of academic freedom, and that the maintenance of academic freedom is an essential precondition for the ability of universities to fulfill their social tasks. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of universities and society.” — Michael Meranze, Los Angeles Review of Books



Schleck in conversation with the editors of the Lincoln Journal Star

A lecture based off of Dirty Knowledge in the CAS Inquire talk for the theme “Searching for Common Ground in a Polarized World”

Coutner Provocation, “A Greenhouse of Dirty Knowledge” by Rachel Ida Buff

Counter Provocation, “University Control or, Conditions and Tendencies” by Samuel Cohen

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