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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Academic freedom again

This is the text of the speech I delivered on Saturday to the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors.  The bracketed portions of text represent material that I did not read aloud in the interests of time, or (in a couple of instances) references to earlier discussions of such matters on this blog.  Those of you who read my earlier essay on the subject will recognize a few paragraphs here and there; the opening and closing remarks are substantially the same as in the earlier essay, but the middle section of the talk is new.


In the past year I’ve come to realize that very few people know what academic freedom is, or why it matters.  Perhaps that’s not surprising at a time when all too few Americans know what the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is, or why it matters.  But what I’m going to argue today is not only that academic freedom is under attack, but that we are now dealing with a coordinated program of obfuscation about just what academic freedom means.

I’ll make the obvious argument first.  Academic freedom is under attack for pretty much the same reasons that liberalism itself is under attack.  American universities tend to be somewhat left of center of the American mainstream, particularly with regard to cultural issues that have to do with gender roles and sexuality: the combination of a largely liberal, secular professoriat and a generally under-25 student body tends to give you a campus population that, by and large, does not see gay marriage as a serious threat to the Republic.  And after 9/11—again, for obvious reasons—many forms of mainstream liberalism have been denounced as anti-American.  There is, as you know, a cottage industry of popular right-wing books in which liberalism is equated with treason (that would be Ann Coulter), with mental disorders (Michael Savage), and with fascism (Jonah Goldberg).  Coulter’s book also mounts a vigorous defense of Joe McCarthy, and Michelle Malkin has written a book defending the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.  In that kind of climate, it should come as no surprise that we would be seeing attacks on one of the few remaining institutions in American life that is often—though not completely—dominated by liberals.

You’re already aware that we have in Pennsylvania a House Select Committee on Academic Freedom.  Its hearings over the past year have largely been uneventful; one of the Democrats on the committee has even described them as a “colossal waste of time.” But it’s worth noting that HR 177, which created the committee, actually stipulates

that if an individual makes an allegation against a faculty member claiming bias, the faculty member must be given at least 48 hours’ notice of the specifics of the allegation prior to the testimony being given and be given an opportunity to testify at the same hearing as the individual making the allegation. 

I think some people read that paragraph in July of last year, when it passed the Pennsylvania House, and imagined a dramatic scenario in which outraged conservative undergraduates would stand up and say “J’accuse!” at hapless liberal faculty members who’d had but 48 scant hours to get their act together and haul themselves before a board of inquiry.  Happily, things haven’t unfolded in quite that way.  There doesn’t really seem to be a flood of students complaining about their liberal professors; at Penn State, it turns out, we’ve had 13 complaints over the past five years, in a statewide system involving 8,000 professors and 80,000 students.  And those thirteen complaints don’t fit any clear pattern, either; as our local paper, the Centre Daily Times, reported on January 25 of this year, in one such complaint a Muslim student suggested that a professor was opposed to Islam; another student charged that a professor was too conservative. 

Pennsylvania is the only state to have passed one of these laws.  But thanks largely to the efforts of David Horowitz, bills like HR 177 have been introduced in about twenty states so far, and it’s clear that in many cases, the legislators sponsoring them are doing so in the name of preserving academic freedom—but without having any clear idea what academic freedom might be.  In Florida, for instance, State Rep. Dennis Baxley insisted, upon introducing a similar bill and successfully shepherding it through committe on an 8-2 party-line vote, that the legislation would help to combat “leftist totalitarianism” on the part of “dictator professors,” by allowing students to sue professors whenever they felt their beliefs were not being “respected.” At the University of Florida, the Independent Florida Alligator reported:

Students who believe their professor is singling them out for “public ridicule”—for instance, when professors use the Socratic method to force students to explain their theories in class—would also be given the right to sue.

“Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design [a creationist theory], and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” Baxley said, citing one example when he thought a student should sue.

