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April 12, 2007

academic freedom and accountability

More than a week ago, Harry Brighouse wrote a Crooked Timber post entitled "What's the point of academic freedom?" It provoked a lively, focused, and intelligent discussion. One of Harry's main points was that academic freedom is not primarily a matter of individual autonomy. Universities, disciplines, and academic departments control what is taught, what is published, what work qualifies advanced students for degrees, what research is funded, who is hired, promoted, and tenured, who is invited to speak publicly, and on what topics. In all these respects, academia as a set of institutions constrains the free speech rights of individual academics when they are on the job.

The main questions, therefore, are: (1) To what extent should academic institutions be autonomous--collectively-self governing? (The alternative is for some outside power, such as the state government, to regulate them). (2) How should academia govern itself? For example, should the faculty of a whole university (which combines many disciplines) influence tenure decisions within a particular department? (3) To what extent should academic institutions decide to govern themselves by granting maximum individual autonomy to professors over such matters as course topics? To what extent should the internal norms of academia be libertarian, as opposed to meritocratic, egalitarian, or communitarian?

Much of the discussion in the comments thread favored institutional autonomy for academia on the grounds, first, that outsiders lack the expertise to make judgments of quality, and second, that politicians and students have untrustworthy agendas. The examples that arose include medieval studies, philosophy of language, and Victorian English literature. In these cases, research costs relatively little (thus is can be sustained with tuition money). Such research has relatively little impact on public policy or public issues. And such research can be particularly technical and hard for outsiders to judge properly. Thus it seems unnecessary and unwise for outsiders, such as politicians, to try to influence how these disciplines are practiced.

But the core liberal arts represent only a small fraction of academia. Some professors are engaged in pure research that is very costly, requiring particle accelerators or massive door-to-door surveys. These researchers are surely accountable to the taxpayers or foundations who fund their work. Even if legislators cannot understand particle physics, they must make judgments about whether it is worth money that could otherwise be spent on child health or returned to taxpayers. There is no expertise on that essentially moral matter, which is for the public and its representatives to decide.

Other professors teach and study fields like elementary education, accounting, marketing, planning, forestry, law, public health, librarianship, and nursing. These fields have direct relevance to public institutions and policies. For example, planners actually determine the shape of our cities; education professors profoundly influence aspects of our public schools. Academics are also gatekeepers to licensed professions, such as law and teaching, that are very powerful within the state sector; in this respect, their political power is evident and direct.

The expertise that these professions develop is at least partly problematic. For example, it is good to have rigorous, quantitative research on education. But it is also crucial for parents and other citizens to judge what their schools are doing and why. If education becomes dominated by highly technical jargon, our schools are no longer genuinely "public." Genuinely public schools are ones in which many adults participate and influence the outcomes and norms. Participatory schools work better than others, but that is not the main point. The main point is that people have a right to shape the education of the next generation.

If one starts with the example of a philosopher of language, writing a paper in her own home after teaching classes to pay her salary, the arguments for academic autonomy are at their zenith. As one commenter writes, such "professors only answer to other professors." But if one starts with a professor of educational administration or urban planning, I think it's pretty obvious that the public has some rights of oversight and review. How exactly that should be exercised is a more complicated question.

April 12, 2007 9:23 AM | category: academia | Comments


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