Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

The future of academic Freedom

The Future of Academic FreedomHenry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Summary: A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university.

What is academic freedom? Classically it has been defined as the protection of the freedom in research and publication, freedom of discussion in the classroom on matters related to their discipline, and freedom when they speak or write as citizens from discipline or censorship, with the expectation that while they do not speak for their university or profession, that they nevertheless represent these and ought speak with both accuracy and constraint. (Summarized from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure adopted by the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).

Henry Reichman, the Chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers in this work a rigorous defense of academic freedom, and a discussion of some of the related controversies on campus, and trends that threaten that freedom. He opens by posing the question, “does academic freedom have a future?” He explores the different trends threatening academic freedom that he will explore in more detail, from efforts to censor faculty or outside speakers on campus, the limits on students expressive freedoms, and more serious in his view, efforts to administratively or legislatively censor faculty speech,

In his chapter justifying academic freedom, he engages what he calls the “cramped” argument of Stanley Fish that argues that the responsibility of faculty is to research and teaching focused in one’s discipline, and that extramural expressions of ideas (for example on politics or personal ethics) fall outside the duties of faculty. He argues that this is not consistent with historic AAUP commitments that contend that the profession’s devotion to the larger common good justify accurate and responsible speech on wider issues both as members of the universities as citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

This leads to further discussion on faculty freedoms to speak as citizens, including utterances on Twitter. He explores challenges to that freedom by administrations or pressures brought to bear when faculty make controversial public statements. One of the things that comes out is a differentiation between free speech and academic freedom. While faculty can speak freely as citizens, not all such speech may be protected under provisions of academic freedom, particularly when such speech raises questions of fitness for their position. He considers specific cases, some in which he would argue that dismissal was unwarranted.

He discusses some of the much-ballyhooed threats to free speech on campuses (particularly speakers who are dis-invited or shouted down) and contends that these threats, while real and requiring a vigorous response, are often isolated and exaggerated. He points to the thousands of counter-examples of speakers on a variety of issues who speak on campus, sometimes with vigorous dialogue, which he contends is what campuses are for. He contends for the expressive freedom of students, which, while not academic freedom, per sé, nevertheless is consistent with the university as a place of free inquiry.

The real issue, he believes come from the pressures exerted on administrations by donors, cost-cutting pressures in increasingly corporatized universities that are reducing the numbers of tenured faculty and resulting in the increased use of contingent faculty, and political pressures attacking the idea of higher education, particularly public education, and seeking to reduce research funding and student aid.

One of the most revealing aspects of Reichman’s discussion is the evolving AAUP stance on unions and collective bargaining. AAUP has sought to maintain itself as a professional organization, and yet the pressures of both faculty speech and finances around both the corporatization of the university have necessitated the evolution of unions or union-like structures in AAUP chapters at many universities. One senses that Reichman accepts this as a necessary evil that has arisen in an era of bloated administrations and eroded faculty governance and standing.

Reichman gives us a discussion at once careful, grounded in historical precedent, and at the same time attuned to the changing environment of contemporary higher education. The work serves both as a good introduction to the idea of academic freedom, and a spirited discussion of what that means in the present time. He shows that academic freedom is not a mere indulgence, but essential for the education of students, the advance of learning, and the wider common good of society.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Black Blocs and Free Speech

March_on_Crystal_City,_black_bloc_near_World_Bank

Ben Schumin, Own Work – March on Crystal City CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the more disturbing trends coming to university campuses as well as other public settings is the rise of the “black bloc.” Black blocs first came into being in Germany in the 1980’s in Autonomists movement protest against squatter evictions. These spread to the U.S. in 1990 and became prominent in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

What is a “black bloc?” Wikipedia gives the following description:

“A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items such as pepper-spray which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.”

It should be noted that the term “black bloc” refers to the clothing worn by the groups and not the racial identity of the participants. 

Recently, black blocs have come into the public awareness during the Trump inauguration, when they smashed windows and destroyed property in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the country.

More troubling yet were the riots that broke out in Berkeley when controversial conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. About 1500 Berkeley students gathered to peacefully protest, something quite appropriate under their First Amendment rights. This protest was broken up and turned into mayhem by a group of 150 using black bloc tactics. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, they came:

“…to start fires, break windows and hurl rocks at police officers — and who accomplished all of those things. They wore black and concealed their faces with masks. They brought — and used — bats, metal rods, fireworks and Molotov cocktails to get their message across, in the process undermining ‘the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence,’ a spokesperson for Berkeley said in a statement.”

Perhaps the most troubling incident took place recently at idyllic Middlebury College. Charles Murray, author of the controversial The Bell Curve was slated to speak there. A political science professor, Allison Stanger, would be moderating a question and answer session afterwards. In this case a group of students and faculty shouted and chanted so long that Murray could not speak. Then Stanger was attacked by protesters afterwards who yanked her hair so violently she needed to wear a neck brace. Then about 6 to 12 who may not have been students and using black bloc tactics attacked her car until police were summoned when they fled.

