The National Association of Scholars is pleased to offer Charting Academic Freedom: 103 Years of Debate. What follows is our chart of fourteen major statements on academic freedom, broken down into 25 categories. The sudden increase in statements on academic freedom clearly is a reflex of new worries and concerns. We believe that our chart will be of value to those who are wrestling with these issues.
We learn from this IHE piece that Harvard economist Subramanian Swamy was apparently pretty distressed by last summer's hotel bombing in Mumbai, India by Muslim extremists. Swamy gave full vent to his feelings in a lengthy op ed piece there, arguing that Muslim terrorists were his native land's most pressing security problem. Shortly thereafter, he was in big trouble at Harvard where a group of Muslim students took offense and demanded that the university terminate his employment immediately. That didn't happen, but his faculty colleagues did an end-around by removing Swamy from the two courses he was slated to teach in the summer session for 2012. So: he hasn't been sacked, but he can't teach at Harvard either. His views, as one administrator termed them, are "destructive." I'll certainly grant you that they're controversial, but also well within the limits of controversy that an academic institution ought to be able to tolerate. It's good to see that many commenters in the response thread agree.
Do you teach at a "caring" college where Students Come First? Apparently, Valdosta State University in Georgia is one such, and recently demonstrated how they deal with professors who don't care, as this IHE piece reports. Not only was this fellow sacked, he was also brought up on battery charges, for which he was acquitted. So what had he done that cost him his job and landed him in the docket? Apparently, he's one of those (full disclosure: so am I) who thinks that students shouldn't be net-surfing on computers during lectures, and he closed the lap-top of one rude young lady who was doing so. The jury rightly concluded that the case was ludicrous from the start, and never should have come to court. But they've got higher standards at Valdosta State, and didn't let simple justice stop them from terminating this hapless prof's employment. Legions of students testified as to his stellar teaching abilities, but he apparently wasn't very sensitive, and that's what really counts with the administration at Valdosta State.
Recently, my colleague Ashley Thorne reported here on Yale University's abrupt decision to terminate a program devoted to the study of antisemitism. The program was the only one of its kind in the United States and seemed to be flourishing. So why was it terminated? Apparently because a recent conference had included an examination of antisemitism within parts of the comtemporary Islamic world. This prompted a letter from Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, the PLO's representative in the US, to Yale president Richard Levin, protesting the university's abettment of "anti-Arab extremism and hate mongering." A short time later, the program was toast.
But word comes today at Inside Higher Education that Yale has reconsidered. A new institute for the study of antisemitism is in the works. You can also read about it here at the CHE.
That's good news, and I'm glad that Yale and president Levin have had a change of heart. I also wish, though, that they hadn't caved in the first place.
University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs (author of the excellent book Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus) has an essay on Minding the Campus in which he discusses the battle taking place in Madison. Do college professors ever use their courses to propagandize on political issues? That's just a right-wing myth, say many defenders of the higher education establishment. Read the essay and you'll learn that quite a few of Downs' UW colleagues could not resist the temptation.
Brooklyn College appointed Kristofer Petersen-Overton as an adjunct professor to teach "Politics of the Middle East," then fired him, apparently because of his politics. NAS defended Petersen-Overton's academic freedom, noting that "rescinding the appointment of an instructor on the basis of complaints about the likelihood of his future bias strikes us a serious misstep and a very bad precedent." Hours after we posted our article, Petersen-Overton informed us that Brooklyn College would be announcing its decision to reinstate him unconditionally.
Sharad Karkhanis's Patriot Returns, which goes to 13,000 CUNY faculty and staff, published a recast version of my piece on the Kristofer Peterson-Overton matter that was covered in The New York Post, New York Daily News, New York Times, and Inside Higher Education. Brooklyn College's president, Karen Gould, decided to hire Petersen-Overton after the administration initially rescinded his contract.
Stanley Fish seems to be seeking the middle ground on revisions to Penn State's policy authorized by the faculty Senate, and now awaiting approval by PSU's president. Particularly unfortunate was the removal of a provision stipulating that academic freedom did not grant professors license to indoctrinate their students or to use their classrooms as bully pulpit for flogging their favorite political or social issues. NAS is dismayed.
