‘The Time for Engagement’

Henry Reichman discusses his new book on the future of academic freedom, in which he argues that that future "is up to us."

April 9, 2019
 

Does academic freedom have a future? Nobody has a crystal ball. But as former vice president of the American Association of University Professors and longtime chair of its committee on academic freedom and tenure, Henry Reichman is particularly well suited to ponder the question. Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay, spends 275 pages doing so in his new book, The Future of Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press).

The highly digestible book includes 10 essays on topics from social media to outside donor influence on colleges and universities, from unions to recent student protests over campus speech. (Spoiler: Reichman believes that the critical reaction to these protests is overblown.) Each section could stand alone. But Reichman says he hopes that they “convey a basic unified argument: that academic freedom is threatened today from multiple directions and that challenges to it are central to the present crisis in higher education.”

These issues merit faculty attention, Reichman argues, and the “time for engagement is now.” Still, The Future of Academic Freedom -- whether read in parts or as a whole -- eschews the doomsday mood of some similar books. Reichman’s tone is somehow hopeful, as if he’s arming advocates with the history, knowledge and tools they need to fight the good fight -- not just for the future of academic freedom but for higher education in general.

Reichman recently answered a series of questions about his book via email.

Q: You ask if academic freedom has a future and ultimately answer, "It is up to us." What do you mean by that?

A: While academic freedom is one of the foundations of greatness in the American higher education system, it has always been -- and always will be -- contested and vulnerable. My account of academic freedom's future is not especially optimistic. There are powerful forces in our society that would not only restrict the faculty’s academic freedom but also seek to transform our institutions of higher education into engines of profit instead of sources of enlightenment. Yet these forces pale before the challenge of the faculty’s own apathy and indifference. Nonetheless, as Sheila Slaughter has put it, “The difficulty of protecting academic freedom … should not cause us to abandon it.” And if there is a silver lining to recent assaults on academic freedom and higher education generally, it is that more faculty members have grown more alert to the dangers they face, and many are organizing to respond. Hence practical education about the importance of academic freedom is of the highest priority. To adequately defend it, we need to better understand its meaning, the nature of the hazards it faces and its relation to freedom of expression more generally.

When the AAUP issued the 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” it can be argued that its claims were unrealistic, even utopian; the tenure system was then virtually nonexistent and the power of autocratic university presidents and corporate boards enormous. Yet these principles gradually gained widespread support and helped build what became the largest and most successful system of higher education in the world.

Q: How can academic freedom be justified or explained to those who don't value it?

A: Academic freedom cannot be defended without understanding that it is essential to fulfilling the mission of colleges and universities to advance intellectual inquiry and knowledge. That mission, in turn, can be justified only as a commitment to the common good. Without academic freedom colleges and universities will not be able to explore new ideas, advance science and the professions, and promote the arts and humanities to the benefit of all. Hence, I argue, that if we understand academic freedom too narrowly as simply the privilege of an elite guild, we will lose public support and indeed stifle innovation. At the same time, however, if we justify academic freedom as simply a subcategory of a broader freedom of expression, we will lose sight of the special role of higher education in producing expert disciplinary knowledge. Academic freedom is a kind of public trust, in which scholars and teachers are granted freedom to regulate their work because that work is essential to advancing the common good, to which the faculty must be dedicated.

Q: You ask if faculty can speak freely as citizens. Can they? And what is the difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech? When do they overlap?

A: The principles of academic freedom as they have been proclaimed by the AAUP since 1915 include the freedom to speak or write freely as "citizens, members of a learned profession and officers of an educational institution" on matters of public or institutional concern, to use the words of the 1940 “Joint Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” issued by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities). Since at least the 1960s, the AAUP has understood that freedom to be limited only to the extent that such commentary calls into question a faculty member’s "fitness" for her position and that such expression rarely bears directly on fitness for service. Hence, this principle provides quite broad protection -- or should provide broad protection -- for most extramural expression, including expression that many, including most professors, might find offensive. For example, an engineering professor should be able as a citizen to advocate Holocaust denial -- and here I have at least two actual examples in mind -- without fear of institutional discipline. However, were an historian of 20th-century Europe to so advocate, this undeniably could reflect on that professor's fitness. (This isn't just theoretical, as illustrated by the Arthur Butz case at Northwestern University.)

Freedom of speech, which is a democratic value to which all citizens are entitled, may overlap with academic freedom, but the two are not the same. Academic freedom must be earned by way of disciplinary training and expertise. Research and teaching are not like the "free market of ideas." Citizens are free to reject the theory of evolution; biologists are not. So, for instance, a provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos has, in a sense, greater rights to spew vitriol on campus than faculty members do to speak their minds in the classroom. Nevertheless, an institution that fails to protect the expression of its faculty members as citizens and the freedom of speech of its students and community members is unlikely adequately to protect the faculty's academic freedom in the classroom, the laboratory and the library.

Q: You cover a host of academic freedom cases involving Twitter. What is it about this particular medium that gets so many professors in trouble? And would you kill Twitter if you could?

A: My book includes a chapter entitled "Can I Tweet That?" I've often thought that someone (not me) should write a companion piece entitled "Should I Tweet That?" Social media like Twitter have extended the ability of faculty members -- and not only faculty members, of course -- to speak as citizens, which is in many ways a welcome and wonderful development, but also makes such expression more hazardous. A faculty member who in the past might write a controversial op-ed piece in a local newspaper could risk blowback from a rather limited community. Today, one who tweets a controversial statement may unwittingly incite an online mob. Hence, while academic freedom must protect the rights of faculty members on all social media, those teachers who wish to engage these media should be aware of the potential consequences and gird themselves. In any event, it is the responsibility of college and university administrations to forcefully defend the right of their faculty members to tweet without fear of disciplinary consequences and not simply to dissociate their institutions from tweets or posts that attract negative publicity.

