“Uncomfortable Truths” about Academic Freedom

“Uncomfortable Truths” about Academic Freedom


We’ve discussed academic freedom at Daily Nous before (for example: Thoughts on Academic Freedom, Are We Being Chilled?, Strategies for Keeping WarmMicroaggressions and Academic Freedom). One thing I’ve been concerned with is the extent to which the very few actual cases in which a professor’s academic freedom has been violated owing to the expression of unpopular or discomfiting ideas has contributed to a culture of fearful academics who see self-censorship as their best option. As I said in “Are We Being Chilled?”:

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.

If we are interested in defending academic freedom, and if we take the creation of a culture of fear to be inhibiting the exercise of academic freedom, then we have a reason to combat what contributes to the creation of that culture of fear. One thing that contributes to it are a few actual violations of academic freedom. We should fight such violations. But another thing that contributes to it, I think, is an exaggerated sense of the danger.

I see this culture of fear in various contexts, and would be interested in hearing ideas for how to combat it, knowing that there can be a tension between vigilance and confidence.

In doing so, we shouldn’t lose sight of another threat to academic freedom. That’s the message of Simon During, professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, in his review of two recent books on academic freedom.

Despite entertaining the idea that

academic freedom may remain alive despite its lack of real legal or administrative backing because, especially in the humanities, what academics say or do rarely touches governmental or business power structures,

he writes that

academics’ proclamation of their freedom as a privilege or right, even where it has some legal backing, is unlikely to resist the university system’s corporatization, except perhaps in rich and prestigious private research universities. This means that the relation between truth-telling, freedom, and power for professors will have to be rethought.

He also raises this “uncomfortable truth” about academic freedom:

In the contemporary US academic system, where the richest, most prestigious, and therefore most oligarchic universities are most protected from corporatization and can therefore best maintain shared governance, disciplinary expertise, academic autonomy, and free enquiry, academic freedom becomes not just a regulatory ideal but also a badge, a marker of prestige not wholly dissimilar to others. As a result, affirmations of academic freedom uttered from the most privileged universities, however necessary they are to maintaining academic freedom’s credibility, are also tinged by—how to put this?—a certain smugness. Perhaps even by a certain hypocrisy, at least to the degree that such affirmations are blind to how widely and effectively the academic system may function without autonomy, shared governance, and freedom, and blind too to the extent to which academic freedom is a function of money and prestige.

In an ideal world, perhaps, there’d be an equality of academic freedom across positions and institutions. But an upshot of During’s observation could be that, in the real world, protecting and increasing academic freedom for all depends on inequalities that render some individuals and institutions free enough from being overly reliant for their survival on public opinion and its conformist tendencies.

liberty bell edit

guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
5 years ago

Why should we assume that “the richest, most prestigious, and therefore most oligarchic universities” are the ones “most protected from corporatization and can therefore best maintain shared governance, disciplinary expertise, academic autonomy, and free enquiry”? Surely staying within certain prescribed boundaries of thought is part of what will be entailed by membership in an “oligarchic” university.Report

Who Knows
Who Knows
5 years ago

Why should we assume that corporations and wealthy interests are the only significant, or even the most significant, threat to academic freedom? Part of what alarms many academics, and what Justin thinks is overly feared, is that many threats to academic freedom come from people who subscribe to rigid forms of identity politics including many students and other faculty. These are people we would normally think of as friends of intellectual freedom but all too often they aren’t. In the sciences, perhaps corporation, etc., are the primary threat (though Tim Hunt may disagree), but it doesn’t seem that way in the humanities.Report

Anon7
Anon7
Reply to  Who Knows
5 years ago

Apropros this post, there is a very current controversy at CSU-Sacramento where a history professor declined to use the term “genocide” to Native Americans in the Americas. He agreed that horrible things were done to native peoples, but that the overwhelming majority of deaths were due to accidental disease transmission rather than deliberate intent and therefore he felt “genocide” wasn’t the term he would use. A Native American student activist got into a shouting match with him in class over it, then afterwards took to social media to campaign against him. I have seen a blizzard of facebook posts over the last couple of days even from fellow academics denouncing the professor and calling for him to be punished because their identity politics is more important to them than academic freedom. The University has meekly said that they take the situation seriously and are investigating. The professor is an adjunct, and I’d venture to guess that no matter what, he won’t be hired there again. These are the situations I fear more than a vague corporatization of academia.Report

