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On academic freedom

by ValentinD Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 02:58:51 PM EST

An interesting article on the New York Times website.

It's called
"An Authoritative Word on Academic Freedom"

and it can be found on Stanley Fish's blog "Think Again" (link below).

More than a few times in these columns I have tried to deflate the balloon of academic freedom by arguing that it was not an absolute right or a hallowed principle, but a practical and limited response to the particular nature of intellectual work.

Now, in a new book -- "For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom," to be published in 2009 -- two distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, study the history and present shape of the concept and come to conclusions that support and deepen what I have been saying in these columns and elsewhere.

The authors' most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: "We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind." The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are "grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes."

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

Indeed, to emphasize the "personal" is to mistake the nature of academic freedom, which belongs, Finkin and Post declare, to the enterprise, not to the individual. If academic freedom were "reconceptualized as an individual right," it would make no sense -- why should workers in this enterprise have enlarged rights denied to others? -- and support for it "would vanish" because that support, insofar as it exists, is for the project and its promise (the production of new knowledge) and not for those who labor within it. Academics do not have a general liberty, only "the liberty to practice the scholarly profession" and that liberty is hedged about by professional norms and responsibilities.
I find this all very congenial. Were Finkin and Post's analysis internalized by all faculty members, the academic world would be a better place, if only because there would be fewer instances of irresponsible or overreaching teachers invoking academic freedom as a cover for their excesses.

Permalink here

It would be better if Stanley just stopped doing what he is doing and went into another period of his life, at this point.

His theories on reader response have been self-contradictory for a very long time, and this seems to be yet another attempt of his to have it both ways without saying anything.

I would appreciate it if anyone could parse for me this argument, because yet again, there's the inherent contradiction of saying, "It's a necessary part of the profession, but not a moral right," when in fact the so-called safeguards that would encourage new research and new subjects would, by their very instantiation, delimit the borders of the possible new from the exotic new.

That has been the problem all along. No law could codify the frontiers of research. And that's precisely why academic freedom has been elevated to a generalized concept rather than a site specific concept to be circumscribed legally by universities or others.

Fish says, "In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs."

But then who takes responsibility for charging faculty with specific tasks? Who determines the degrees of latitude? The fact is, this is a regular part of the job for academics when we set curricula, hire new professors, etc. We always configure and reconfigure ourselves accordingly.

God forbid that Fish make these decisions for us, because he is dismissive of many forms of academic inquiry. And the sad history of, say, Literature Departments (of which Fish is a part) in the USA would bring us back to some rather embarrassing periods (philology, reinstitution of classical languages to thwart the effects of the GI Bill, etc.)

by Upstate NY on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 04:57:35 PM EST
There is also a more practical - dare I say pragmatic - aspect: Universities don't merely generate new knowledge - they also train various specialists that are mission-critical for the survival of fundamental democratic institutions (lawyers, economists and newsies come immediately to mind). So if you want to clear the way for a revolution, a political purge of the universities would be a very good place to start.

And it's not exactly a paranoid conspiracy theory either. Quite a lot of revolutionary groups (and even more wannabes) during the last century or so have made law schools and economics departments some of their priority targets.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 04:02:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The sentence you quote is self-contradictory or not depending on where you stand on the issue, I guess.

As I understood it, in academic freedom the accent should be placed on academic rather than freedom - not a freedom in the general sense, but within a given  framework; and rather than a kind of civil right, more like means to achieve a certain goal within a certain context.
It's a position of principle, and this phrase is also relevant of limits and safeguards:

necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance.
Those forces and influences would include trustees, parents, donors, legislatures and the general run of “public opinion,” and the device that provides the necessary protection is called academic freedom. (It would be better if it had a name less resonant with large significances, but I can’t think of one.)

And saying that ...

It does not, however, protect faculty members from the censure or discipline that might follow upon the judgment of their peers that professional standards have either been ignored or violated

is a matter of common sense, in that academic freedom  should not be invokable as an excuse of or protection in case of professional failings, as exemplified further:

Holding faculty accountable to public opinion undermines academic freedom because it restricts teaching and research to what is already known or generally accepted.


Holding faculty accountable to professional norms exemplifies academic freedom because it highlights the narrow scope of that freedom, which does not include the right of faculty “to research and publish in any manner they personally see fit.”

Whereas freedom is a right and one stars with the assumption of it, academic freedom should rather be seen as a state, a way to avoid artificial blockages, a condition for exercising one's profession in the best way possible.

Philosophically too, one could argue that there should be only one kind of rights and liberties, the "human" ones, their declinations, and then conditions to exercise an activity to the fullest, but within a precise framework. I chose to see this as a bit of a plea against the over-use and abuse of the word "right" and "freedom".

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Sun Nov 30th, 2008 at 09:29:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm really confused about what you wrote.

You quoted an article by Stanley Fish in which he prescribes certain guidelines which would delimit faculty research and writing. What does this have to do with professional failings? What professional failings are you talking about? Let's be specific here.