In January 2005, Ohio state senator Larry Mumper introduced a similar bill one of whose clauses was drawn directly from the AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: “Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.” But when Senator Mumper introduced Senate Bill 24 last year, he was asked by a Columbus Dispatch reporter what he would consider “controversial matter” that should be barred from the classroom.  “Religion and politics, those are the main things,” he replied

In recent months I’ve learned something of the back story on the legislative history of Pennsylvania’s HR 177, and I’ve discovered that the bill we now have is significantly different from the bill that was first proposed.  This spring, I was a guest on a conservative radio talk show hosted by Penn State students.  They wanted to know, among other things, just what was so bad about a House committee being convened with the purpose of making sure that universities are abiding by their stated grievance procedures for students who feel they have been discriminated against on political grounds.  I replied that while it’s perfectly legitimate for the state to ensure that universities have adequate grievance procedures for students, Rep. Gibson Armstrong’s proposal for such a committee said no such thing; on the contrary, the original bill called for the creation of a committee that would investigate everything from reading lists to hiring practices, and that would travel throughout the state holding fifteen to twenty hearings on liberal bias—hearings in which accused professors would have no opportunity to face their accusers (that bit about the “48 hours’ notice” was an especially late revision).  Furthermore, the original language of HR 177 sought to ensure that students would be graded on (among other things) their ability to defend their perspectives.  Now there’s a recipe for relativism—in which you have to give a student an A for his dogged insistence on citing the Book of Genesis in a class on evolutionary theory. 

Fortunately, between the first draft and the version that passed the House, the adults in Pennsylvania took over, and revised the charge of the committee so that its focus lay largely on the viability of universities’ internal grievance procedures.  But that was not what the hard-right culture warriors wanted; they wanted a much more wide-ranging and intrusive committee.  And in a weird way, the outcome of those revisions to the bill helped to confuse the public understanding of academic freedom still further—for, after all, here was a House committee investigating “academic freedom” by making sure that students had every opportunity to speak their minds.


THE PRINCIPLE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM stipulates that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”; it insists that professors should have intellectual autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research.  In this respect it is one of the legacies of the Enlightenment, which sought—successfully, in those nations most influenced by the Enlightenment—to free scientists and humanists from the dictates of church and state.  And it is precisely that autonomy from legislative and religious oversight that helped to fuel the extraordinary scientific and intellectual efflorescence in the West over the past two centuries; it has also served as one of the cornerstones of the free and open society, in contrast to societies in which certain forms of research will not be pursued if they displease the General Secretary or the Council of Clerics.  But today, the paradox of these legislative “academic bills of rights” is this: they claim to defend academic freedom precisely by promising to give the state direct oversight of course curricula, of departmental hiring practices, and of the intellectual direction of academic fields.  In other words, by violating the very principle they claim to defend.

Now, Horowitz claims that the Academic Bill of Rights does no such thing; he points out that it includes a great deal of language from the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom, and he insists that it would forbid the hiring or firing of any faculty member on the basis of his or her political beliefs.  But that’s just what David Horowitz says for public consumption.  To his supporters and funders, by contrast, he says that his mission is to “get into the trenches with the radical left and battle them into submission.” That’s a real quote, from one of Horowitz’s fundraising letters, in which he claims that there are “thousands of Ward Churchills” teaching at American universities. [Veteran readers of his humble blog will surely remember my response to that particular Horowitz text in December of last year.] Well, you think, maybe Horowitz is just engaging in a little rhetorical excess here, a little hyperbole for the folks at home; really, all he wants is for university faculties to be more ideologically diverse.  You think wrong.  Here’s Horowitz in his 2000 book, The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits: “[y]ou cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can only do it by following Lenin’s injunction: ‘In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent’s argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.’” (See Graham Larkin’s take on this passage in an April 2005 essay for Inside Higher Ed.)

