Tag Archives: Academic Freedom

So Will admits he tried to bait me into writing about this prof at Marquette U. who’s been blogging about the school, which has now announced they’re revoking his tenure and firing him, which has him claiming they’re violating his academic freedom. Here‘s the prof’s side of the story. In a nutshell, an undergraduate student complained about a graduate student instructor, this prof (from a different department) blogged about it, and the solid waste struck the spinning blades. Will asked my thoughts, a subtle hint that went right over my head as I replied to him via email. Here’s what I wrote.

Well, he’s a political science prof, so I say fire him.

More seriously, this looks like a case of everyone behaving badly.

1. The graduate student instructor didn’t handle the discussion well. Although despite her being a feminist vegan philosopher, which means I’d probably have extensive disagreements with her, I’m sympathetic because it takes time to learn how to manage students well–after about 14 years I still feel like I’m learning that.

2. The undergrad student is badly mistaken if he thinks he has a right to class discussion on his pet issue.

3. I think the blogger prof is incorrect to call his blog an issue of academic freedom. Not everything we say comes under academic freedom just because we’re academics. For some people that becomes a nice coverall for everything they want to do, without restraint. That doesn’t mean I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the prof blogging about these things.

4. The Arts & Sciences Dean is probably violating the University’s own policy, as seen in point c here:

“When he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

But if the prof is not speaking as a citizen, but as a member of the University, then academic freedom probably does apply.

Marquette is of course private, so it has greater freedom of action here than a public university might, and I don’t find that it has a faculty union (although it might, and I just can’t find a note of it), which would mean the blogger prof has less of a leg to stand on.

For my part, I find it unwise to blog too openly about what happens in my place of work. Some faculty get pretty arrogant and think they’re untouchable and any repercussions for what they say about their place of employment are totally illegitimate. I can’t really speak to the issue of legitimacy of repercussions, but I know from observation that legitimate or not, repercussions do happen, and people who act like they’re immune are idiotic, or, to put it more nicely, un-strategic.

To add just a bit more, academic freedom is intended to allow people the freedom to research controversial issues, and argue for controversial findings/interpretations of those issues, without repercussions, so we don’t stunt the search for knowledge. Its purpose is not to allow us to criticize our employers (although of course protection for that is nice as well, just for a different set of reasons).

Nor, I think, is academic freedom intended to protect people for any particular political stances they want to yammer about publicly. The University of Illinois, for example, did not, in my opinion, violate the academic freedom of Steven Salaita. But being a public university, bound by the First Amendment, they arguably violated his free speech rights.

And yet I have a hard time imagining the same uproar had Illinois rescinded the hiring of an academic who tweeted that gangbangers were responsible for white racism, as Salaita tweeted that Zionists were responsible for anti-semitism. Defenses of speech and academic freedom are sometimes selective. My graduate program once counted political activity towards tenure, until someone asked what they’d do if they had a politically active white supremacist in the department. That crystallized the reality that it wasn’t really political activism they approved of, but the correct type of political activism, even if those bounds were rather wide.

There’s often a fine line between political activism and academic activity. As an academic I’m persuaded that its foolish for governments to grant rents to firms, but if I stand up at a city council meeting and oppose a tax credit to lure a business to town, is that academic or political? What about if a geologist talks publicly for/against fracking? Perhaps the obscurity of the line is what leads academics to think that any pronouncement they make is covered by academic freedom. And in the Marquette prof’s case, I’m not seeing that journalism, as the professor (correctly) notes he’s doing, about the university itself, counts as academic freedom for a political scientist.*

Whatever the cause, I think we ought to be more humble about how we extend the concept of academic freedom. The step from research findings to applications is so fraught with problems, and with such a history of failure (in all disciplines), that I think we ought to view application, or at least public argument for application, as something distinct from the freedom to research something. Those arguments ought nevertheless be covered by freedom of speech, for those faculty who work at public universities. And private universities would probably be well-served to privately extend a guarantee of freedom of speech as well. But they don’t have to.

*Our faculty union contract with our private college explicitly states that we have academic freedom concerning things in our area of specialty. The Art Historian who makes pronouncements about global warming? That’s not necessarily covered, and I’m not sure it should be. If academic freedom is designed to allow us to learn more about controversial issues, it doesn’t seem intended to protect us in talking out of our asses about things we haven’t actually studied at all.

Category: School