Many of those who have engaged in black bloc actions have been described as anarchists, and indeed, it seems that the effects of their actions are the destruction of civil order. In most cases there is a protest against something, and often the destructive acts have been against symbols that represent what they are protesting (e.g. smashing the windows of a Starbucks).

One of the troubling aspects of black blocs is how they undermine legitimate but peaceful protest. It is likely for example that all those at Berkeley were tarred with the same brush as a result of the black bloc tactics. Yet there were two different groups present, one acting legitimately and one illegally.

The Middlebury incident tells a more nuanced tale. It would suggest that black blocs represent an extreme of what has become acceptable in many public fora–to simply shout down and suppress speech we do not like or disagree with. It is troubling to me that faculty, those who should represent reasoned discourse and collegiality joined in these protests, even against one of their own colleagues.

Most faculty I know would repudiate such things, yet it is troubling that some will join in. It suggests how deeply the disease of poisoned discourse has penetrated not only our social and news media, but even the halls of education.

I wonder if some of it comes down to our loss of a capacity to have a good argument. I speak of good in two senses: both in being able to support a contention with cogent reasons and in being able to do so with charity toward the person with whom we differ. When all we speak in are soundbites, we may lose the capacity and intellectual heft for substance.

I also wonder if it arises from a belief that there is a “right not to be offended.” That has always puzzled me. I have always believed that being offended was not something others could do to me but a choice I made, which means I have other options when I hear something to which I could take offense. I could be curious to know why someone would hold such an idea. Or I might simply decide that they are acting the fool–someone impervious to reason, in which case I might change the subject or just walk away.

While I never approve of such violence or anarchy, I do wonder if sometimes it arises from a perceived or real sense that speech is being ignored, or even suppressed. Nihilism and anarchy seem to be close cousins. Do people turn to anarchy when they become convinced that reasoned discourse and civil protest are meaningless? Do people act in these ways when they see others doing immoral but legal things because it is within their power to do so? Only those with a very different outlook can take the long view of a Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the wake of police violence and efforts to suppress basic human rights, King chose the way of love and non-violent resistance.

This leads me to ask whether our present inability to foster civil discourse, and the increasing incidents of the suppression of free speech reveal the paucity of the spiritual resources in our lives. Do we feed our lives on anger and outrage because we have no reason for hope? Do our tantrums reveal that we have given up on truth? Have we give up on the faith of a King, a Desmond Tutu, a Karol Wojtyla to embrace the blackness of nothing? These are the questions the rise of black blocs, and other forms of suppressing free speech and civil discourse raise for me. What about you?

“Tell Me More”

Tell me moreI recently wrote a post on “the speech of freedom“, which I proposed is the kind of speech that affords the dignity, and seeks the freedom and flourishing of those I am speaking about or with, particularly those with whom I disagree.

Really, when it comes down to it, this is just responsible free speech. Responsible free speech never undermines the dignity and freedom of others, even those we disagree with, to obtain our object. It recognizes that there really is no “us” and “them”, whether we are talking about our town, our nation, or our world. We are in this thing called life together.

I heard a talk at a conference recently that proposed a simple statement that we can utter when confronted with the different that we are tempted to call “them”. It was a very basic example to me of practicing “the speech of freedom.” It was the statement, “tell me more.”

“Tell me more”:

  • is an invitation to a conversation, not an argument.
  • is an indication that I want to understand rather than pigeonhole.
  • requires that I shut up and listen.
  • is a statement acknowledging the dignity of the other, that their “more” is worth hearing.

Most often when I hear something with which I take issue, or meet someone who I sense is very different I want to:

  • immediately jump into an argument about why they are wrong.
  • fit them into a category and be done with them.
  • tell them more about why I am right.
  • persuade myself of at least the moral inferiority of the other, that somehow I am more virtuous, or more “something.”

All these things fail the test of the speech of freedom, because to be on the receiving end of such speech neither engenders good will nor extends greater dignity and freedom to the other. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way by another.

“Tell me more” is different. In extending the freedom to another to make themselves understood, I open up rather than shut down speech. It also allows each of us to open our minds to the other and to be curious rather than shutting our minds to the new and different. “Tell me more” gives me the freedom for a whole range of other options than simply being “offended” by difference–I can be intrigued, open, thoughtful, even delighted in the end. “Tell me more” allows me to either be persuaded, or unpersuaded by a different idea. One thing it doesn’t allow me is to be ignorant of why someone else might think that way.

I hope to write more on “the speech of freedom” this year. I believe this is something we desperately need to sustain and enhance a democratic and civil society. I also want to work on using these three words more consistently when I encounter difference:

“Tell me more.”