Coherentist
Coherentist
5 years ago

There was a related post at Feminist Philosophers that I think is relevant to what ‘Who Knows’ says:

“As we grapple with administrative creep — with this risk-averse financially-minded way of living together as an educational community increasingly being woven into the fabric of university life — I think it would be a mistake for faculty and students to forget that the sharpest division in the trigger warning debate is an artifice of someone else’s making. Students are (rightfully) frustrated that public relations, athletic titles, and protecting the university brand so often come before student safety. Likewise, faculty are (rightfully) frustrated with administrative overreach into their classrooms, their research, and the very structure of faculty governance. When we consider the background dynamics of the trigger warning debate, it seems to me that there is more in these frustrations to unite students and faculty than there is to divide them. Without the fear of administrative creep, disagreement regarding best pedagogical practices would surely remain, but what issue is free from disagreement in higher education? It’s in the context of the neoliberal, corporatized, university that controversy encourages censorship (self-censorship, or otherwise) and that trauma can be exacerbated in unique and challenging ways.” (Full post: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/trigger-warnings/)Report

DC
DC
5 years ago

Those arguing that deprivations of academic freedom are too rare to be of concern seem to miss out on a few things I think. First, many, many universities have implemented codes of conduct that are not consistent with ideas of academic freedom, so those instances are neither anecdotal or rare, and it seems shortsighted to not to be concerned over that fact alone (and I don’t think actual instances of deprivation are as rare as some here think). Second, a lot of academics seem complicit in these abuses — the old “I believe in academic freedom, BUT” exception — witness the Kipnis affair and the astonishing extent to which one would presume otherwise rational people defended the Title IX witchhunt against her. If you don’t see the Kipnis complaint (or the McAdams complaint) as an academic freedom issue, then your bar is set so that of course there don’t seem to be that many instances.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Justin’s comment is helpful inasmuch as it shows that people in these conversations are talking past each other to some extent. People who share my view that the Kipnis and McAdams cases are academic-freedom cases are likely to be much more concerned about threats to academic freedom on campus than people who share Justin’s view that academic freedom wasn’t problematic here. That’s likely to make it difficult to have a shared conversation about how to combat cultures of fear.Report

DC
DC
5 years ago

Many of the problematic ones implement mandated civility or prohibit harassment in such a broad manner that just about anything can be punished. FIRE’s database collects and categorizes university speech codes, so you can just look up any school’s codes: https://www.thefire.org/spotlight/

As for Kipnis/McAdams, I definitely don’t want to re-hash those arguments either, though I will note that both were expressing their opinions on campus climate and educational ideology which seems pretty clearly an academic freedom issue to me (and both were charged with inaccuracies, as though being inaccurate, even intentionally, wrong automatically removes speech from academic freedom?) But I do your statement is what I’m talking about; eliminating academic freedom cases by redefining academic freedom cases as about “accuracy” or “harassment.”Report

