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Mon, 10/13/2014 - 10:58

Academic Freedom is a Two Way Street

student demonstrations dc1960

The mobs I talked about in “When Mobs Roam the Halls of Ivy” are real, and they–among other scary things–are a threat to academic freedom. Whether it is political pressure on boards or self-appointed bands of vigilantes policing the boundaries of politically correct speech, the forces that  stifle open and unfettered inquiry on  college campuses undermine everyone. It is not the exclusive province of one political stripe to protect the rest of us from the assault of the other side whose ideas are–axiomatically–unacceptable.  The campus civil rights movements of the 1960’s would probably not have withstood the determined attacks that would be mounted today.

The real point of the Henry Drummond (the Clarence Darrow  character in the 1955 Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee play Inherit the Winddefense of  academic freedom (“the right to be wrong“) is revealed when with Matthew Brady (William Jennings Bryan) takes the witness stand and Drummond goes on the attack: “I’m trying to stop you bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.” Lawrence and Lee wrote ITW at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s crazed hunt for Communists, a purge that viciously pursued academics and intellectuals whose ideas and writings placed them outside the Senator’s narrowly defined strip of acceptable thought.  It was a parable for its time, but the 1925 trial of Tennessee teacher John Scopes for violating the Butler Act was one of literature’s most inspired dramatic backdrops.

Henry Drummond was on the side of progressives for whom bigotry meant barring the teaching of evolution, but he would have been just as comfortable defending campus  civil rights protests or anti-war demonstrations in the 1960’s. Or Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s decision to host Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Bollinger introduced Ahmadinejad with a blistering attack on the very fabric of regressive Iranian theocracy.  Bolliinger, it could be argued, was not a very gracious host, but he at least enabled the kind of politically unpalatable speech that academic freedom is designed to protect. But what about the other side? Would Drummond have been equally passionate about the pressure brought by progressive Rutgers faculty members to rescind the invitation to Condoleeza Rice’s  to deliver the 2014 commencement address, “because of her role in the Iraq War.” If not, it would have been a missed opportunity to point out that academic freedom is  a two way street, and the door that leads to it is either open or closed. There is nothing in between.

There are few heroes in the modern struggle for academic freedom. It was a liberal cause when the government refused to issue a passport for Nobel Peace Prize winner Linus Pauling–who, in part for his wartime work on the atom bomb, had won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry eight years before–but not so much when a Stanford student-faculty board denied William Shockley, another Nobel Prize winning scientist, the right to teach a course on genetics and race. Shockley had acquired an unsavory reputation for research that had been widely characterized as racist–supporting eugenics and the genetic inferiority of blacks. Shockley’s course was not rejected because he was unqualified to teach it , although that would have been a reasonable objection. Shockley was, after all,  a physicist, not a geneticist. It would undoubtedly have been embarrassing to claim that a Stanford professor–and a Nobel Laureate at that–was incompetent. No. Shockley’s course was deemed too controversial and complicated for Stanford undergraduates. A local newspaper examined the 1972 Stanford course catalog, finding other controversial courses and many that used statistical methods much more complicated than the ones that Shockley used.

These are equal opportunity inconsistencies. Liberal bias–and its reportedly chilling effect on academic freedom–has become a cause célèbre for many conservatives. In hiring and promotion, liberal faculties are painted as relentless in shutting down the kind of academic diversity that should result in equal numbers of liberal and conservative professors teaching history or economics courses. The situation was so dire in Missouri that the House of Representatives drafted the Intellectual Diversity Act to bring balance to the state’s public universities. When studies failed to support the idea that a preponderance of liberal professors (true) has an impact on what is taught (not true), conservative groups turned their attention to students, whose academic freedom was being infringed by liberal slanted political correctness, anti-bullying, or other expression-stifling campus rules that aim to channel what should be independent thought. That is hard to reconcile with the firing earlier this year of  a newly hired professor at the University of Illinois, whose anti-Israeli tweets upset donors on the Illinois Board of Regents or with the investigation and ultimate firing of a Colorado University professor whose comments shortly after the 9/11 attacks incensed conservatives.

Liberal orthodoxy pushes one set of buttons.  Conservative orthodoxy pushes another.  Both sets of buttons lock the doors to the two-way street that is academic freedom,  Former Princeton President William Bowen agreed to give the commencement address at Haverford College shortly after Haverford’s administration bowed to student pressure and disinvited University of California Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Birgemau was forced to resign because he authorized what some saw as heavy-handed treatment of Occupy Wall Street movement protestors in 2012. Birgenau eventually withdrew as Haverford’s commencement speaker after being presented with a list of demands. Bowen called the Haverford situation “sad”:

…it is a serious mistake for a leader of the protest against Birgeneau’s proposed honorary degree to claim that Birgeneau’s decision not to come represents a “small victory.” It represents nothing of the kind. In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford—no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.

Like Lee Bollinger, Bowen drew a line.  An academic community does not have to endorse an idea in order to embrace the idea that it can be expressed:

I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s  handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands.” In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments. I think that Birgeneau, in turn, failed to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.

I spoke this afternoon with former Columbia Provost Jonathan Cole, who is preparing a new book that he says charts a course for American research universities.  Like me, Jonathan is troubled by what he sees as a decline among faculty members for supporting the idea of academic freedom.  We will have to see what his results yield.

For now, I am siding with Bowen that the one thing academic freedom does not entail is self-chosen juries reaching conclusions without hearing counter-arguments. You can’t be in favor of academic freedom only when you are threatened.  There is no stand your ground rule in academic life that bars the way for those whose ideas and methods cause you discomfort.  It’s a two way street.


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