Recent Challenges to Academic Freedom in Musicology


External engagement 1: Industry and Institutions

Here I refer to the situation whereby academics enter partnerships with external institutions and bodies, which may be part of the commercial music industry, or may be state-supported or partially state-supported. These partnerships may relate to research, teaching or both. In particular, I have in mind the situation in which the external institutions provide some financial support for these activities. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there may also be no such thing as a free teaching or research grant. For such institutions to ask that their finance or other support entails concentration on certain areas is fair and to be expected. But what if the results are not necessarily what the external body wishes to hear?

The point may be made most clearly through reference to wider examples. Suppose that some major manufacturing corporation sponsors some research into the effects of types of manufacturing upon the environment. Perhaps the researchers in question may find their work leads them to the inexorable conclusion that this specific corporation are responsible for a range of environmentally damaging actions during their regular activities, contrary to their own promotional material which argues that they are an environmentally friendly corporation, also drawing attention to the fact that they sponsor this research in order to bolster such a claim. If the researchers felt under pressure to artificially modify or not publish their findings, for fear of not upsetting the corporation, this would in my view severely compromise academic freedom and integrity.

Another example which relates to some of my own research has to do with the Siemens Corporation. Siemens operated slave labour camps at Auschwitz, exploiting tens of thousands of people. In the post-war era, they spent a good deal of time trying to modify their public image to be associated with a form of modernity which was presented as in opposition to the values of Nazi Germany. This included support for aspects of contemporary and avant-garde culture, including new music – they financed a short-lived electronic music studio in Munich at the end of the 1950s, at which a range of important works by leading composers were produced. But at the same time, they spent 30 years fighting compensation claims from survivors of their camps, ending up with rather measly settlements in the early 1970s. Now they have a range of official histories and publications. Realising they could not entirely erase their Third Reich history, this does get mentioned, but generally very briefly or even just in footnotes. Here I feel the ‘official’ research sponsored by the corporation is compromised and stands in stark contrast to other brilliant work done by other types of academics. To this day the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung, set up by the former Chairman of the Supervisor Board, who played a major part in reworking the corporation after World War Two, is a major sponsor of new music. At least indirectly, the financial wherewithal which enables this cannot be separated from the actions of Siemens before 1945, and for this reason the composer Mathias Spahlinger very publicly refused any involvement with them. But I know of plenty in new music who have connections, not always in full awareness of Siemens’ dark history, and generally many shy away from thinking about the implications of all of this. This even includes some who are sharply critical of other institutions or practices which are linked to historic figures linked to the slave trade. Here again I worry about a particular form of sponsorship leading at least to self-censorship on the part of practitioners looking to win favour with the Siemens Stiftung.

The stakes are not often this high in musicology, but the principles remain the same.

There needs to be some commonly agreed set of principles which become a basic prerequisite for academics entering some partnership with an external institution, whereby they are free to follow where their research leads them without fear of the institution blocking their access or terminating the partnership prematurely, and also so that future partnerships will not discriminate against those who may have written critically about the institution in the past.

External engagement 2: Practitioners

This relates to concerns explored in some depth in the conference on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’ at the University of Surrey in 2017, organised by Christopher Wiley and myself, and in a specifically musical context will feature in our forthcoming book Writing about Contemporary Musicians: Promotion, Advocacy, Disinterest, Censure.

First of all, what happens when academics are dealing with living or recently living practitioners or their estates – composers, performers, critics, promoters, and so on? Or if they have strong external connections with some of these people beyond academia? How free can they feel to write and research these independently, at least considering perspectives on them and their work which may not necessarily coincide with their own self-presentation, that of their publishers, and so on?

Is the role of academics to be ‘advocates’ for these figures, or is it the case, as I believe, that a too strong application of this principle (as opposed to simply researching things to which one is sympathetic, which is a different matter) can easily result in hagiographic treatment? How do academics maintain critical independence without the fear of being frozen out of some of these people’s circles, their materials, and so on, certainly something I know some scholars have experienced when writing even mildly critical things about some very sensitive composers. I have certainly felt the pressure when writing about a range of living composers whose work I also play, and to some extent upon whom I rely upon for some good favour, writing new works for me, recommending me to festivals to play their work, and so on. I am still not sure whether these positions are reconcilable.

One of the factors afflicting a fair amount of writing on new music, in my view, is a failure to consider this. As I have written about in the case of writings by Lois Fitch on Brian Ferneyhough and Pirkko Moisala on Kaija Saariaho, a position of defensive advocacy, coupled to attempts to pathologise any who disagree with a 100% favourable view, leads to something more akin to promotional material than more sober scholarly work.

Cambridge Professor of Music Marina Frolova-Walker recently framed this to me, in a way which I have written about in a blog post. She said that practitioners deal with ‘advocacy’, while musicologists with ‘criticism’. Even if one thinks the dichotomy is less stark, it should be clear how these are very different values, and both play a part in the wider culture of music and musical discourse.

