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The Academic Culture War Comes to Denmark

Denmark’s parliament has condemned campus radicals’ political agenda for “undermining scholarly inquiry.” But the mainstream use of disciplines like economics shows that scholarship has always been political — the powerful just don’t like research that challenges their interests.

Seal of the University of Copenhagen. (Jebulon / Wikimedia Commons)

In the final days of May, Denmark’s parliament passed a motion damning “excessive activism in research environments.” The text, supported not just by a unanimous right wing but also by the governing Social Democrats, expressed parliament’s “expectation that the University leadership will ensure the self-regulation of scientific practice” — meaning, “politics must not be dressed up as science, and it must not be possible to systematically avoid legitimate academic critique.” Both the motion and its sponsors’ comments insinuated that universities had been failing to live up to this responsibility — in particular when it comes to what critics (seemingly interchangeably) call gender, migration, whiteness, and postcolonial studies. 

Unsurprisingly, the text prompted a chorus of opposition from scholarly circles. Denmark’s university rectors issued a joint statement in protest, the two main scientific societies warned against political meddling, and multiple petitions have been launched against a motion perceived as an underhand attack on freedom of research.

On the face of things, both sides seem to agree on one fundamental ambition: that researchers should be able to pursue critical and scientific knowledge, as free from external political constraints as possible. But while politicians insist that they fear that identitarian currents are destroying self-regulating research communities, the academic sphere itself more or less collectively saw this as something quite different — a sinister excuse to further muffle critical research agendas.

From this standpoint, scholars saw the motion as part of a deeper trend: the shrinking tolerance of critical thinking at the universities. They identify a growing divide between disciplines that are welcomed into the space for political conversation and decision-making, and the expulsion of other academic milieus not deemed politically tolerable.

No One Wants to Be American

This motion isn’t a bolt from the blue — rather, it has been presaged by a year of increasingly agitated suspicion toward specific fields of research.

Already last September, fourteen professors signed a joint column insisting that not parliament and politicians but “identitarian” currents from the UK and United States threatened to undermine sound scientific principles and the university’s open public sphere. Much like critics of the Black Lives Matter organization being “imported” into Europe, they argued that identity politics threatens freedom of speech in the universities. If we ignore the more laughable elements of their premise — that a handful of “identitarian” students seriously threaten these professors’ freedom of expression — their anxiety also reveals the specter of Americanization that thrives on both sides of the debate. 

This also points to the irony of this latest motion. The two MPs who led the crusade — the libertarian Henrik Dahl and conservative-nationalist Morten Messerschmidt — are preoccupied with the suspicion that Danish academia is being taken over by identitarian political theories of American stamp. It is they, however, who most overtly employ strategies familiar in US politics, whether accusing one migrant researcher of being notoriously lopsided in his work on the Middle East (as compared to their own stance, that is), or promoting bad-faith blogposts trying to “unmask” gender research. 

Such a lack of discursive independence is, it could be said, a defining feature of small states like Denmark. And the current right-wing attack on migration and gender research is itself an example of this — offering a pale replica of recent French debates on “Islamo-leftism” and Jordan Peterson’s anti-feminism. 

Politicized Science

Yet the current moment in Denmark could also offer wider insights into the relationship between politics and science.

Dahl and Messerschmidt’s generalizing criticism of the Danish gender, postcolonial, and migrant studies accuses researchers of lacking political diversity among their own ranks. In essence, the charge is that academics have given up on seeking scientific truth and instead use their position to push left-wing activism. The politicians argue that this is happening because such researchers lack the self-correcting quality control that should be central to all scientific communities. 

This, in short, reveals that they believe research and politics both should and could be hermetically sealed off from each other. The Social Democratic minister for research, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, agreed with this point. She stated that, just as politicians should stay out of science, so should researchers steer clear of politics. In this view, science is about telling us how the world is and politics about working out how it ought to be — and the two should be kept separate.

Such an is/ought distinction is not new. It is also not grounded in any historical analysis of how knowledge and science actually work. Much less is it grounded in contemporary analysis of real threats to freedom of research in Denmark. 

As others in the current Danish debate have tried to make clear, freedom of research in Denmark really is under pressure — just not from identity politics. 

Firstly, there has been a series of scandals relating to funding partners dictating scientific results, highlighting universities’ perilous lack of resilience against their major financial backers. Secondly, these institutions’ lack of tenure systems and decades of top-down leadership reforms have hollowed out the research community’s autonomy. Lastly, there is a lack of proper scholarly reviewing in parts of the academic landscape, not least given the enormous and growing influence of private foundations who fund research, such as Carlsberg and Novo Nordisk. They are not subject to regulatory oversight, and do not always have anything even close to a proper refereeing system in place for assessing applications. This often leaves disproportionate power in the hands of few people.

The authors of the parliament motion seem to have thought about none of this. Rather, their concern is over a much shallower idea of what the politicization of science means — as in research minister Halsboe-Jørgensen’s ambition to keep science and politics apart.

Scientized Politics

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on what a feeble ambition this is. 

Historically, what we might call “research” was obviously “political,” and often undertaken for individual advantage. Niccolò Machiavelli probably wrote The Prince for personal benefit, John Locke wrote for the gain of his patron Lord Shaftesbury, and Immanuel Kant wrote to please the enlightened monarchy of Frederick the Great. The atomic physicists at Los Alamos, who found out how to unleash the explosive energy inside the uranium atom, wanted to beat the Axis powers and even went on to advise on which Japanese cities presented optimal targets for the bomb. Can we separate their research from their particular political allegiances? Certainly. But is their political “activism” unrelated to their arguments? Certainly not.

Much more interesting, therefore, than lambasting certain scientific communities for being “activist” is the discussion of why some research communities are so much more successful than others in gaining political attention. 

Today, research is much freer from political constraints than in most periods of human history. But as far as politics go, a handful of disciplines — most notably, economics — have simultaneously developed to become the principal advisory sciences of our time.

The blessing and curse of economics was to become the language of power and the tool kit of the state in the twentieth century. Members of this discipline perfected their role as expert advisers, always ready with a prognosis as well as ostensibly precise and objective — that is, quantitative — answers to the larger societal questions. 

In comparison, neither migration nor gender research have developed in a similar policy-friendly direction. They do not seem to have any real political traction, and even less so as these disciplines critically revise their main concepts. For example, in the minds of the politicians responsible for the motion, an expert in Middle Eastern studies who refuses to reproduce a crude, generalizing Orientalism — casting the “Middle Eastern” in certain ways — seems both useless and a potential adversary.

Broader Implications

It is obvious that research can have political implications. And so, too, that there is a need to maintain academic principles of critique and strive for politically disinterested knowledge production. Yet the research communities that seem most successful in making the political implications of their research heard, without losing the all-important scientific image of objectivity, all have something immediate to offer the powers that be. 

On the other hand, the whole university sector stands to lose a great deal should the current efforts to create doubt around critical researchers and whole scholarly communities enjoy further success. The motion comes on top of government plans to make further cuts in higher education and limit university admissions in the four largest cities — hamstringing their further development. It seems that, in the current political environment, there is very little appetite in the political mainstream for defending the universities. 

The two largest parties, the Social Democrats and the liberal Venstre, have transformed in recent years, turning from the globalist language of building a “knowledge society” toward various avowedly anti-elitist positions, which in this case means an uncompromising identification with the country’s ethnic and social majority. In a broader picture, this could help explain these parties’ support for the motion — or at least their lack of willingness to defend the particular research communities under attack. Indeed, for all the talk of elitism, these disciplines only seem to have one thing in common: they are associated with investigating marginalized people and historic injustices.