Academic Freedom Is a Public Trust

Steve Balch

Acceptance Remarks: 2009 Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award


It is a great honor to receive this award.

Jeane Kirkpatrick was a courageous and eloquent champion of freedom in the university and throughout the world. As generally happens, she paid a price for that heroism:  having her own freedoms challenged by homegrown totalitarians.

The institution from which I received my advanced degrees, the University of California, world-class in so many respects, has among its indelible shames the abuse Dr. Kirkpatrick received when she delivered an address on its campus in 1983, the first of a number of prominent speakers to get this treatment including conservatives like Clarence Pendleton and Benjamin Netanyahu, and not-so-conservatives such as Madeleine Albright and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Dr. Kirkpatrick fought back, completing her address at Berkeley, even above the howling din. She also fought back by becoming a founding member of the advisory board of the National Association of Scholars, and the keynote speaker at our first national conference in 1988. In so doing she made a huge contribution to establishing the NAS as a major player in the debate then rising over what came to called “political correctness”.  I and my organization will always remain deeply in her debt. 

The award it’s my privilege to receive is about academic freedom and its defense, so indulge me in a remark or two about this misunderstood concept.

Academic freedom is universally imagined to be something belonging to academics. This is a profound mistake. Academic freedom belongs to the people of America, who, through a variety of corporate bodies ranging from legislatures to boards of trustees, bestow it upon university and college faculties. Unlike the freedom of speech, academic freedom has no title to being a natural right. Nor, despite some judicial meanderings, does it properly fit within the Constitution.

Academic freedom is neither a natural nor a constitutional right, because it doesn’t solely pertain to individual conscience or agency. It involves instead an authority that employs other people’s resources –students, taxpayers, and donors, and it is exercised in particular institutional settings for particular institutional purposes. The fiduciaries of students, taxpayers, and donors – legislators and trustees – confer it upon academics for the pursuit of specific intellectual goals, namely the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge – “truth” if you’ll allow me the use of what is, academically speaking, often regarded as a naïve term.           

Now if you boil this academic freedom down to its essence, what do you find? That it consists of something extraordinary. Academic freedom gives professors what no other professional group, however expert, enjoys. It gives them freedom from oversight by those to whom they would in every other case be accountable, the representatives of the people who pay their bills. No one else working within an institution has this immunity, be he a soldier, a doctor, a scientist, an engineer, or whatever. Well-run institutions understand that they mustn’t micromanage, but all expect to be able to direct, evaluate, and correct the activities of the professionals who work for them. None could function otherwise. Universities are the great exception.

So why have professors been given this unparalleled license? It was originally part of a deal whose terms have, unfortunately, been largely forgotten. But the deal had a code name that, once uttered, will bring those terms back into the clear light of day: “science”!

When the organization that today purports to be academic freedom’s chief defender, the American Association of University Professors, was founded back in 1915, it made absolutely no bones about the nature of this deal. Its founding statement asserted that “the claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest of the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim”. What did this mean specifically? In the words of statement, nothing less than that the professor should:

1.)    “Gain his conclusions through competent, patient, and sincere inquiry”

2.)     Set them forth with “dignity, courtesy and temperateness of language”

3.)    In dealing with controversial matters, “set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators” and

4.)    “not… provide students with ready-made conclusions, but… train them to think for themselves”.

In other words, without methodological rigor, disinterestedness, objectivity, sobriety, intellectual respect, and the repudiation of anything suggestive of indoctrination no deal would exist, no academic freedom obtain. The first champions of academic freedom appealed to the public’s recognition of science’s unique and awesome powers to better man’s estate, and asked to be left alone so long, and only so long, as they pursued their work, whatever its subject matter, in the spirit of science.

That was 1915. Where are we now?

We’re now in a world

where professors of literature commonly set themselves up as social theorists to expose America’s alleged racial and sexual inequities – so much for competence;

where fields like social work have preordained conclusions about the questions they research and teach – so much for sincere inquiry;

where eighty-eight Duke professors rushed to judgment about presumed innocent, in fact innocent, university students on the basis of racial stereotyping – so much for dignity, courtesy, and temperateness; and

where academic programs openly proclaim themselves as instruments of advocacy and activism – so much for divergent opinions and thinking for oneself.

And what do the representatives of academe have to say about all of this when questions are raised by the public? They say it all falls under academic freedom. They say each field must be left to determine its own standards. They cry McCarthyism. They say, in the words of one of their leading lights, Stanley Fish, “your opinions aren’t worth listening to”.     

When they say these things, how should the public reply? It should remind the professoriate that it has academic freedom on loan. It should remind public university faculties that there is no taxation without representation, and that if they are not accountable for their scholarly opinions, they are certainly accountable for their academic principles. It should insist that the spokesmen for American higher education place the interests of scholarship above the interests of scholars, and not content themselves with being the mouthpieces for one more self-serving group. It should demand of the lead organizations of academic life, most especially the American Association of University Professors, that they reaffirm that academic freedom is conditional, and that the conditions are nothing less than scholarship and teaching of rigor, probity, and disinterestedness. And it should let the entire academic community know that it will continue to be watched closely –that the price of academic freedom is eternal vigilance by all concerned, within academe and without.

Only when higher education knows its conduct is being watched and measured, that adherence to its principles is taken seriously by the general public, and that its immunities depend upon the public’s confidence, will it regain the willpower to live up to its demanding ideals.

Image: U.S. Capitol at night by Adam Fagen // CC BY-NC-SA

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