And then of course there are plenty of practitioners themselves active within academic music departments. Whilst some are engaged in the type of more dispassionate scholarship characteristic of the humanities – and I would like to count myself in that category – in other cases the work is of a different nature, framing practice in terms of research questions and context, and with the use of verbal material essentially to articulate the ways in which it qualifies ‘as research’. Sometimes this is virtually indistinguishable from the ‘artists’ statements’ well-known in the art world – drawing upon a range of elevated philosophers and intellectuals, and much terminology associated with them, in ways which appear essentially to bolster their work’s intellectual credentials.

Musical and other artistic practitioners frequently have external careers, working in an alternative economy in which critical thinking is by no means necessarily respected or admired. Sometimes simply saying the right thing to the right people, those in positions of power able to do favours, and not questioning all sorts of dominant ideologies operative in these circles, is a much better bet than asking more difficult questions. This can lead to a situation which I conceive as ‘two cultures’ of scholars and practitioners in terms of the attitude and approaches they take. The more music in universities revolves around practice and practitioners, as is increasingly the case especially in this country, the more worries I have about the possibility of maintaining a culture of academic freedom and independence.

These issues do, for sure, also apply to those who, as I do, seek to write in non-academic arenas about music, for various reasons, not least because of the differing role that value judgement might play therein. But I think it is possible to differentiate between academic and other writing and not confuse the two. I am much less sure of where the distinction lies with non-written forms of practice.

I am genuinely unsure of what a proposed way forward might be in this respect but would welcome any thoughts from others.

In both these cases, I do feel the need to say something about some ethnographic treatments of musical institutions and practitioners. There is a tradition of ethnographic work undertaken by scholars from the developed world relating to those from less privileged regions, leading to some reticence when it comes to questioning the views of the subjects, in full knowledge of the unequal power dynamic involved. But when this attitude is transferred to ‘ethnography at home’, the result can amount, if not quite to hagiography (though that is certainly possible), then to a type of writing which amounts more to data collection than critical analysis. Of course it is the prerogative of an academic to take this approach if they feel it is appropriate, but I do question whether baggage inherited through post-colonial guilt, but applied in a non-colonial context, leads to self-censorship which is so often a factor in limiting academic freedom.

Top-down demands by institutions.

This concern is by no means specific to music. In any institutions with a degree of central control of teaching and research, individual academics may find themselves in conflict with the explicit demands or requirements of their department, school, or whole university. Some may try to dictate the contents of curricula or require academics to fashion teaching in general towards generalised criteria of employability. In other cases, support and internal funding for research may rely upon its falling within certain areas, which may be fair enough, but could also require the employment of certain methods which themselves might be more likely to produce certain types of results.

These factors might affect the extent to which teaching can realistically focus on critical perspectives upon the music industry or music institutions for which students might be looking to work.

Elsewhere, policies relating to diversity or ‘decolonisation’ might dictate musical choices or approaches to their teaching, at worst precluding critical treatment of certain types of music and musicians, and conversely requiring only negative or pejorative views of others. It is notable in my experience that some who are ferociously defensive of their independence in other contexts can also be supportive of top-down policies in these respects.

But I believe it is important to resist these as far as possible and insist on maximum independence right down to singular academics when it comes to teaching and research. It is fair that departments need to require that certain things are taught as part of a programme, but the approach to so doing should be left to the individual academic as far as possible. In this respect I have a lot of sympathy with the 2021 Higher Education Bill [at the time of this talk being placed online, this is now the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023].

Departmental ‘branding’

Different academics, sometimes of very different or opposing views, work together in departments. A further concern in terms of academic freedom has to do with pressures to conform with prevailing orthodoxies within a department, not questioning these or colleagues who propagate them, to maintain a consistent ‘brand’ for a department which is competing with others for students.

Sometimes the term employed here to put pressures on individual academics is ‘collegiality’, understood as working within a set of parameters, not markedly questioning them in ways which are incompatible with a group view. But this is not consistent with what I think is a decent definition provided in the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (1997) document:

The   principles   of   collegiality   include   academic   freedom, shared responsibility, the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision-making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and their related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large (UNESCO 1997, VI. 32).

All of this is entirely compatible with permitting academics to work without feeling pressure to conform or fashion their work in line with some ‘majority view’ in their department, and I think this is also essential.

Need to concentrate work in particular fields.

