Purely Academic

By Richard T. De George
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Harvard President Larry Summers comes under fire for trying to provoke debate at a scientific conference and wins a no-confidence vote from members of his own faculty. The University of Colorado is barraged by critics calling for the head of Ward Churchill, a tenured professor who made comments that seemed to justify the 9/11 attacks. And campus Democrats nationwide blast legislation in 16 states proposing an "academic bill of rights" championed by conservative students demanding a greater diversity of views in academe.

What do these three cases have in common? They all raise the question of academic freedom -- that elusive independence on which universities rely in the pursuit of knowledge. If you've been reading the newspapers much recently, you could be forgiven for wondering what's going on with this once sacrosanct concept. The widespread condemnation of Churchill, in particular, seems to indicate that the general public thinks academic freedom has gone too far, and that it's giving professors license to play politics at whim.

But the current danger for academic freedom is not that it has been carried too far and that we have too much of it. The danger is that we have too little and that it is under subtle attack. And the attack from within the university is even more pernicious than the attack from without.

These days, it's hard to know what academic freedom stands for, or why it's so important. This is true, unfortunately, even for faculty members, many of whom don't really understand the concept. Consider the Summers case. Last January, the Harvard president had the temerity to raise the question of whether there might be an intrinsic difference between women's and men's abilities in science and engineering. Five days later, in reaction to a storm of protest about his allegedly sexist remarks, he issued an apology. An apology for what? For suggesting a possible topic for research?

Summers was clearly exercising his academic freedom, which is supposed to foster debate and argument, not straitjacket them in the name of political correctness. Disagreeing with another's views, criticizing them, arguing against them are all appropriate. But attempting to intimidate and quiet someone by labeling his views as sexist or something else that is considered politically incorrect undermines academic freedom and debate. Yet some Harvard faculty members seemed to have a hard time grasping this.

The confusion about academic freedom was not helped by the recent furor ignited by Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He received national attention after remarks he had posted on the Internet soon after 9/11 came to light. The furor provoked the Colorado legislature to condemn his statements. But the cries for his dismissal that arose from the media, university alumni and the general public demonstrated a failure to understand academic freedom, and that it is intended to prevent politics or religion or public pressure from dictating what the university and its members may or may not pursue.

Whether Churchill's comments -- and other statements he has made since the original controversy broke -- fall within the bounds of his academic freedom is up to the university to decide. Like most universities, the University of Colorado has policies protecting academic freedom, which state in part: "The faculty member is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the subject, but should be careful not to introduce into teaching controversial matter that has no relation to the subject," and "When speaking or writing as citizens, [faculty] should be free from university censorship or discipline." The latter refers to professors' freedom of speech as citizens, which is broader than their academic freedom. In the classroom, academic freedom does not give academics license to talk about anything they want. On the street corner, though, they, like any other citizen, can do just that (short of promoting sedition or provoking violence). Sanity has prevailed in the Churchill case, and the matter has been left up to the university, which has undertaken an investigation of the professor's statements and activities in accordance with its standard procedures.

Much of the confusion over academic freedom stems from a failure to understand that it is a three-part concept, aimed at promoting knowledge for the benefit of society at large. The first part relates to the university's freedom to run its own academic affairs, determine appropriate curricula and hire competent faculty without being subject to the dictates of legislatures or governors, religious leaders, alumni or donors, or governmental agencies. Those within the institution hold their positions because of their competence in their academic areas and so are best equipped to decide what needs to be taught, what needs to be researched, and how to do both.

This in turn leads to the academic freedom of individual faculty members, who are at liberty to decide how to structure their courses and what research to pursue. Finally, the academic freedom of students consists of their right to learn and to be protected against indoctrination or demands about what they must believe or say.

Academic freedom is not license; it imposes responsibilities and requires appropriate accountability. Its ultimate purpose is to give universities, their faculty and their students the liberty to pursue knowledge, to teach and to publish the result of their research for the good of society as a whole. Only if this is allowed will we all benefit from the development of new ideas, scientific findings and critical evaluations of accepted views. Only if universities maintain an atmosphere of free inquiry will they produce students who are independent leaders, capable of thinking for themselves, open to new ideas, and willing to follow arguments and evidence where they lead. A vibrant democracy and a dynamic economy need such people.

The modern notion of academic freedom comes from Europe. In its 19th-century German variation, faculty had the freedom to teach on any subject and to pursue the research they chose. Students had the freedom to study what and where they wished, and obtained a degree by passing an examination demonstrating that they had achieved the requisite level of learning. The latter is not the custom in the United States, where students have traditionally had to take a certain set and number of courses to earn a degree.

In the United States, the movement for academic freedom -- and its closely linked and also misunderstood companion, academic tenure -- resulted in part from a 1901 incident at Stanford University. Jane Stanford, who was the wife of the university's founder, insisted that an economics professor be fired because she disliked his position on the gold standard and his other economic -- and some say racist -- views. The action eventually led to the formation, in 1915, of the American Association of University Professors, which has articulated and championed academic freedom and academic tenure since its founding.

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