There should be no question about this: David Horowitz was a member of the extremist fringe thirty years ago when he was hanging out with late-model Black Panther Party crackpots, and he’s a member of the extremist fringe now.  He’s merely exchanged fringes.  And he’s notoriously slipshod in everything he does, right down to his claim that on the eve of the 2004 election, a Penn State biology professor showed his class Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, compounded by his admission that he had no proof of this claim despite making it throughout the latter half of 2005, compounded still further that his claim that he was holding himself to “a higher standard of honesty” for dropping the original claim when he was challenged on it by Pennsylvania Democrat Lawrence Curry this past January. [About his questioning by Curry, Horowitz said to USA Today, “These underhanded, devious, malicious, dishonest tactics.  I gave 45 minutes of testimony, a half-hour of questions, and I never once mentioned the incident they’re referring to. . . .  Curry saved it to the very end of the hearings and rammed it to me.” Yes, you heard that right: it was underhanded, devious, malicious, and dishonest of Lawrence Curry to ask Horowitz about a claim he had not made at the hearing—but had made repeatedly for six months prior to the hearing.] So why are twenty states considering legislation written by this man, legislation that claims to defend academic freedom by placing professors directly under the control and oversight of the state?  Why does he have the ear of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?  Horowitz has managed to pull off this rhetorical and political feat by confusing the definition of academic freedom, construing it as a property of students rather than teachers.  Basically, he has managed to convince many Americans, including many American students, that “academic freedom” means, among other things, “freedom from liberal professors.”

You can find a neatly condensed form of this confusion in Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom handbook.  I have a copy of the handbook with me, and I hope all of you brought yours.  It’s a little red book of some kind, but I don’t rightly know what to call it.  Anyway, here’s Horowitz on page 19:

VI.  Frequently Asked Questions

1.  Question: Is there a conflict of interest in appealing to the legislature for help in the case of public universities, since the principles of academic freedom seek to protect the university from political interference?

Answer: There is no conflict.  The state legislatures and publicly appointed boards of trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayer-funded institutions and their tax-paying supporters.  Among them is the responsibility to insure that these institutions serve the whole community and not just a partisan political or philosophical faction.  If public universities become politically partisan they act to subvert the democratic process, which is not what their creators intended.  It is illegal under state patronage laws to use state-funded institutions for partisan purposes.  No one has the right to create a closed political fiefdom at public expense.  Such exclusionary practices are the very opposite of academic freedom.  Most importantly, there is a world of difference between asking the legislature to defend principles of academic freedom, intellectual diversity and student rights, and asking them to interfere with the universities’ proper academic functions.

I hope some of you are familiar with the game of three-card monte, because by the time you’ve gotten to that final sentence, the little red book has done a fine job of hiding the little red card: “academic freedom” has now become “academic freedom, intellectual diversity and student rights,” while professors who teach about the history of race in the United States in ways Horowitz does not like, to take but one example, have become “partisan” members of a “political fiefdom” that works to “subvert the democratic process.”

[A more elaborate version of this argument can be found in Mark Bauerlein’s testimony to the Georgia state legislature on Horowitz’s behalf, the full transcript of which is available at FrontPage.com.  Some of you may be familiar with the celebrated Chronicle of Higher Education essay in which Bauerlein argues, “we can’t open the university to conservative ideas and persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry.” But not all of you will be familiar with the fact that eight months before that essay was published, Bauerlein was saying something quite dramatically different:

In a democratic society, universities occupy a special place, namely, the place in which inquiry is to be unfettered by politics, money, and power. But in return comes an obligation for professors to safeguard the principles of free exchange. It’s a social contract: society grants faculty space protected from power politics and business models, and faculty members pledge to uphold the ideals that differentiate the campus from the rest of society.

Academic freedom doesn’t precede the contract, nor does it belong exclusively to the faculty. Every member in the campus community must honor academic freedom and be honored by it. It is just as easy for a professor to violate a student’s academic freedom as it is for an administrator to violate a professor’s academic freedom. For a professor to argue with a student over conservative opinion is altogether fitting and proper, so long as it is conducted with respect and decided on evidence. But for faculty to hire only Left-leaning faculty, teach only Left-leaning thinkers, and explore only Left-leaning opinions is to substitute advocacy for inquiry. For administrators to discourage conservative speakers, while paying radical Leftists five-figure fees, is to throw a mainstream aura around but one narrow range of belief.

