The University As Infrastructure of Becoming: Re-Activating Academic Freedom Through Humility in Times of Radical Uncertainty

By Nicolas Zehner

Higher education institutions (HEIs) matter. As key knowledge-making infrastructures of the 21st century, they sit at the nexus of knowledge and power. They educate large proportions of the future workforce, host a wide range of research activities, own real estate across cities and regions, employ thousands of people, make their expertise available to wider sections of society and preserve knowledges of the past (Frank and Meyer 2020; Berman 2012). The Covid-19 pandemic provides a case in point for the central role of universities in shaping societies. Whether in developing life-saving vaccines, legitimising the use and adoption of technologies or mediating between key policy-makers, HEIs illustrate highly intriguing prisms for investigating the intricate interplay of science, technology and society.

Universities come in different shapes and forms, advancing different configurations of the three key missions of teaching, research and innovation. Some mark themselves as globally networked, entrepreneurial institutions driving innovation-based economic growth, while others adhere to more traditional notions such as the ‘ivory tower’ and perceive themselves as autonomous bodies ‘of self-governing professionals, accountable to and monitored by itself’ (Baert and Shipman 2005, 159). In our paper, my co-author Francisco Durán del Fierro and I propose a different understanding of HEIs that departs from traditional ideal types. We suggest viewing universities as infrastructures of becoming – i.e., socio-material spaces that are ontologically multiple and come to life by the complex interplay of epistemic practices, technological development, data circulation and scholarly context. By focusing on becoming, we suggest that these forces contain the possibility to become otherwise.

Interestingly, our academic home – the field of science and technology studies (STS) – has often neglected the university as a relevant object of research (Sørensen and Traweek 2021; Kaldewey 2023). Since the 1970s, the focus has mainly been on the laboratory as the central site of scientific knowledge production and technological development. Ethnographically exploring the process of knowledge construction, scholars in the sub-field of laboratory studies such as Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar or Karin Knorr-Cetina have presented detailed analyses on how scientific ‘facts’ are made and what role non-human agents play in aligning the ‘scientific’ and the ‘non-scientific’. While providing extremely rich methodological and analytical insights on the world-making power of science and technology and building the foundation of actor-network theory, the university – the very context in which laboratories themselves are embedded – has been largely neglected as a relevant object of research and analytical category.

Instead, other academic fields – most notably the multidisciplinary field of higher education studies (HEIS) – have focused explicitly on the university as a relevant agent in the social organization of knowledge. Rather than exploring science as practice and culture, higher education researchers have conceptualised universities predominantly as formal organisations. Concepts such as Slaughter’s and Leslie’s (1997) ‘academic capitalism’ or Gibbons et al.’s (1994) ‘mode 2’ trace the increasingly applied, entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary nature of academic work and reflect on underlying recalibrations between science and society. More recently, scholars have introduced the notion of the ‘civic university’ in order to describe an organisation that places its research and education in the service of the community (Goddard, Kempton, and Vallance 2012). Crucially, what is missing from these accounts, however, is an examination of universities as highly complex, concrete and materialised places with multiple actors, diverse interests and practices of critique (Durán del Fierro 2023) that produce a strong internal logic of their own.

In our paper, we argue for re-introducing the university as a relevant category and object of analysis into STS by interrogating the relationship between epistemic culture and organisational context. Doing so, we explore academic freedom as a specific form of negative liberty and simultaneously as ‘a specific institutionalized version of positive liberty’ (Fuller 2023, 39) that allows us to link culture and structure. Advancing this line of argumentation, we make three analytical moves. First, we revisit ‘academic freedom’ as the fundamental condition of knowledge production that permeates disciplinary and organisational boundaries. Second, we introduce the notion of ‘humility’ in order to reactivate academic freedom. Third, we argue that practicing humility leads to enacting the university as an ‘infrastructure of becoming’, thereby enriching our understanding of universities as distinct and highly complex social spaces with a logic of their own.

Conceptualising the university as an ‘infrastructure of becoming’, this paper brings STS and HEIS into conversation by acknowledging the co-productionist relationship between scientific communities and organisational context. More generally, we aspire to start a conversation on the role of HEIs in the 21st century. There are a range of questions emerging from the conceptual analysis laid out in the paper: Can institutional protocols capture epistemic virtues like humility? What novel forms of public accountability can emerge from exploring the university as an infrastructure of becoming? What would happen if universities told public stories that acknowledged the contingency of knowledge production thereby challenging the “politics of certainty”?


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Berman, Elizabeth Popp. 2012. Creating the Market University. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Durán del Fierro, Francisco (2023) “On the possibility of a public regime in higher education: rethinking normative principles and policy frameworks”, Critical Studies in Education, Vol. 64, Issue 2.

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Slaughter, Sheila, and Larry L. Leslie. 1997. Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

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Dr Nicolas Zehner is a postdoctoral researcher at the Collaborative Research Center 1265 “Re-Figuration of Spaces” at Technical University Berlin, as well as associated researcher at Weizenbaum Institute. Nicolas holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Edinburgh. His research investigates the co-constitutive relationship between scientific knowledge production and urban development with a particular focus on higher education institutions.