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Academic Freedom Under Threat in Sweden

The universities’ mission is to seek the truth. That is not possible without academic freedom.

· 10 min read
Academic Freedom Under Threat in Sweden

“You will include Judith Butler in your course.” That was announced to Erik Ringmar, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Lund University, after the September meeting of the department’s board of directors. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading the queer studies feminist Butler. It’s just that the course Ringmar teaches is primarily about the reaction to modernity at the turn of the last century, with a focus on fascism.

During earlier semesters it included a part about postmodernism, and within it Butler, but it was removed because it didn’t fit in with the rest of the course. “There is not a course committee in the world which can force me to teach Judith Butler unless I want to,” Ringmar wrote on his blog. This has led to strong protests from student activists, the board, the director of studies and the dean.

Of course, this is no great catastrophe in and of itself. It’s just a literature list, after all. But it is part of a much larger process by which academic freedom in Sweden is being circumscribed. What is happening now in the political science department at Lund University is fully sanctioned by the gender mainstreaming that the government has ordered all Swedish universities to implement (more on that later).

A Threat to Academic Freedom

The department’s goal, set by the board and approved by the academic board, is that the proportion of female authors must never fall below 40 percent of the reading lists. A course like Erik Ringmar’s—”Modern society and its critics“—which focuses on original texts from around the turn of the last century, immediately gets into trouble since fascism in the 1930s wasn’t exactly a bastion of gender equality. So Ringmar’s reading list contained too few female reactionaries for the board to be satisfied. He tried to resolve this by including anarchism as another violent political response to modernity (although it was not really the original idea of the course), and unlike female fascists, their anarchistic counterparts actually wrote a great deal. But even so, the proportion of female authors on the course’s reading list only reached 15 percent.

It wasn’t good enough, according to the board. Judith Butler had to be included.

The gender equality plan of the Faculty of Social Sciences makes it clear that teachers must include sufficient literature from gender studies. What’s currently happening to Erik Ringmar, a senior lecturer being forced to change his course, has already occurred a number of times according to the political science department’s own equality plan. The only difference is that Ringmar protested the decision. The Faculty’s Gender Equality Plan further imposes on all subordinate institutions the following: “Make an inspection of whether and how common curriculums and literature lists are being reviewed, ensuring that gender and diversity perspectives are represented in the faculty’s education.” It doesn’t stop there. According to the department’s action plan for gender equality, all teaching staff are required to take a mandatory “Gender and Diversity in Education” course, taught in the Faculty of Social Sciences.

All of this is guided by the underlying principle that it is not just about recruiting more women, it is about getting the right kind of gender perspectives which are influenced by the postmodernist and poststructuralist theories dominant within the humanities. While these perspectives may be interesting in some contexts, they are usually strongly ideological and almost always impossible to falsify.

Gender Mainstreaming

The direction to include Judith Butler on his reading list made the Director of Studies and Erik Ringmar decide to not hold the course again. Students who want to learn about the emergence of fascism at the turn of the 20th century need to apply to another university, and all this at a time when right-wing reaction is on the rise again in Europe.

This is just one example of academic freedom being traded for a specific vision of social justice, and similar processes are taking place across the country. This process is called gender mainstreaming and it threatens academic freedom at all Swedish universities.

At first glance, this doesn’t sound so bad, does it? For who is opposed to gender equality? In Sweden, only a select few. But gender mainstreaming involves much more than that. And in practice, the concept of gender equality in this context masks a much more radical and profound process.

In the appropriation directions for 2016, the government tasked all of Sweden’s universities to “develop a plan for how the institution intends to develop gender mainstreaming.” The National Secretariat for Gender Research was been given the task of leading the work. It was created by the social democratic government in 1998 to further research in sex and gender and it is led by gender studies researchers. The second in charge, Fredrik Bondestam, wrote in his dissertation about gender inequality that the gender-aware were fighting against a “privileged elite of Swedish-speaking, white, protestant heretics totally uninterested in being informed of their own structural violence.” Just the other day, when confronted by this quote, he said he still stood by it and that it had a “very beautiful wording.”

People like Bondestam are in charge of mainstreaming their gender ideology—even though their ideology is far from mainstream—if you ask regular Swedes.

A photo taken from the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research.

For their new task to gender mainstream universities, the secretariat has travelled across the country, holding lectures and workshops for administrators and teaching staff. On May 15 this year, colleges and universities submitted their plans to promote gender equality, which have been strongly influenced by the secretariat’s instructions.

While it might sound like it, gender mainstreaming is not just about tackling discrimination. Whereas anti-discrimination efforts aim to create equal opportunity for all, gender mainstreaming is about “reorganising existing activities” and “changing the power structures that give discriminatory effects.”

What power structures is this about? When you read the equality plans that the universities have written, you get the impression that Swedish universities are characterised by overt misogyny, racism, ableism, heteronormativity and other afflictions. In any event, that’s how the universities describe themselves.

At Uppsala University, ranked number 29 on the Times Higher Education (THE) list of Europe’s best universities (2017), they declare that their “goal is that as far as possible work on gender mainstreaming from an intersectional perspective.” So what does intersectionality mean? Imagine a pyramid. At the top there are white, able-bodied, heterosexual men. They are considered to have the greatest power and are therefore considered the most privileged. From this position different power structures flow and intersect. Men repress women, whites oppress non-whites, non-disabled repress disabled, and heterosexuals oppress LGBTQ-people. It might not be a conscious oppression, but nevertheless the norms created around white, able-bodied, heterosexual men are oppressive. The oppression is exerted through diffuse power structures that permeate everything we do and think. That’s the theory.

