Academic Freedom Forum

Peter Wood

Congratulations to Minding the Campus for its forum on academic freedom.  Saying something constructive about academic freedom doesn’t look all that difficult.  It is one of the core doctrines of higher education.  It has an abundant history, full of colorful characters, eloquent declarations, incisive legal arguments, and enlivening controversies.  Yet somehow University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer managed to turn these ingredients into rhetorical sludge and draw disdain from left, right, and middle. Peter Sacks faults Zimmer for hypocrisy.  Zimmer promotes the principle of academic freedom the way The Museum of Modern Art promotes a niftily designed egg-beater: as something to gaze at under glass, not as a tool for frothing eggs.  Academic freedom in actual use, says Sacks, is just a pretext for private universities to remain exclusive.

O’Connor and Black spot the Big Silence in Zimmer’s account of academic freedom: he says nothing about the duties that faculty members must shoulder if they assume the “right” to academic freedom.  High on that list of duties is the need for disciplines to enforce tough professional ethics.  Because these days that enforcement has withered, academic freedom in the true sense is pretty much a dead letter—just another rationale for privileged people to do whatever the hell they want.

Adam Kissel, a close of observer of the University of Chicago, calls Zimmer out for his vapid claims about the university remaining studiously above political advocacy, while in fact it is awash in a Lake Michigan-sized commitment to leftist orthodoxies.  U Chicago promotes “diversity, civility, and equity” to the point of threatening literally to “punish” anyone who dissents.  The University is speech-coded, bias-response-teamed, feminist-missionized, and sustainabullied to the hilt.  We have to guess that these matters seem to Zimmer of no ideological weight at all.  They are just the wholesome stuff of contemporary “liberal” education.

My friend John Wilson, a man of the left with a sharp eye for suppressio veri catches Zimmer on several inconvenient facts about The University of Chicago’s rough handling of several socialist professors in years past, as well as student dissenters.

And Candace de Russy (my board member) faults Zimmer on the opposite shore:  he is so meek an advocate of academic freedom that he offers not a peep of criticism of those ideologues among the faculty who, claiming the mantle of academic freedom for themselves, ride roughshod over everyone else’s. 

What more is there to say?  As Candace puts it, Zimmer’s tone is “lofty.”  But his writing is, well, creaky.  Get the man a copy of Strunk & White, or Fowler. 

As to the substance of his speech, all that I would add this to the comments already posted is that while academic freedom is of great value, it is still possible to blur its value by overstatement.  Zimmer puts the value of academic freedom so high that it teeters in existential peril.   Academic freedom, in his view, is the pivot of everything valuable in higher education.  Dealing with “societal, scientific, and humanistic issues,” “the ability to investigate, invent, and give account,” “rigorous and intense inquiry as the highest value” (at least at Chicago), and so on.   Well, academic freedom is a very good thing, but other things matter too in higher education—things such as the pursuit of truth, integrity in research, genuine care for the welfare and educational prospects of students, and respect for freedoms besides academic freedom.   


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