Tamler Sommers
5 years ago

I disagree with David Wallace–we’re not talking past each other. I am someone who (a) believes that the Kipnis case was troubling from the perspective of academic freedom but (b) still thinks that such incident are isolated, rare, and that the entire issue is comically overblown. I’m open to being wrong, but every time an alarmist is asked provide actual data or empirical support for their fears, they just trot out the same examples and anecdotes. Justin asked DC for examples of problematic codes. In reply DC gives a link to the FIRE site where you can look up all the speech code in American Universities. So I guess I could just look up every single university to see if DC is right. But presumably if DC believes there are problematic speech codes, DC would have a few actual examples (maybe ones that DC found after using the FIRE database). But no, nothing. This is so typical. It’s all vague gesturing, anecdotes, and scare terms like “microaggression” and “trigger warnings” that just come from other columns that try to rile people up about this issue. (Yes, I know some people are actually worked up about microaggressions etc, but it’s such a tiny sliver of academic life. And the idea that we should be terrified of these people and the harm they cause is ludicrous without further evidence. ) As my Patriots know all too well, it’s impossible to prove a negative. So I can’t provide proof that there’s nothing serious to worry about. But the burden of proof is not on me, it’s on the people who think that this is a real problem rather than just a way to get people to click on their Vox/Atlantic/Huffpo/WSJ/New Yorker/Slate/TNR columns.Report

DC
DC
5 years ago

“So I guess I could just look up every single university to see if DC is right.”

Or…you could looking up at least one? Or two? Or do a simple search by speech category (https://www.thefire.org/spotlight/?x=&y=&speech_code=Red&submit=GO)?

Or at least just not immediately imply that I am lying about this? Maybe this debate could wait a little between tones of sneering contempt appear?

“But presumably if DC believes there are problematic speech codes, DC would have a few actual examples (maybe ones that DC found after using the FIRE database). But no, nothing. This is so typical.”

You argument is bizarre, to say the least; it seems to rely on the assumption that I couldn’t possibly come up with many examples and that I’m hoping nobody will call my bluff by going to the very simple to use database? I provided the link because (a) I did not want to weigh down the comment section with blockquotes; (b) thought readers here might be more interested in looking at their own school instead of arbitrary examples picked by me; and (c) most of the problematic codes have the same issues.

But let’s take your school, which google tells me is the University of Houston:

University of Houston:
Harassment that satisfies this legal standard includes, but is not limited to, epithets or slurs, negative stereotyping, threatening, intimidating or hostile acts, denigrating jokes and display or circulation (including through e-mail) of written or graphic material in the learning, living or working environment.

Seems a bit restrictive, no? Especially since it doesn’t even qualify what kind of written or graphic material is proscribed in the learning environment.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

@Tamler Sommers: here’s a half dozen or so speech-code examples from FIRE:

Boston:
“In displaying or distributing expressions of opinion, students are expected to show respect for the aesthetic, social, moral, and religious feelings of others upon whom their views may be imposed.”

Florida State
“[b]ehavior that may be considered offensive, demeaning, or degrading to persons or groups will not be tolerated.”

Lake Superior State:
LSSU’s Posting Policy, found in the Student Handbook, requires that all postings be approved by the university’s Campus Life Office and provides that “[p]ostings deemed offensive, sexist, vulgar, discriminatory or suggestive will not be approved.” The potential sanctions for violating the policy include not only removal of one’s flyers, but also “disciplinary sanctioning of the individual(s) involved.”

Richmond:
The University of Richmond’s Standards of Student Conduct (PDF) prohibit “disruption,” which includes, among other things, “inappropriate behavior or expression.”

Central Missouri
“In some cases, lively debate can lead to disagreement and misunderstanding. We expect students to develop the skills to handle such disagreements with respect and civility. … Students who engage in rhetoric or actions that demean individuals or groups are not well suited to the academic environment. Such behavior is antithetical to learning and may actually compromise the educational opportunities of others. Consequently, for the greater good of the learning community, individuals who engage in hateful rhetoric or discriminatory behaviors may be held accountable in a manner consistent with their rights as citizens under state and federal law.”

Boise:
Boise State’s Information Technology Resource Use policy (PDF) prohibits the use of university IT resources for “displaying, transmitting, retrieving, or storing inappropriate or offensive material,” unless “identified and pre-approved in writing by the [Vice President for] Academic Affairs and Provost as part of legitimate research, teaching, or academic pursuits.”