The educational costs of such bigotry are obvious, and the ethical example it sets is deplorable. Such behaviors belong outside the campus, not inside, and there is no reason why outsiders should countenance universities that break the terms of the social contract. To be sure, academic Leftists will perceive outside pressure as an infringement of academic freedom. They think that the university is an independent enclave accountable only to itself, and that any incursions from beyond by definition threaten the integrity of higher education. But, in truth, outside pressure arises precisely in order to do the opposite. It is the faculty who have abandoned the ideal, who stifle dissent no matter how learned, who under the guise of a rearguard, adversarial, protest posture rule the campus intellectual world and apportion its many comforts and securities to a slim ideological spectrum.

This is what we must demonstrate to trustees, alumnae, politicians, and parents. Academic freedom isn’t the property of the faculty. It is the responsibility of campus dwellers, yes, but the property of all citizens.

Some people would criticize Bauerlein for lining up with Horowitz so thoroughly—for misconstruing “academic freedom” as a property of students and for telling legislators that universities “hire only Left-leaning faculty, teach only Left-leaning thinkers, and explore only Left-leaning opinions.” But not me! I support all forms of intellectual diversity, including a healthy diversity of intellectually honest and intellectually dishonest positions!]

This past year, some students at Penn State have picked up this idea as well, and have begun to defend their right to academic freedom in the face of stultifying professorial orthodoxy.  Under the banner of promoting “academic freedom,” the Young Americans for Freedom erected a cute little mockup of the Berlin Wall last November, to symbolize their oppression at the hands of their liberal professors. One student was quoted in the Penn State Daily Collegian as saying “communism was pretty much dead,” but at Penn State, “it’s still one of the most heavily taught subjects.” Another agreed that “there were many liberal courses at Penn State, especially in sociology, his minor.” Now, quite apart from the question of whether communism is heavily taught at Penn State, or whether it is synonymous with liberalism, perhaps it’s worth pointing out to conservative students (at Penn State and elsewhere) that the people of the Eastern bloc, the people on the other side of the Berlin Wall, suffered mightily and died in great numbers under Communist rule, from the forced collectivization of the farms through the show trials and purges, the jailing and exile of dissidents, the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, and the crackdown in Poland.  Surely, then, one liberal response to Penn State’s Berlin Wall is that such gestures actually trivialize the history to which they appeal.  For it is one thing to experience political oppression at the hands of Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev.  It is quite another thing to have a liberal sociology professor in a course you have chosen to take at a university you have chosen to attend.  I can’t imagine that Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa would be terribly impressed with Penn State’s Berlin Wall, or the bravery of those who built it.  Nor can I imagine that they would think much of a putatively “conservative” movement whose goal it is to place educational institutions directly under the control of the state.

And yet this kind of thinking is now taken for granted in some quarters of the right.  Last November, National Association of Scholars president Stephen Balch testified to the Pennsylvania House Committee on Academic Freedom that because of the number of faculty members at state-funded universities in Pennsylvania who identify with “a particular political group,” state legislatures should make sure that no “advocacy” exists.  I want to call attention to the evidentiary standard here: a preponderance of registered Democrats among the faculty, in and of itself, is grounds for state action. According to the National Association of Scholars transcript of Balch’s testimony, the state of Pennsylvania must pursue “intellectual diversity” in hiring—meaning, of course, a redress of the shortage of conservatives in academe.  The legislature, Balch argued,

should expect to see the problem of intellectual pluralism addressed with the same vigor that the state’s universities are already addressing what they take to be the problem of a lack of ethnic and gender diversity. . . .