David Moshman, professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has an excellent article at the Huffington Post on what academic freedom means, according to the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles. NAS has written frequently on this elusive meaning, and we agree with the 1915 Declaration. As one of the foremost defenders of intellectual liberty and sound practice in higher education, this is a theme close to our hearts. Moshman rebuts the common notion that academic freedom is a privilege strictly for tenured professors. Instead, he writes, the 1915 Declaration indicates that academic freedom:
(1) is intended to serve the common good, (2) relates specifically to matters of intellectual freedom, (3) applies to all teachers regardless of tenure status, and (4) applies to students as well.
Well-put, Professor Moshman. He expands on these points in his article. NAS has outlined our position on academic freedom, in which we affirm that students are entitled to academic freedom (there's even a word for this in German, Lernfreiheit). And we recently argued that anyone (including college administrators) who is committed to the search for truth through rational inquiry and dispassionate and scrupulous use of evidence deserves the protection of academic freedom.
Historian Tom Woods here discusses his kerfuffle with Indiana University when a student group wanted him to speak on his book regarding the recent economic crisis. The university initially said no on the advice of academics who sniffed that Woods does not have the right credentials to discuss that subject. Fortunately, the students did not back down and the talk (recounted in the piece) occurred. The infuriating thing about this is the academic mindset that only people who have the right sort of degree can possibly know anything about a subject; others should be kept away from students.
One of the dangers of bringing academic freedom under judicial authority is that doing so threatens First Amendment rights on campus, writes Steve Balch in a thoughtful new article. The recent efforts by Augusta State U and Eastern Michigan State U to censor Christian counseling students illustrate this. To learn more about these cases, see Alliance Defense Fund's "ADF to appeal ruling that allows Eastern Michigan U. to expel Christian students for holding to beliefs" and "Augusta State Univ. to counseling student: change your beliefs or get out."
Bob Samuels reviews AAUP president Cary Nelson's book No University is an Island:
Not only did I discover this year that some administrators were receiving all of my emails, but, a couple of years ago, our campus had to fight an outside Right-wing group that was paying students to record teachers saying anti-conservative and "anti-American" things. If this was not bad enough, UCLA recently decided to set up their own internal web site so that students and other community members could report acts of bias. This type of digital surveillance system surely has a chilling effect on academic freedom.
It's nice to be able to end the week on an upbeat note: the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign announced yesterdy that it has reinstated adjunct reilgious studies professor Kenneth Howell (read about it here in CHE). Howell had regularly taught a course in Catholic moral theology at U of I at U of I since 2001. He was summarily dismissed, however, following a complaint from a student - not actually enrolled in the course - who took issue with Howell's presentation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. (see Peter Wood's account here). This was truly bizarre: without so much as interviewing professor Howell or any of the students actually taking the course, university officials removed him within days of receiving the complainant's second-hand version of Howell's conclusions, on the pretext that he had violated the school's principle of "inclusivity." I still don't know what that is, but it sure can get you into a lot of trouble. Anyway, following a public uproar and much well-deserved embarassment, U of I has rescinded his termination and offered him his customary teaching assignment for the Fall semester. The single change will be his direct employment and compensation by the University, rather than through the campus Catholic center, by which he was previously paid. All's well that ends well, as they say. The whole episode, though, should never have transpired to begin with. That it did tells you what truly bad shape academic freedom is in these days.
Check out this article by Daphne Patai over at Minding the Campus, in which she discusses the perilous state of free speech on American college campuses. There's been no end of dismal news on that account this week, so it's good to pass along these thoughts of someone who's been fighting the good fight on behalf of free expression for quite a while, and really knows the ropes. If it's getting hard to discuss controversial issues openly at your school because of the administration's reflexive "sensitivity" to selected ideological constituencies, Patai demonstrates that you don't have to sit back and let it happen. If you're familiar with her two important books, Professing Feminism and Heterophobia you'll know that she's walked the walk, as she does again here.
California taxpayers are now on the hook for $100,000, which the San José/Evergreen Community College District (SJCCD) has agreed to pay an adjunct professor in lost earnings in exchange for dismissal of her First Amendment lawsuit. The background of the lawsuit? Sheldon had led a short discussion about the nature/nurture debate regarding sexual orientation in her Human Heredity course. She was then fired due to a student complaint and went to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for assistance. "This welcome settlement demonstrates that colleges cannot get away with punishing a professor for teaching relevant class material, even if a student finds it offensive," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. An aspect of this case worthy of the attention of NAS afficionados is the SJCCD's contention that Sheldon was teaching non-scientific material as science. In any event, congratulations to Sheldon and FIRE for persevering in this good fight. And condolences to CA taxpayers.