This is a huge issue in music. Securing academic jobs depends a good deal on one’s particular field and the job opportunities available. In the UK, fewer than 20% of students take traditional BMus or BA courses with a humanities approach which includes historical, analytical, critical and other types of musicology. The remainder take courses in musical theatre, music technology, popular music to a lesser extent, and certain types of musical performance, all of which are primarily vocationally oriented. As a result, the openings for historical musicologists (especially those working on early music), music analysts, and indeed ethnomusicologists working on the non-Western world are limited. Even those already holding university positions can come under pressure to shift in certain directions in light of changing provision, and some have encountered redundancies as a result. In some contexts, a more critical view of the music industry compared to some presentations of it as a model of diversity and inclusivity may create problems for the individual academics if they are seeking work in institutions wedded to such a view.

Here I would look back to the Humboldt model (see the Annex) and make what now seems a radical suggestion, which is that appointments should be administered centrally by the state rather than individual institutions, to ensure a fair distribution and representation of plural areas of teaching and research. Individual departments may recruit ‘in their own image’, and this can have the effect of shutting out openings for academics who once again do not fit with the dominant ‘brand’.

Social Justice

Here I have in mind the view put forward by William Cheng, in his 2016 book Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), which to my dismay has received positive endorsement from a range of leading musicologists, though others, not least Peter Tregear (Review Article of William Cheng, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good’, Musicology Australia, vol. 40, no. 2 (2018), pp. 147-154), have written very critically about this. Cheng is dismissive of academic freedom and even of ‘the belief that academics have a right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination’. In place of this he advocates a musicology which he says, ‘upholds interpersonal care as a core feature’. This is hardly compatible with Cheng’s own dismissive remarks about other musicologists and musicology but is part of a certain view of ‘social justice’ musicology – it requires that researchers comply with an unyielding political agenda and fashion their work towards this. I believe this underlies most musicology linked to the term ‘social justice’, seemingly innocuous, but in reality, anything but. This applies to a recent position advertised at the University of Southampton Music Department which included ‘social justice’ in the job title. I do not see the difference between this and advertising a position in ‘Music and Support for Jeremy Corbyn’, ‘Musicology and Brexit Advocacy’, and so on. Everything about the view of Cheng and others reminds me strongly of the dictates operative in the Soviet Union, in which academics and artists found themselves under strong pressure to propagate particular political ideologies, or find themselves facing censure, termination or worse under anti-‘formalism’ campaigns and the like.

This should be utterly unacceptable to anyone concerned about academic freedom, and I would go so far as to say that I would distrust the integrity of any work associated with that of Cheng or his acolytes, or decision-making (including peer review) in which they are involved.


A new study conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute, “You can’t say that!” What students really think of free speech on campus (June 2022) suggests that very significant numbers of UK students prioritise what they regard as demands for safety and protection from discrimination over free speech, wish to place issues such as sexism and racism outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate, would limit expression of views which offend certain religious groups, and so on.

We hear in many places about the vital role of students as ‘consumers’ who make the activities of universities possible, definitively placing teaching rather than research at the centre of their activities. The pressure on institutions to respond to demands from these ‘consumers’ can be intense, and it is by no means guaranteed that they will always act to protect the freedoms of academics in the face of student pressure.

Here I think we do need statutory measures implemented and enforced by the state, and also welcome some of the proposals in the 2021 act for this reason. For students to be able to hound out academics because they do not like some of what they have to say (as opposed to illegal activity or other things which transgress the inevitable constraints on free speech which need to be enforced by law) is to produce a culture more reminiscent of Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.

While formal disciplinary mechanisms precluding academic freedom in the Western world may not be that extensive, there are other pressures which can lead to self-censorship. These include increasingly precarious employment. In the UK there is no tenure system, and – as we are witnessing in other areas of the arts and humanities at present – academics can find themselves dispensable.

Some on the left often advocate for silencing of those they deem racist, transphobic, etc., but are highly defensive when others are accused of antisemitism (or when those associated with trans politics are accused of misogyny). Some on the right focus on antisemitism, advocacy of views they associate with terrorism, but are more defensive with the other things. I believe that only in very blatant and explicit cases should any of these be used as a justification for limiting academic freedom. Anti-Zionists and gender-critical feminists should not feel that their view is illegitimate in academia.

Musicology should be free to be critical – indeed musicology should, even must, remain a presence in academic departments, maybe in all of them. All academics must be free to follow where their research and convictions take them, even if their conclusions are not what their institutions, external partners, or colleagues want to hear. To fashion one’s work according to the demands of any of these is another fundamental betrayal of academic freedom.

(Photo Credit: Julia Vash, of Ian Pace, Kiev, 2015)

About the author

Ian Pace is an internationally-renowned pianist, musicologist and writer on musical, cultural and educational issues. As a pianist he has premiered over 300 works, recorded over 40 CDs and performed in 25 countries, with a focus on avant-garde music. He is professor of Music at City, University of London, where he has worked for over 13 years. Ian sits on the AFAF advisory board and is a co-founder of the City University AFAF branch.

(The Annex follows on page three)

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