Here’s how the psychology professor Jonathan Haidt characterised the intersectionality ideology when I interviewed him a year ago:

The first thing you do when you interact with people is that you find out which category they belong to. White? That’s bad. Male? That’s bad. Straight? It’s bad. It is called intersectionality. You add privilege points based primarily on racial background, gender, and sexual orientation. Basically, it is a form of racism. It’s a form of intellectual cancer because the whole idea of universities is that we’re supposed to learn to judge each other by our ideas and words, not by what categories we happen to belong to.

Several universities report in their equality plans that they will work with ‘norm critique’. Both language and research are mainly, according to these theories, production and reproduction of power. And the purpose of research should be to show and break down this power. Therefore, norm critique is considered central, as norms are by definition power structures that oppress marginalised groups. Different power structures cooperate to marginalise and repress different groups in an intersectional way. In this framework, the purpose of research is to understand these power structures and deconstruct them in order to build a fairer world free from oppressive norms. Again, this is not a fringe phenomenon. It’s now entering the core of the universities through gender mainstreaming.

One would think that the universities would have carried out an investigation to determine the extent to which the oppressive power structures they purport to exist permeate their organisations and student bodies. (Generally, when you contend that something exists, you need to prove it). But the National Secretariat for Gender Research recommends against this.

In their feedback, those who have surveyed the situation at their own universities are mildly reprimanded: “There may be educational and knowledge benefits of making local mappings of identified problems, but generally speaking it’s not relevant to present already known structural injustices.” No further investigations are needed. The secretariat already knows what society looks like and the reasons for it.

A number of universities established that gender perspectives should be integrated into all education strands. In the Department of political science at Stockholm university it’s mandatory to include gender studies at all levels of the education and to include an equal number of female authors in the reading lists. At Malmö University, it means, among other things, that parts of the education of a specialist nurse will be earmarked for gender studies.

At the Karolinska Institute – ranked 10th in Europe according to THE – they tie themselves into knots in an attempt to make the gender scientists of the secretariat happy without violating the science of medicine at the same time. In explaining why gender perspectives must be included in the education of future physicians they state quite reasonably that “research that does not take into account differences in biology and pathology between the sexes…may affect the development of medicines and care.” Yet on the same page they also state that they aim to “incorporate more gender-conscious and/or norm-critical literature in education.” In other words, they will try to use gender studies — where gender is viewed as a social construction — while at the same time investigating biological sex differences and sex effects in medical treatment. Reconciling these two perspectives might prove challenging, to say the least.

What History Teaches Us About the Importance of Academic Freedom
This 1949 primer shows us there’s nothing new about today’s controversies about free speech on campus.

Malmö University will review the allocation of research funding so that they don’t result in “unequal consequences”. The equality here is not about giving equal opportunities. No uneven distribution between gender categories is acceptable, even though prior interests, preferences and aptitudes may differ. The heads of the departments must annually make “gender-aware and norm-critical surveys and analyses of the allocation of assignments, time and economic resources between men and women.” Everything must be gender mainstreamed: “Education plans, curricula, learning objectives, local degree goals, course guides, course literature, teaching methods and educational information are reviewed and revised based on national gender equality policy goals.”

At the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) – ranked 83rd in Europe according to THE – they have taken it one step further by setting up a special inspection body called the Equality Office, with at least three full-time positions. In addition, new faculty services have been created in the field of gender and organisation research. The work is led by the Vice Principal of Equality and Basic Values, Professor Anna Wahl, and will have its own budget. What does a vice principal of basic values even do? It brings to mind some kind of theological activity rather than a scientific activity, performed at a university.

Generally, KTH’s plan, to a very small extent, is about gender equality, and to a very large extent it is about sanctioning a theory of power structures according to intersectionality and gender studies. Furthermore, its only stated definition of an equality analysis is “about visualising the problems that arise from the fact that we divide humanity into two categories and ascribe one category more value than the other.” The conclusion is thus already done before the analysis is even made. It’s unclear how the engineers trained at KTH benefit from this. No such evaluation has been done.

Sometimes one hears that it is exaggerated how far the Swedish state’s gender equality work has gone. Or that phenomena such as norm critique and intersectionality are peripheral. This is not the case, which the gender mainstreaming of all of Sweden’s universities shows.

Is there even evidence that norm criticism and anti-prejudice training actually improve education? This question is not asked by either the Secretariat for Gender Research or by the institutions themselves. This is not about improving education. Nor is it about conducting better research. Instead of dealing with actual gender equality, in the sense of combating discrimination, a small agency like the National Secretariat of Gender Research has interpreted its mission much more broadly. All college staff must be educated in the right gender perspectives which are now renamed as “competencies.” So one is either competent or incompetent in their perspective. If you want to teach or research in a university you either you accept the directives or you don’t. So what happens next?

Illustration by Erin Bonsteel

I asked Erik Ringmar if all this was really such a bad thing. Why should university teachers not also take responsibility to try to create a socially just society?

He answered that there are a lot of problems in society that the universities can help to analyse. The best and only way to do this is to maintain the integrity of the intellectual activities that are undertaken within these institutions. I am right-wing, Erik is left-wing. But our politics should not matter. The important thing is the integrity of the academic process. If destroyed, then the core of the university is destroyed.

Control processes, budgets, allocation of research funds, reading lists, curriculums—all aspects of university life are being mainstreamed by the National Secretariat’s gender studies ideology. Meanwhile nothing has been written about it in our Swedish newspapers. The few times it’s been mentioned in the parliament, it has only been in positive terms by Social Democrats boasting about their own policies.

Why is everyone so quiet? Is it because they agree with what’s happening? Or is this deafening silence driven by fear?

The universities’ mission is to seek the truth. That is not possible without academic freedom. Right now Swedish universities are willingly turning themselves into a commissariat for a one-sided and simplistic vision of social justice. And when the search for truth and the ideology of social justice collide, which do you think is likely to win?

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