The legislature must expect a full accounting of progress made toward these goals each time the state’s universities seek new statutory authority and renewed financial support.  If a good-faith effort is being made to overcome these problems, it should leave the remedial specifics to the universities’ own decision making.  If a good-faith effort isn’t made, it should urge governing boards to seek new leadership as a condition of full support.  Failing even in that, it might, as a last resort, consider a full-scale organizational overhaul, to design governance systems and institutional arrangements better able to meet the obligations that go with academic freedom.

“Full-scale organizational overhaul”: what can that mean?  I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound good.  And while I don’t want to say it sounds . . . Stalinist, exactly, I’m told that it was more elegant in the original Russian, when it had the secondary connotation of “let’s party like it’s 1929.”

More seriously, Balch is drawing on the history of affirmative action and employment discrimination law in order to argue that universities should make “good faith” efforts to hire people more to his ideological liking.  This is a common theme in right-wing attacks on universities, especially among those critics who have become alarmed that affirmative action has gone too far, insofar as fully five percent of all doctorates are now awarded to black people.  In 2002, attorney Kenneth Lee, a member of the far-right Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, made the case in so many words.  “The simple logic underlying much of contemporary civil-rights law,” said Lee, “applies equally to conservative Republicans, who appear to face clear practices of discrimination in American academia that are statistically even starker than previous blackballings by race.” Even starker than previous blackballings by race: according to Lee, conservative scholars have it worse than did African-Americans under segregation and Jim Crow.  Conservative is indeed the new black.  (This would mean, I imagine, that on some campuses there are fewer than zero conservatives.) It is a fantastic and deeply offensive claim in and of itself, but it becomes all the more offensive if you go back and look at the history of conservatives’ opposition to affirmative action programs in American higher education.


BUT WHERE ARE MY MANNERS? I’ve spent all this time on David Horowitz and the National Association of Scholars, and I haven’t even mentioned the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, even though its president, Anne D. Neal, has come all this way to be with us today.  Last month, ACTA published a report titled “How Many Ward Churchills?”, which consists largely of course descriptions adduced by ACTA as evidence that American universities are in fact infested by Ward Churchills.  As the report says, “it is important to explore just how widespread the Ward Churchill phenomenon” really is.  The first subheading, “Ward Churchill is Everywhere,” would seem to suggest, at least on one reading, that Ward Churchill is everywhere.

Now, I can’t say much about the courses ACTA flags, because I know no more about them than ACTA does.  All we have are the course descriptions, and it’s hard to say on the basis of those that the professors who designed the courses are really willing to blame the World Trade Center dead for the attacks of September 11. [Timothy Burke’s response to the report is characteristically painstaking and substantive, and his followup discussion is far more patient than the report or its defenders deserve.] But there is one course description I recognized when I read through the report:

Penn State University offers “American Masculinities,” which maps “how vexed ideas about maleness, manhood, and masculinity provided rough-riding presidents, High Modern novelists, Provincetown playwrights, queer regionalists, star-struck inverts, surly bohemians and others with a means to negotiate—and gender—the cultural and political turmoil that constituted modern American life.”

I happen to know who taught that course.  He is a brilliant young professor, and, thank goodness, he is nothing like Ward Churchill.  In fact, I don’t see anything objectionable about this course description, regardless of who taught the course.  On the contrary, I suggest that anyone who tries to claim that such a course has no place at an American university has no business commenting on American universities. 

By the way, since ACTA, Horowitz and company are fond of telling people that courses like this are not only evidence of the corruption of the university but also a disservice to students, perhaps it’s germane that the student evaluations of this course, and of this professor, have been off-the-charts spectacular.

[Since returning from Washington I’ve learned that ACTA blogger and University of Pennsylvania English professor Erin O’Connor is now congratulating Ms. Neal on the “civility” and on the “measured, searching, mutually respectful tone” with which she conducts correspondence with her critics, even as she continues to engage in the Horowitzian tactic of associating thousands of fine professors with Ward Churchill—including one anthropologist who committed the thoughtcrime of putting the word “race” in scare quotes.  Interestingly, a commenter by the name of Aretha Franklin, who rightly considers such attacks disrespectful of the work of good teachers, is having none of it.]

