Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Academic Freedom: What It Is and Isn't

One of the essential tenets of philosophical Taoism is the notion of the yin and the yang: that idea that opposites define each other. There can be no light without a concept of dark, no male without female, no strength without weakness, and so on. Indeed, a room, for example, is defined both by its boundaries rather than itself, and by the relative size of the nothingness it contains. I have, of course, been reminded of this concept this spring in teaching a course in Asian theatre, but recent events have called it to the forefront of my mind.

Specifically, I’ve been contemplating the concept of academic freedom in these terms: that is, for it to exist, it must also not exist. In other words, there must be activities which it covers and, importantly, activities it does not—I can discuss ideas and even express opinions without fear of losing my job over it (or at least I can do so since having been tenured), but that doesn’t mean I can do whatever the hell I want in my classroom. For one thing, as the Renaissance humanists as well as the Taoist sages made clear, there is no freedom without restraint: it is ontologically impossible for me to have freedom to punch you in the nose and simultaneously for you to be free from being thus punched. Moreover, in the specific context of academic freedom, since my freedom would be mere chaos without some boundaries, the imposition of those boundaries does not inherently abridge my rights, even if I disagree with the regulations in question.

Stanley Fish has an interesting opinion piece in today’s New York Times in which he looks at three recent cases in which the term “academic freedom” has been tossed around. As it happens, I’ve written about two of them, and come to pretty much the same conclusions as Fish (I should note that I seldom agree with Dr. Fish, at least to this extent): the brouhaha at the City University of New York about whether Tony Kushner would receive an honorary degree, and the Koch-funded gift to Florida State with a few too many strings attached.

On the former, here’s me:
I’ve been following the excellent coverage of George Hunka on this story, [who] makes the excellent point that “It is not a case of censorship or suppression…. Nor is it an attempt to render Kushner, his work and opinions invisible”…. the CUNY trustees generated their own personal tempest by being remarkably bone-headed.
And here’s Fish:
It was just the board screwing up with the predictable public-relations disaster as the result. No one’s freedom was curtailed, no one’s speech was censored, no harm, except to the board’s reputation and by extension to CUNY’s, was done.
On the Florida State case, me:
… the real blame attaches to David W. Rasmussen, the dean of the College of Social Sciences, who sees nothing wrong with selling out his program’s integrity: “it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it.” No, sir, what is irresponsible is chasing after dollars, even a lot of them, at the expense of the university’s control over its own curriculum.
And Fish:
Rasmussen says he is “sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom.” The implication is that “their view” is a minority view or an over-fastidious view, but the view that university hiring and firing procedures shouldn’t dance to the tune of an external constituency is absolutely mainstream and is the core of what academic freedom stands for.
There are two more cases, one of which I hadn’t heard about, but which Fish references. Quoting here:
In early March, Professor John Michael Bailey of Northwestern University invited a couple to perform a live sex-act in front of the students in his course on Human Sexuality. (Attendance at the presentation was optional.) The man brought the (naked) woman to orgasm with the help of a device with a name this newspaper will not print.

Bailey defended himself by saying that such “events” provide “useful examples and extensions of concepts students learn about in traditional academic ways.” This statement amounts to acknowledging that the live-sex demonstration was outside the boundaries of academic practice (Bailey might respond that he was stretching the envelope) and it’s an easy step to conclude that it is not protected by academic freedom, by an instructor’s freedom to bring into a class whatever materials he thinks appropriate so long as they serve a legitimate pedagogical end. Bailey claims the live-sex demo did serve such an end because it was an extension of one of his course’s main themes, the diversity of sexual experience.
OK, give me a fucking break. (Or, same words, different order: Give me a break! Fucking?) You cannot convince me that this little escapade had anything whatsoever to do with a legitimate course function. It was voyeurism in the cause of professorial popularity/edginess/whatever, and nothing else. Therefore, as Professor Fish points out, it’s not covered by academic freedom, because “academic freedom is for academic activities and not for everything that happens to go on in a university building.”

No, re-assigning this prof to other courses is not a suppression of free speech, a violation of academic freedom, or anything like that. It is, in fact, a gift. He should simply have been fired. And whereas it is silly not to offer the course in the upcoming year based on the fact that it was once taught by a charlatan, putting the class on hold for a year neither disrespects the subject matter nor violates any tenets of appropriate academic conduct. Those who say otherwise, in Fish’s words, “are behaving as so many in the Kushner controversy did; they are crying academic freedom whenever a university does something they don’t like, and by doing so, they cheapen the concept.”

Finally, we come to a case Fish doesn’t mention. This is the episode at two University of Missouri campuses at which Judy Ancel (Kansas City) and Don Giljum (St. Louis) team-teach via electronic interaction a course in labor studies. The ever-despicable Andrew Breitbart (guess what?) deceptively edited some tapes he had no right to have access to in the first place, and smeared the two faculty members as advocates of violence. (There’s a good demonstration of the specifics here.) But, as I said in linking to the just-mentioned video clip on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page,
This isn't about Andrew Breitbart being a pathological liar. We knew that. It's about a university system believing in a thoroughly discredited, ultra-partisan, utterly immoral dirtbag like Breitbart over their own faculty until it was proved AGAIN that Breitbart would have to evolve to be pond scum, and that they were innocent of his accusations.
Given the fact that it appears Mr. Giljum was pressured into offering his resignation ("conditionally," whatever that means), it certainly appears that the Mizzou hierarchy panicked first and asked questions later.

More importantly, there are a host of legitimate scenaria whereby a professor might advocate (or pretend to advocate) violence, just as there are a host of legitimate scenaria whereby a law school professor might construct a hypothetical story about killing his dean. There might be a comparison to the perceived need for violence among some members of the civil rights movement, or the Irish Republican Army, or even the colonial militias of the American Revolution. Or maybe the prof just wants someone in that class to argue that violence isn’t the answer: a little engagement in an issue can go a long way.

But even if a professor really was arguing that violence is “just another tactic,” as it was for someone quoted by Professor Ancel (hence the “matter-of-factness” complained about by right-wing bloggers), I’d argue that such an assertion is precisely what academic freedom is designed to protect: provided, of course, that the course instructors do not require their students to agree with their conclusions. I offer my opinions all the time in class; most of the time, I reiterate that opinions are different than facts. Sometimes I don’t. But, significantly, I know where the weak points of my own point of view are: I often tell students that agreeing with me for all the right reasons is probably good for a B+. If you want an A, you’d better disagree with me for the right reasons.

But what I do in my classroom isn’t completely relevant, although I suspect that I’m not the only faculty member in the country who wonders whether today is the day that some student will show up in my class with a grudge, a recording device, and access to editing equipment. What matters here is that MU officials did backflips to accommodate Andrew freaking Breitbart, whose ethical transgressions on case after case after case are so egregious that Glenn Beck’s website feels compelled to point out his deceptive editing. An administration with the courage of a particularly nervous rabbit would tell him and his minions to take a long walk on a short pier. But, of course, they’re as craven as high school principals.

So: even if Ancel and Giljum did what they were accused of doing, their administration should have backed them up. But, given the source, it would be a reasonable surmise that Breitbart was lying (roughly as reasonable a surmise as that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow). The university, however, investigated them anyway, and dangled at least Mr. Giljum out to dry in the process. Now that’s a violation of academic freedom.

Today’s scoreboard, then:
Number of universities looking stupid: 4
Number of violations of academic freedom: 2

(EDIT: An interesting and provocative piece by Jack Marshall on the Northwestern case in particular, posted within an hour of this one, can be seen here.)

No comments: