Are We Being Chilled Or Should We Just Chill?

Are We Being Chilled Or Should We Just Chill?

In previous posts (here, here, and here) I have expressed some skepticism about the idea that academic liberty is on the decline. Yes, there are occasional stories of violations of academic liberty; Steven Salaita, whose job offer was rescinded, comes to mind. But we have to be careful here. A (defeasible) rule of thumb is that if you are hearing a lot about an event on the news or social media, it must not be that common (for if it were, then it wouldn’t be newsworthy). There’s also the availability heuristic to be on the lookout for, that is, “the tendency to judge the frequency or likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind.” Also, let’s admit, it feels good to complain about stuff.

We should also pay attention to what is included in our understanding of the trends. With a long enough time-frame and a broad enough understanding of academic liberty, it is quite clear that the trend over, say, the past 100 years, is towards more and more kinds of people having both the liberty to become academics and the liberty to discuss a greater number of topics, including topics that had in the past been taboo or deemed not worthy of study. There was a dip during that period, of course—the Red Scare in the middle of the 20th century—and people should not forget that: especially those who casually use the word “McCarthyism” to describe today’s climate for academics.

All that said, I could be wrong. If I am, I want to know. And of course, even if I’m right, that isn’t to say that there are no serious attacks on academic liberty or that we shouldn’t be vigilant against them. (UPDATE: Along those lines, see this petition to get the Wisconsin Board of Regents to preserve clear tenure protections.)

But what would be helpful are examples. The examples would have to meet a few conditions. They must involve: (1) faculty at U.S. institutions of higher education  who have (2) suffered the loss of job, rescinding of a job offer, loss of professional autonomy (e.g., forced change of syllabus), or other institutional sanction (3) because of their expression of an idea in their capacity as academics (during teaching, research, other professional activities) or as citizens.

Note that condition 2 does not include “investigation.” As we have discussed elsewhere, there may indeed be problems with how some types of investigations take place, and various reforms may be required, but that is not the topic under discussion. An investigation is not the same thing as a sanction. (UPDATE: if specific measures taken during an investigation strike you as punitive, feel free to mention them.) As for condition 3, it would be helpful to be specific about what the idea is. I am sure there are some examples. But I do wonder how many.

Some readers may think this request for examples is beside the point. The problem, they might say, is that faculty are self-censoring out of fear, and so it would be no surprise if there weren’t a lot of examples. The climate for academic freedom is so chilly, they might say, that faculty are just not going to risk saying something that might get them into trouble with their schools, or the federal government, for that matter.

Let me say two things about this. First, if it turns out that there are very few actual examples of faculty being punished by their institutions for the expression of the ideas, then that finding—in conjunction with the widespread evidence of faculty openly expressing and defending all sorts of ideas—should give us some reason to think that the fear is misguided. Second, we should be on guard against a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reticence begets more reticence. If the worry is indeed that faculty are no longer comfortable expressing certain ideas in their research and teaching, this is not something that will be improved by faculty not expressing these ideas; it will just make it less and less comfortable to do. One might be inclined to tell these faculty: toughen up.

Or perhaps try to think about how to be skillful in presenting controversial ideas. Some of this is about understanding why what you’re saying is controversial, but some of it is about setting expectations. Consider this warning that Jason Brennan (Georgetown) puts on his syllabi:

You have the right to engage in reasoned disagreement with me without any penalty to your grade. I have the right to challenge any belief, ideology, worldview, or attitude you have, including those beliefs you hold sacred. Students likewise have this right against each other and me. Everyone has the right to express his or her views without fear of bullying or reprisal. The classroom and the university is a forum for the pursuit of truth. I intend for this class to aid in the pursuit of responsible ideology. Responsible ideology means putting in the hard work to be justified in one’s political views. It requires a synthesis of humanistic and social scientific methods. It requires that one understand and, in a sense, can “get inside the head” of views entirely foreign to one’s own. Finally, it requires that one experience and overcome, rather than flee from, serious intellectual discomfort.

That’s one way to do it. The post in which Brennan shares this is one in which he laments the infantilization of students and their calls for censorship, but the fact that he has had no complaints about his teaching suggests that the problems may not be as widespread or as deep as some fear. Perhaps they aren’t even correctly identified.

But, to the extent possible (clearly this is not comprehensive), let’s get some more information. I could be wrong. This post isn’t a bet; it’s a question.


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