Stanley Fish is widely known as someone who is not big on cultural considerations when it comes to reading literary texts. The fact that he is keen on setting up some prohibitions is no surprise. That anyone would take him seriously is.

by Upstate NY on Mon Dec 1st, 2008 at 08:41:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some context:

Published on Sunday, September 16, 2007 by CommonDreams.org

Erwin Chemerinsky and the Post-9/11 Attack on Academic Freedom

by Marjorie Cohn

One week after renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky was offered the position of dean of the new law school at the University of California at Irvine, Chancellor Michael Drake withdrew the offer, informing Duke Law Professor Chemerinsky he had proved to be "too politically controversial." Chemerinsky is one of the most eminent law teachers and constitutional law scholars in the country. Author of a leading treatise on constitutional law, he has written four books and more than 100 law review articles. In 2005, he was named by Legal Affairs as one of "the top 20 legal thinkers in America."

This is the latest chapter in the post September 11 attack on academic freedom under the guise of protecting security. Two weeks after 9/11, former White House spokeman Ari Fleischer cautioned Americans "they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group founded by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman, accused universities of being the weak link in the war on terror; it included the names of 117 "un-American" professors, students and staff members. A few months later, a blacklisting Internet cite called Campus Watch was launched. It publishes dossiers on scholars who criticize U.S. Middle East policy and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Earlier this year, the Bruin Alumni Association at UCLA offered students $100 to tape left-wing professors.


Since September 11, 2001--again, for obvious reasons--many forms of mainstream liberalism have been denounced as anti-American. A cottage industry of popular right-wing books has equated liberalism with treason (Ann Coulter), with mental disorders (Michael Savage), and with fascism ( Jonah Goldberg). Coulter's book also mounts a vigorous defense of Joe McCarthy, and columnist Michelle Malkin has written a book defending the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In such a climate, it is not surprising to see attacks on one of the few remaining institutions [universities] in American life that is often -- though not completely -- dominated by liberals.


There are many other things wrong with Horowitz's [a right-winger] Academic Bill of Rights but time doesn't permit a full explication. Among the more obvious: If our colleges and universities are the breeding ground for leftist ideologues, where did the conservatives who are ruling our country come from? How about Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to name the more obvious suspects.

And what about the proliferation of right-wing think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute, and so on almost ad infinitum? The preponderance of scholars at these institutions were trained at American colleges and universities. How did they all manage to escape the clutches of all their radical left-wing professors?

Hey, wasn't Newt Gingrich a history professor before writing the Contract with America?

Forget the catchy title. The Academic Bill of Rights is nothing more than a quota system for political extremists so they can deliver their right-wing political sermons in the classroom. In case you think this version of McCarthyism has no place in the United States, think again. Several state legislatures are actually considering a bill to implement it. Closer to home, right here in New York State, SUNY trustee Candace de Russy recently asked SUNY's board of trustees to adopt the Academic Bill of Rights.

But this is just the start. Legislative enactment of the Academic Bill of Rights is beside the point.  Horowitz's real goal is to scare college administrators and faculty so they are less likely to raise tough questions or discuss controversial issues in the classroom.  And that's exactly what's happening.


Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 11:33:08 AM EST
There is the fact that law, history and politics faculties have always been the most delicate part of the system, and there is no way to stop an ideologue from passing his message, just as free speech cannot be regulated, no matter how many laws are made, but either allowed, or forbidden outright.
This is also why these faculties have often served as political tools.

On the other hand, cases of abuse of regulation of the academic freedom should not lead to the idea that it must be absolute. Academic freedom is not in the same category as free speech. If regulations are abused (by neocons or whoever) then they should be improved, and the community should act against these abuses. A more practical solution than conferring absolute academic freedom on grounds that otherwise it might be abused.

(let alone that absolute freedom, just like absolute constraint, is in itself abusive)

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King)

by ValentinD (walentijn arobase free spot franša) on Sun Nov 30th, 2008 at 09:39:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The necessary tools already exist to contain abuses of academic freedom, in that exercise of it must be relevant to the topic at hand. If a professor teaching a class on geology spends an hour ranting about how global warming is a hoax or about how the war in Iraq is based on lies, he gets in trouble because he's not teaching the topic that the course description says he would.

If someone tries to publish an ideological screed in an academic journal, it gets rejected on the grounds that it doesn't contain new information and/or isn't topical to the journal.

These discussions of academic freedom in the popular press are not about such restrictions - because those restrictions already exist. They are about allowing non-faculty and non-students (i.e. politicians, pundits, belief tanks, etc.) to judge when the restrictions are violated and impose sanctions over the head of the appropriate academic authorities.

Peer review isn't perfect and doesn't always work as advertised, but that's hardly a reason to let the chattering classes (which I note tend to contain far more ideologues than most university departments) do an end-run around it.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 30th, 2008 at 10:56:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't understand this. If your field is political or legal, I should certainly hope that you are passing on your message. Otherwise what would be the point?
by Upstate NY on Mon Dec 1st, 2008 at 08:44:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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