Our friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education continue their stellar work defending the academic freedom and First Amendment rights of college faculty members - especially untenured adjuncts - who collide with stifiling campus political orthodoxies. This time, they've scored against the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, which will have to pay 100K in lost wages to an adjunct instructor who was terminated in 2007 after a student complained that her brief classroom discussion of the origins of homosexuality was "offensive." The district will have to pick up the tab for legal expenses as well. Too bad for them - and the taxpayers who will carry theses costs - that they didn't simply respect the instructor's academic freedom in the first place. But while I'm glad that FIRE was able to intervene successfully in this case, I also wish that they and other organizations such as the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) didn't have so much work to do. This is getting to be a depressingly familiar scenario: 1) Instructor in a psychology or ethics course examines homosexuality or sex differences, says something that a student finds "offensive." 2) A complaint is forwarded at the speed of light to the administration, cc to the campus women's center, the dean of multicultural affairs or the LGBT office, who don't necessarily need to interview the instructor, but nevertheless agree that yes, yes, the classroom discussion was indeed "offensive." 3) The administration informs instructor that she's outta here. 4) Board of directors upholds administration, unimpressed by quaint ideas about academic freedom or First Amendment protections. Honestly, I wonder what the worst aspect of cases such as this one is. It's appalling, of course, that such an Orwellian intellectual climate exists on so many campuses, and the examples of outrages such as this one seem to pop up weekly. See Ashley Thorne's recent post detailing the latest incident involving a socal work student whose religious convictions ran afoul of a counseling program at Augusta State University in Georgia. But what about boards of trustees, such as the one in the San Jose/Evergreen case? What could they, as the governing bodies at a public institution have been thinking? Apart from the deserved embarassment their school has incurred and the hefty settlement costs they've handed to taxpayers, what does academic freedom or First Amendment protections mean to them? Not much, I have to conclude, since they upheld the administration's outrage, without apparently seeing it as such. Kudos to FIRE once again, which seems to have a much firmer grasp of the academic enterprise and its mission than do many of the people to whom it's been directly entrusted.
In today's Pope Center piece, my colleague Jay Schalin writes about the flap over the fact that some colleges have accepted funds from BB&T Foundation with the proviso that the money be used to support courses in which students will learn about Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and in particular her defense of laissez-faire capitalism. The argument raised against this is that colleges are supposed to allow the faculty to decide upon curricular matters. Naturally, some professors who are adamantly hostile to the case for laissez-faire (although I doubt that many have ever read Rand's Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal or have heard a thorough explication of the damaging consequences of government interference in the spontaneous order of the free market) say that schools should shun BB&T money. Jay gets a whiff of double standard here, since professors on the left don't much complain about the importation of material into the curriculum they find congenial. Rather than a defense of princple, their stance seems to be an instance of selective indignation. Econ 101 is often taught as a dull, mechanistic and to many students baffling exercise in graphs and abstruse theories having little apparent relationship with life. Adding a BB&T catalyzed course that allows students to see how Rand and other advocates of laissez-faire (Ludwig von Mises, e.g.) looked at economic questions would be a beneficial offering. Colleges should be open to the marketplace of ideas. Like the marketplace of goods and services, sound ideas tend to win out and unsound ideas tend to be rejected. (I say "tend" because it doesn't happen automatically. After all, we still have cigarettes in stores and professors who preach socialism.) John Allison of BB&T is trying to get colleges to open their curricula to another idea (or set of ideas). No harm in that.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal (June 18), Timothy Knowles, “a former teacher, principal and district leader” laments the difficulty of eliminating “low-performing teachers.” Granted, there are abundant reasons for tenure reform at the K-12 level. College, however, is a different matter. Marketing his new book, Cary Nelson, spear point of the AAUP, says
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, devout believer that you only have academic freedom and free speech if you have job security. If you don’t have job security, you can’t speak out forcefully, and I think that means academic freedom will be diminished.
I rarely agree with Dr. Nelson, a fellow I find usually animated by left-wing, social constructivist, and Sixties sentiments, but in this case he is right. Mr. Knowles paints administrators as ex-teachers called to a higher mission. However, in college, many administrators have little or no classroom experience, and Mr. Knowles seems oblivious to just how political, punitive, and self-serving careerist administrators can be (just look at how many of the cases at FIRE originate from administrative excesses). Without tenure, my campus would have no discernible conservative voice at all. I would have been fired by at least three different college presidents for a variety of transgressions: organizing the faculty union, suing the college, publically criticizing multiculturalism, openly opposing “student learning outcomes.” Students can survive a poor teacher (how many great teachers are there?), but they can’t survive a university monoculture that is an ideological echo chamber. Tenure may sometimes protect incompetent knaves but, where it still exists, tenure also protects vital intellectual pluralism.
