Academic Freedom and Advocacy

Ashley Thorne

Over at NAS.org, we've got a nice debate going between NAS and University of Alaska Professor Richard Steiner. After I wrote about him in "Sustainability Skepticism Has Arrived," I contacted Professor Steiner to let him know about the article. He subsequently wrote to the University's president Mark Hamilton to challenge him to a debate over academic freedom:

President Hamilton – Given recent circumstances, I would like to invite you to debate with me, openly and publicly, re: the issue of academic freedom, and the influence of corporate donations to the university. You have said many things in support of academic freedom over the years, but when push came to shove in my case, you made a decision in opposition to free speech. In 2002, you received an award for your support of academic freedom from a group calling itself the “National Association of Scholars”, who it turns out, actually opposes sustainability movements on today’s college campuses. They say that sustainability is “deceptive, coercive, closed-minded, a pseudo-religion, distorts higher education, shrinks freedom, programs people, is anti-rational, by-passes faculty, and is wasteful.” This group apparently supports free speech only when they agree with what is spoken, and opposes it when they disagree with what is spoken. Apparently this is your position as well. That you chose to accept an award fro this group calls into serious question the progressive character of the University of Alaska. All of this is an extremely serious transgression of the very role a university is supposed to fulfill in civil society. I look forward to your reply, and to debating this issue publicly and honestly. Sincerely, Rick Steiner, Professor

His challenge to President Hamilton, as well as his response to NAS which we posted unedited on our website, called into question our dedication to academic freedom. NAS president Peter Wood responded here. He wrote:

And, yes, we support the right of Professor Steiner to speak his mind about sustainability, but his academic freedom gives him no follow-on right to accept public funding under false pretenses.  Sometimes we have to make choices.  Taking money for scientific investigation and then using it to fund political advocacy isn’t an exercise in academic freedom.  It is, at best, an act of deviousness.  It sounds to me like a form of academic dishonesty, not an act of academic freedom.  But let me hold that criticism in abeyance.  If Professor Steiner can defend his actions without twisting the terms of academic freedom into self-serving knots, let him do so. 

We hope this exchange will open up the doors of debate over the role of advocacy in higher education and the true meaning of academic freedom.

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