Bates:
“A bias incident [which the College prohibits] is any event of intolerance or prejudice, not involving violence or other criminal conduct, intended to threaten, offend or intimidate another because of the other’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or physical or mental disability. Examples of bias incidents include hate speech, gay bashing, racist epithets, religious slurs, sexist jokes or cartoons, hate mail, offensive graffiti, or disparaging remarks on social media”

Western Kentucky:
Western Kentucky’s (WKU’s) Computing Ethics Policy (PDF) prohibits the use of university email resources for “[t]ransmitting statements, language, images or other materials that are reasonably likely to be perceived as offensive or disparaging of others based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, religious or political beliefs.” The policy also prohibits the use of university email for “advocating religious or political opinions.”

I gave a half-dozen or so nonstandard examples of academic-freedom violations of faculty (again, from FIRE), at the previous “are we being chilled or should we just chill” thread.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

David, I’m not seeing what’s wrong with the LSSU example. That looks like a policy for using campus bulletin boards to advertise student activities. When I was at ND and UST (not sure about NU) I believe there were similar policies (fliers did have to be pre-approved, anyway, to go on the university bulletin boards maintained by the campus life offices). The policies did not apply to posting on department bulletin boards, which were maintained separately. I’m not quite seeing why students should have the right, by way of academic freedom, to post whatever they like on particular pieces of university property, but I’m interested to know why you think that’s problematic. Could you say more?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

I agree that students don’t have a right to post whatever they like on university property, but I’m concerned that insofar that they are allowed to do so, there are non-content-neutral restrictions on what they’re allowed to post, and more concerned that those restrictions are defined in terms as vague and open to abuse as “offensive”. Suppose, for instance, that the local pro-choice group is allowed to put its posters up but the pro-life group’s posters are deemed offensive – or, to reverse the valence, that the local pro-Israel group is allowed to put its posters up but the Solidarity for Palestine group’s posters are deemed offensive.Report

Tamler Sommers
5 years ago

DC, I wasn’t implying that you were lying, just that it’s typical to offer vague gestures about chilling effects as opposed to actual evidence. As for the U of H code, I agree, it’s bizarre that distribution of “written or graphic” material is prohibited. I’m not even sure what that means. Obviously we’re allow to send emails. My guess is that what’s proscribed is distributing slurs, denigrating jokes etc. in a learning context. That and the other stuff seems pretty standard. I can assure you that I don’t feel chilled by it.
By the way, the reason you can google my university is because I used my actual name.

David, thanks for providing examples. Can you point out which ones you find objectionable and why? Also, have those codes led to any questionable accusations of harrassment at those institutions?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

I find all of them objectionable (I filtered out of FIRE’s list some I was less sure about).

I have no idea what concrete consequences came of any of them, but I’m not much moved by the view that we don’t need to worry about an objectionable rule because we can be confident that the powers that be won’t enforce that rule.Report

Jon Cogburn
Jon Cogburn
5 years ago

I think that fired tenure LSU professor Teresa Buchanan makes a better example than Kipnis does (Kipnis is maybe part of a sorites series leading to Buchanan). Please read the Inside Higher ed article at : http://www.psuaaup.net/blog/entry/fired-for-being-profane .

A couple of things: (1) Please trust the LSU Faculty Senate (e.g. http://www.lsu.edu/senate/resolution%2015-15%20case%20of%20buchanan.pdf ) when we tell you that such cases really are incredibly chilling, and (2) for people who might still respond that using Title IX to trample due process is just a weird thing that could only happen in the American South, please note that the American South often serves as a testing ground for awful ideas that are then spread to the rest of the nation. This soon after labor day, right to work laws probably come to mind first.Report

Tamler Sommers
5 years ago

I agree that the Buchanan case seems totally outrageous based on all that’s been reported. I don’t understand LSU’s position on it at all. What is she supposed to have done that anyone can even pretend is harrassment? Not sure if it reflects LSU’s general dysfunction and bad faculty culture (widely rumored) or a national trend or some other explanation that hasn’t come out yet. My first thought was that it has to be the latter but nothing has come out. If it is part of a larger trend, then I’ll joining the other side on this issue. I can’t imagine that the firing will stand up in court.Report