Several weeks ago, NAS President Peter Wood took note here of the inquiries by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who had announced his intention look into the use of reasearch funds granted by the Commonwealth to controversial Penn State climatologist Michale Mann. In light of the so-called "climategate" revelations last Fall, Cuccinelli declared that there were sufficient grounds to justify an investigation of Mann's grant proposal to determine whether or not he had used fraudulent data in applying for public funding to underwrite his research . A firestorm of controversy arose, complete with grim comparisons to the trial of Galileo, the burning of witches and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. When Peter offered tentative and carefully qualified support for Cuccinelli's inquiries, a spirited discussion arose among our regular readers as well. The issue is still very much alive, and Slate carried a piece the other day by its senior editor Dahlia Lithwick and University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger, who argue there that academic freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. We've never bought this position, and have elaborated our view of academic freedom frequently, as Peter did in this explication last year. We continue to believe that the AAUP's 1915 declaration holds up very well: academic freedom certainly covers the right of scholars to defend and advocate positions within their fields, even though these may run counter to the established wisdom, if they believe their research leads them to such conclusions. But academic freedom, in this understanding, does not entitle a scholar to hold court in the classroom on current political trends, the outcome of the world series or his part-time job as a bowling alley repair specialist. If he teaches at a public university, he can step out into the common area where the First Amendment protects his right to declare himself on these matters and just about any others as well. But neither the First Amendment nor academic freedom entitle any researcher, scientific or otherwise, to unscrutinized and unaccountable public funding. We've certainly yielded to no one in our own defense of traditional academic freedom, and we'll continue to stick to our guns. At the moment, though, the issue seems highly confused, and I hope I've been able to at least clarify our position on it.
The Foundation for Individual Rights has announced that the University of Minnesota, in response to a letter from FIRE, promised that "[n]o University policy or practice ever will mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with 'wrong beliefs' from the University." The FIRE letter was prompted by a proposal for the university's school of education, to be voted on in January, that would require all ed students to study “white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.” NAS wrote about it here. FIRE is cautiously optimistic about the university's response. While warning that "The next version of the college's plans must reflect this promise," it has declared a victory for freedom of conscience. The letter from General Counsel Mark B. Rotenberg, however, gives cause for continuing concern. Rotenberg asserts that the university holds the right, under academic freedom, to "engage in creative thinking, dialogue, and advocacy with respect to a broad range of ideas for improving P-12 education." He added, "Academic freedom means little if our teaching faculty is inhibited from discussing and proposing curriculum innovations simply because others find them 'illiberal' or 'unjust.'" Rotenberg is right to praise the exchange of different and competing viewpoints. But U Minnesota needs to be more thoughtful about its proposals. Even illiberal brainstorming can take root when it results in public documents ready for approval. Take Virginia Tech, for example. Its College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences recently came out with a "Strategic Diversity Plan" that aimed to put in systems for logrolling; provide incentives (some monetary) for faculty and staff to take part in diversity activities and for departments to make faculty hires; implement College-wide diversity course requirements; and enact racial preferences in spite of a Virginia Tech ban on affirmative action. It is not clear what bureaucratic hurtles remain for the Diversity Plan's approval or when it is likely to be granted (although the general CLAHS Strategic Plan has already endorsed the Diversity Plan), but it is clear that such a plan, if approved, will leave Virginia Tech's intellectual integrity in ruins. So no, proposing illiberal or unjust "curriculum innovations" is not as benign as Rotenberg would like it to sound. But for now, we join with FIRE in encouragement over the University of Minnesota's promises not to mandate particular points of view.
Gary A. Olson of Idaho State University has a good article on "The Limits of Academic Freedom" at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. An excerpt:
One chair described a senior professor who missed a substantial number of her classes. When confronted with evidence of her absenteeism, she told her chair that as an academic she had the freedom to conduct her courses in any way she deemed appropriate. [...] The magical incantation—"I'm protected by academic freedom"—is thought to offer instant indemnity. [...] Some people confuse the constitutional concept of freedom of speech with the less grandiose notion of academic freedom, but they are two distinct concepts. Academic freedom is limited to the confines of academic discourse while free speech is a broad constitutional right central to our democratic system of government. [...] Academic freedom is a right we should all cherish because it ensures an environment of free inquiry. That is precisely why we must guard against attempts to make the concept so limitless, so capacious, that it loses its power to protect the academic enterprise. When academic freedom becomes all things to all people, then it becomes nothing at all.