There are two more kinds of confusion behind the attacks on academic freedom, as well, and I’ll just touch on them briefly for now.

The first is that most critics of universities don’t seem to distinguish between unconscious liberal bias and conscious, articulate liberal convictions.  They take the language of “bias” from critiques of the so-called liberal media, where it is applied to outlets like the New York Times and CBS News that, in the view of movement conservatives, lend a leftish slant to the news both deliberately and unwittingly.  But the language of “bias” is not very well suited to the work of, say, a researcher who has spent decades investigating American drug policy or conflicts in the Middle East and who has come to conclusions that amount to more or less “liberal” critiques of current policies.  Such conclusions are not “bias”; rather, they are legitimate, well-founded beliefs, and of course they should be presented—ideally, along with legitimate competing beliefs—in college classrooms.  Now, notice that I said legitimate competing beliefs.  We have no obligation to debate whether the Holocaust happened.  And that’s not a hypothetical matter.  Late last fall, the philosopher with whom I co-founded the Penn State chapter of the AAUP, Claire Katz, informed me of a graduate teaching assistant in philosophy who had just had a very strange encounter with a student.  The course, which dealt with bioethics, had recently dealt with the vile history of experiments on unwitting and/or unwilling human subjects, from the Holocaust to Tuskegee, and the student wanted to know whether the “other side” would be presented as well.  I hope you’re asking yourselves, what other side?—because, of course, to all reasonable and responsible researchers in the field, there is no “other side”; there is no pro-human experimentation position that needs to be introduced into classroom discussion to counteract possible liberal “bias.” We are not in the business of inviting pro-Nazi spokesmen for Joseph Mengele to our classrooms.  More recently, I was asked by a member of the Penn State College Republicans whether I taught “both sides” in my graduate seminar on disability studies.  In response, I mentioned the debate over what’s called the ethics of selective abortion of fetuses with disabilities, and briefly sketched out four or five positions on the question.  My point, of course, was that just as it is a mistake to think that there are two sides to every question, it is also a mistake—and a pernicious one, encouraged by Horowitz, Balch, and company—to think that there are only two sides to every question.  But this is the language with which some of our students now enter the classroom; it is the language of cable news and mass-media simulacra of “debate.” There is one side, and then there is the other side.  That constitutes balance, and anything else is bias. 

A second confusion has to do with “accountability.” The argument goes like this, and I have heard it innumerable times in recent years, here at Penn State and at public universities across the country: We pay the bills for these proselytizing faculty liberals—we should have some say over what they teach and how they teach it.  Public universities should be accountable to the public. And you know, at first blush it sounds kind of reasonable.  The taxes of the people of Pennsylvania do go to support Penn State, and I take the mission of the public university very seriously.  From Virginia to Illinois to dear old State, I have spent my adult life at public universities, and I will be happy to explain my teaching and writing to any member of the public who wants to learn more about it.  But let’s look more closely at that funding, and at what forms of “accountability” are appropriate to an educational institution.  Only twenty years ago, forty-five percent of Penn State’s budget was provided by public funds; back then, in-state tuition was $2562.  Our level of state support is now down to 10 percent, and, not coincidentally, in-state tuition is $11,508.  So perhaps it’s worth pointing out that state support has declined as state demands for accountability have increased; or, to put this more dramatically, I sometimes find myself faced with people who say, in effect, “I pay ten percent of your salary, and that gives me the right to screen one hundred percent of your thoughts.”

