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February 15, 2005

academic freedom

In my usual style, here is a very belated comment on two once-"hot" news stories: Larry Summers and Ward Churchill. For all their differences, these men are both university employees who got into trouble for their public speech. In both cases, "academic freedom" has been cited as a defense.

In my opinion, "academic freedom" is not an individual civil right that academics can wield in conflicts with their employers. Academics, like everyone else, have First Amendment rights, but those are rights against the state. The First Amendment does not require a university to pay us to say anything we like, nor must it grant us academic credit or preferment for our speech. Universities carefully and intensively regulate the speech of their students, professors, and administrators. You can't receive credit or a degree for your writing unless it fulfills a professor's assignment and meets all kinds of canonical standards of relevance and rigor. You can't get tenure unless your work is acceptable to the mainstream discipline in which you work. Even once you have tenure, you can't win grants, promotions, or opportunities to publish without subjecting your "speech" to peer review for content. Thus if academic freedom were a right of individuals, it would be a myth.

Academic freedom is not an individual civil right, but rather an institutional prerogative. When we support academic freedom, we mean that colleges and universities, scholarly associations, journals, and presses should be free to set their own standards for expression without (much) state interference. In other words, the ideal is autonomy for certain professional associations, not rights for their employees as individuals.

Tenure causes confusion: it makes us think that the central commitment of a university is to the individual autonomy of professors. But tenure only applies to senior faculty (not to students, junior faculty, or administrators). Moreover, it is part of a larger system. It is aimed against one problem--invidious political pressure on professors not to teach or publish unpopular ideas. That is a real threat, but universities also worry about "free speech" that is incompetent, undisciplined, or irrelevant. To address that problem, they put academics through a lengthy and grueling socialization process before they grant tenure. And even after tenure, they apply all kinds of pressure to make faculty express themselves in particular ways.

Which brings me to the two cases of recent weeks. I haven't made a study of Ward Churchill's writing, nor do I have time to do so. But there are tenured professors--possibly including Dr. Churchill--who are radical blowhards: offensive and totally lacking in rigor and discipline. Such people are one price we pay for the tenure system. (Some other costs are the burnouts and timeservers on our faculties.) If tenure makes sense, it's because the advantage of protecting trenchant, insighful radicals outweighs the cost of all those blowhards and timeservers. I don't know for sure that this price is worth paying--it probably is. In any case, we should evaluate tenure overall, and not let particular cases dominate our thinking. Thus Churchill may have to be allowed to speak offensively and foolishly in order to uphold an institutional rule that is valuable, overall.

As for Larry Summers: some have said that he "modeled" free speech by making a politically incorrect statement about women in science. I would reply that he modeled free speech but without rigor or discipline. Moreover, he is an administrator, and as such his primary duty is to shape and implement policies. Harvard ostensibly has a policy of attracting more female scientists. Summers' comment undermined Harvard's policy. As such, it was damaging. He was like a corporate executive who criticizes his company's product, or a U.S. ambassador who attacks American foreign policy in public. The First Amendment covers his speech, but that only means that he can't be prosecuted for it. He has no right to be paid for it. If Harvard chooses to retain him, which seems very likely, it will be because Summers' talents outweigh his mistakes. But his comment about women was a mistake, and "academic freedom" is no excuse.

[Added Feb. 17: It can be courageous and honorable for an employee to attack the policies of his or her organization, if the criticism is valid. However, such a critic must also be prepared to face the consequences. For instance, a US diplomat who criticizes American foreign policy may deserve public praise but ought to submit his or her resignation letter along with the critique. The same applies to a university president who undermines the institution's policies. But see Andrew Canter's challenging response in the comments.]

By the way, I don't have tenure and have never been on a tenure track. I'm fairly grateful not to have gone through the socialization process that tenure would have entailed.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:41 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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