Economics professor Walter Block doesn't accept the politically correct feminist doctrine that the average earnings differential between men and women is due to employment discrimination and for that he has been pilloried as a "racist" and "sexist" by the administration at Loyola of New Orleans. Then, when he tries to clear his name and defend his position, the administration clams up. Read about it here. Academic liberals used to boast that they spoke "truth to power." Now that they're in power, they turn out to be a bunch of intolerant authoritarians.
Cross-posted from NAS.org, "An Unsuccessful Education Can Ruin You": The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article, "Course Reminds Budding Ph.D.'s of the Damage They Can Do," about a seminar taught at the CUNY Graduate Center on the ethics of teaching. Steven M. Cahn teaches the class, and he seeks to dispel the notion that all education is innocuous:
"People often think that education works either to improve you or to leave you as you were," Mr. Cahn says. "But that's not right. An unsuccessful education can ruin you. It can kill your interest in a topic. It can make you a less-good thinker. It can leave you less open to rational argument. So we do good and bad as teachers—it's not just good or nothing."
Cahn discusses with his small class the meaning of academic freedom ("How free should instructors be to proclaim their beliefs in the classroom? And how sensitive should they be to their students' personal commitments?") and the question of university neutrality ("Do colleges have an institutional duty to stay out of certain public debates? Or is that kind of neutrality actually undesirable or impossible?"). His students enjoy tackling these issues; as future professors, the subjects they consider in Cahn's seminar will soon become very real for them. This course covers the very same fundamental higher education debates in which the National Association of Scholars has found a voice for the last twenty-two years. These are conversations well worth having - they ponder "What does it mean to be a university of integrity?" The existence of the CUNY seminar is encouraging. Now if only all faculty members and administrators took this course, perhaps we'd have a better foundation for teaching the next generation.
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.
Check out my article at NAS.org, "Sustainability Skepticism Has Arrived." I juxtapose two news stories from this week on challenges to the sustainability doctrine:
These stories are parallel. Both Michael Pollan and Richard Steiner were caught off guard when challenged, then played the victim in the name of academic freedom—a skewed version of academic freedom. When David Wood sought to open Cal Poly’s eyes to the ideological agenda Pollan proselytizes, Pollan and others accused the university of cravenly capitulating to demands from the big bad corporate world. And when NOAA identified Steiner as going outside Sea Grant parameters by engaging in advocacy, Steiner said the University of Alaska had put a “gag order” on him.
If you are interested in helping the NAS expose the truth about the campus sustainability movement, send our list of “10 Reasons to Oppose the Sustainability Movement on Campus” to students, parents, faculty members, administrators, and news media.
Be sure to check out the text of Peter's speech, "Academic Freedom and Discontent," for the Alexander Hamilton Institute, now posted on the NAS website. In it he contrasts the progressive and traditionalist versions of academic freedom:
To understand the enduring popularity of this one core academic doctrine amidst the ruins of so many other core doctrines we have to recognize that “academic freedom” means one thing to academic traditionalists and something radically different to academic progressives. Traditionalists view academic freedom as something like a limited access highway. It permits great freedom of movement, but it has its own rules and it doesn’t go everywhere. Academic freedom is not a license for driving west in the eastbound lane, for parking your car in the median, or careering recklessly across the road. Progressives, on the other hand, view academic freedom as something like a can opener. It is good for opening things up and that’s about it. [...] Neither of these views is, on its face, laughably wrong or without merit. Taking possession of a civilizational inheritance and liberating oneself from the dead hand of the past are both worthy if somewhat contradictory goals. But when it comes to academic freedom, I believe the traditionalists have the stronger case.
At the national NAS conference in January, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, spoke on the state of free speech and civil liberties on campus. Here is the text of his speech, rich in links and civil liberties cases, where he correlates the rise of the speech code to the rise of college administrators.
The American Association of University Professors released its Report on 11 September 2007. In that document, the AAUP provides cover for teachers who introduce extraneous, often politically tendentious material into their classes. To rationalize such behavior, the AAUP argues that truth is whatever the members of an academic discipline say it is. In our response, the NAS executive director and president take issue with that and other AAUP contentions.