Now, Penn State as an institution is accountable for that ten percent of its budget.  We should—and we do—make every effort to ensure that our funds are spent responsibly, and I think everyone who’s dealt with a university purchasing system will know what I’m talking about.  But that does not mean that legislators and taxpayers have the right, or the ability, to determine the direction of academic fields of research.  And I say this with all due respect to my fellow citizens: you have every right to know that your money is not being wasted.  But you do not have the right to suggest that the biology department should make room for promoters of Intelligent Design; or that the astronomy department should take stock of the fact that many people believe more in astrology than in cosmology; or that the history department should concentrate more on great leaders and less on broad social movements; or that the philosophy department should put more emphasis on deontological rather than on utilitarian conceptions of the social contract.  The people who teach these subjects in public universities actually do have expertise in their fields, an expertise they have accumulated throughout their lives.  And this is why we believe that decisions about academic affairs should be conducted by means of peer review rather than by plebescite.  It’s a difficult contradiction to grasp: on the one hand, professors at public universities should be accountable and accessible to the public; but on the other hand, they should determine the intellectual direction of their fields without regard to public opinion or political fashion.  This is precisely why academic freedom is so invaluable: it creates and sustains educational institutions that are independent of demographic variables.  Which is to say: from Maine to California, the content of a public university education should not depend on whether 60 percent of the population doubts evolution or whether 40 percent of the population of a state believes in angels—and, more to the point, the content of a university education should be independent of whatever political party is in power at any one moment in history.  Would I say this if Feingold Democrats were in power in every state house from sea to shining sea?  Absolutely.  Without a moment’s hesitation.  Legislative interference by Democrats would violate the principle of academic freedom just as surely as would interference by Republicans, though I suppose the interference would take a somewhat different form.  And don’t even get me started about those Greens.

To understand what’s at stake in this principle, we have to make an important distinction between substantive liberalism and procedural liberalism.  For one of the things at stake here is the very ideal of independent intellectual inquiry, the kind of inquiry whose outcomes cannot be known in advance and cannot be measured in terms of efficiency or productivity.  There is no mystery why some of our critics loathe liberal campuses: it is not simply that conservatives control all three branches of government and are striking out at the few areas of American cultural life they do not dominate.  That much is true, but it fails to capture the truly radical nature of these attacks on academe: for these are attacks not simply on the substance of liberalism (in the form of specific fiscal or social policies stemming from the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society) but on procedural liberalism itself, on the idea that no one political faction should control every facet of a society.  There is a sense, then, in which traditional conservatives are procedural liberals, as are liberals themselves; but members of the radical right, and the radical left, are not.  The radical right’s contempt for procedural liberalism, with its checks, balances, and guarantees that minority reports will be incorporated into the body politic, can be seen in recent defenses of the theory that the President has the power to set aside certain laws and provisions of the Constitution at will, and in the religious right’s increasingly venomous and hallucinatory attacks on a judicial branch most of whose members were in fact appointed by Republicans.  What animates the radical right, in other words, is not so much a specific liberal belief about stem-cell research here or gay civil unions there; on an abstract level, it’s not about any specific liberal issues at all.  Rather, it’s about the very existence of areas of political and intellectual independence that do not answer directly and favorably to the state.  So, for example (and this is my final example, chosen especially for you librarians out there), when in April 2005 Alabama state representative Gerald Allen proposed a bill that would have prevented Alabama’s public libraries from buying books by gay authors or involving gay characters, he wasn’t actually acting as a conservative.  Real “conservatives” don’t do that.  He was behaving like a member of the radical right.  Indeed, his original intent was to strip libraries of all such works, from Shakespeare to Alice Walker; and as he put it, “I don’t look at it as censorship.  I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children.” Thankfully, relatively few public officials see it as their job to protect the children of America from the heritage of Western culture. 

But some do, and that’s why academic freedom is so important.  It may not be written into the Bill of Rights—you know, the real one, the one in the Constitution.  It is far younger than the rights enumerated there, and more fragile.  But together with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the freedom of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, academic freedom is an aspect of procedural liberalism that is one of the cornerstones of a free society.  If you believe in the ideals of the open society and the intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment, you should believe in the ideal of professors’ intellectual independence from the state—and you should believe that it is an ideal worth defending.

Posted by Michael on 06/13 at 01:48 PM
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