Many faculty members are used to employing arguments with nuance and subtlety. Twitter may not be the best medium for that, although at the same time many find it useful for honing one's main points and sharpening positions. And despite the proliferation of cases where Twitter has endangered faculty members, there are also many examples of professors who have skillfully employed this medium to bring their disciplinary expertise into the public arena, which is precisely what academic freedom should and must encourage. I'm thinking here of historians like Princeton's Kevin Kruse, for just one example. So I would not advocate "killing" Twitter, although I don't doubt there are many ways it could be improved, as several prominent scholars of media have suggested.

Q: To what extent do outside donors threaten academic freedom, and do those threats come from both conservative and liberal donors?

A: Academic institutions should not relinquish autonomy and the primary authority of their faculty over the curriculum when they accept outside donations. On the issue of outside interference in the university -- whether from government or private interests -- my view is essentially that espoused in a concurring opinion in the 1957 case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire by U.S. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. He identified “four essential freedoms of a university -- to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught and who may be admitted to study.” Donors have every right to request that their donations be used for goals they support. It is the responsibility of the institution, however, to ensure that their donations do not violate these basic principles.

While at present a massively coordinated effort by right-wing foundations to reshape higher education may pose a special danger, in principle it would be foolish to assume that only such money could be corrupting. “Shouldn’t we be concerned about anyone who is funding any academic research centers on political and social subjects, no matter their ideological direction?” one journalist recently asked. The real issue is not so much politics but whether funding agreements conform to the criteria outlined by Justice Frankfurter. And the massive defunding and privatization of public higher education, which Christopher Newfield has appropriately called "the great mistake," intensifies the danger. As AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum put it, “The public defunding of higher education has already generated a host of terrible consequences. If politically motivated donors pick up the slack, things will only get worse. Higher education can’t function properly when it is beholden to special interests. That bodes ill not just for colleges themselves. It bodes ill for our democracy.”

Q: Many academics say that students threaten free expression nowadays, in that they are intolerant of and seek to censor anything they deem to be intolerant. But you say that student demonstrators of today "may well be doing more to advance the cause of free expression than their occasionally intolerant demands may now and then hinder it." How did you arrive at that conclusion? And do students have academic freedom?

A: When it comes to allegations of student intolerance, I like to quote the libertarian political theorist Jacob Levy: "It turns out that 18-year-olds seized of the conviction of their own righteousness are prone to immoderation and simplistic views. (Who knew?)" Do students sometimes threaten free expression? Yes, they sometimes do. But let me situate the quote you mention in the full context in which it appears in my book (and in an earlier version of that essay, which appeared on Inside Higher Ed). I write, "By challenging campus administrations through organized protest, the student demonstrators of today may well be doing more to advance the cause of free expression than their occasionally intolerant demands may now and then hinder it. It’s necessary to credit their courage and determination in addressing the sometimes unconscious but nonetheless real and persistent racism and misogyny that infect our society and our campuses. In doing so, they have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error."

Q: Should the Yiannopouloses and Richard Spencers of the world really be granted a platform on college campuses, even if they're invited by someone, somewhere?

A: I don't think there is any reason to grant such speakers a platform without an invitation -- unless a campus has foolishly (in my opinion) offered its venues to all comers, perhaps in an ill-advised search for revenue. However, if a legitimate campus group has invited such a speaker, they should be granted a platform. For a public institution this is a matter of law; the First Amendment compels it. But I think the principle should apply to private institutions as well. That said, however, I believe colleges and universities have a duty to educate the campus about ideas that run fundamentally counter to the mission and intellectual values of the institution. It is higher education's role to confront irrationality with reason. Silencing irrational and hateful arguments that run counter to genuine intellectual inquiry only allow those arguments to fester. I therefore agree with Phi Beta Kappa CEO Frederick Lawrence, who wrote, "We bind ourselves to an impoverished choice set if we believe that we can either punish speech or validate it. In the face of hate speech, the call for more speech is not merely an option; it is a professional or even moral obligation."

Q: What should faculty, staff and students know and do about academic freedom under what you call the "Trump regime"?

A: In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's election, the AAUP issued a statement, which I will now acknowledge I largely authored, that acknowledged how "the problems facing higher education today and the growing assault on the professionalism and freedoms of faculty members over the past several decades can hardly be attributed to the results of a single election. Many of these problems stem from ill-conceived policies developed and implemented on a bipartisan basis." Nevertheless, it would be foolish not to recognize that the Trump regime has over the past two years exacerbated these problems, in good measure because it has dramatically intensified the ongoing assault on the common good more broadly. In this context, I would return to my response to your first question. Faculty, staff and students need to learn about the principles of academic freedom, tenure and shared governance that built our contemporary system of higher education, and they must organize to defend them. This is essentially why I wrote the essays in this book.

So let me conclude here, as I conclude the book, by quoting from remarks delivered to the annual conference of the AAUP in 2010 by Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. McGuire acknowledged that “the biggest threat to our academic freedom and health of our enterprise is our own tendency to self-censorship.” We can, she added, “either cower under our desks to escape the noise, hoping no one calls us out, resolving to remain silent … Or, we can do our jobs, with responsibility, with integrity and with audacity … Academic freedom rarely dies in one egregious event; academic freedom erodes in a thousand small concessions … But we lose everything when we refuse the engagement, when we sit back and hope that this wave will just pass over us, naïvely thinking that our freedom will remain intact even as the ebb tide washes it away.”

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