As a child of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I cannot say the n-word unself-consciously. Nevertheless, it is regularly placed on my tongue — not by Joseph Conrad, since I no longer teach fiction, but rather by African American poets from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka. Some faculty members no longer teach Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, since the title alone is enough to place an impassable roadblock on the syllabus. I have no choice. I am not about to teach African-American poetry while repressing its diction. So much for the notion that the word is forbidden in the classroom.
I take a certain pride in reading poetry dramatically. I urge my students to perform the week’s poems at home out loud before coming to class. I perform Robert Bly’s Vietnam poem “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” much as he did, in a wrinkled rubber mask suggesting ancient evil gloating over death. I try to occupy the bodies of the racist speakers in Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi.” But the n-word exits my mouth in a flat, decathected tone that does no justice to its injustice. The word “nigger” defeats me.
I would not myself say what Allen Zaruba did this semester, though I understand how both personal experience and a certain collective cultural inertia brought him there. A part-time faculty member at Towson University, he described himself in class as “a nigger on the corporate university plantation.” People now regularly refer to the corporate university’s plantation mentality, to an authoritarian style of top-down management invariably indifferent to its underpaid and exploited employees. And I, among others, have called its contingent teachers “wage slaves,” drawing the usage from Marx and Emma Goldman and the long history of the labor movement. The phrase resounds through Joe Hill’s songs. So Zaruba’s next step was surely inevitable. Indeed the administration’s decision to fire him summarily exposed the extreme vulnerability of contingent faculty members and reflected the very power relations his declaration evoked.
Zaruba was not teaching a Langston Hughes poem, so Towson University administrators finessed their abridgement of his academic freedom and due process rights by saying the declaration was not specific to the classroom context. But it was germane to every moment of every class he and others teach at Towson. It underpins the classes Towson’s students take. The exploitation of contingent teachers is now the bedrock of American higher education. Zaruba has the right to testify to his working conditions and all students’ learning conditions in every class he teaches. He cannot devote his entire course to those facts, but neither can he be compelled to suppress them. While the analogy between today’s contingent teachers and plantation era slaves is far from exact, and it is arguably clumsy and historically inept, the formulation is well within his pedagogical rights.
The staff of the American Association of University Professors has appropriately emphasized that Towson violated our recommended standards. Zaruba was entitled to a hearing before his faculty peers, not dismissal by administrative fiat. The 13th section of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations makes it clear that part-time faculty members, like full-time faculty members, can be fired before the terms of their appointments end only for cause. “Cause” must be adjudicated at a faculty hearing. And every faculty member is due a hearing when a violation of academic freedom is asserted. Zaruba never received the educational equivalent of his day in court.
Of course a more enlightened and courageous administration might have expressed regret at Zaruba’s rhetoric while defending his right to use it and might even have acknowledged a certain logic underlying his claim. But that would have entailed a critique of Towson’s hiring practices. Instead administrators chose to behave like plantation managers, punishing him by fiat. If administrators wanted to sanction Zaruba in any way, they had to base their action on the recommendation of a faculty hearing, a procedure they failed to follow. But I do not believe Zaruba’s remark justified either intervention or punishment.
Zaruba apologized abjectly, more than he should have needed to. That should have put the matter to rest, but the apology was to no avail. The administration treated what was in fact an economic and political analysis in miniature — decidedly within his academic rights — as a crime so monstrous that frontier justice had to be meted out without delay.
Whatever else it was, Zaruba’s remark was not a racial slur. It was not directed at people of color generally, as was its 2007 use by a board member at Roger Williams University who was compelled to resign. It was not uttered as an assault on one or more students, as it was when a baseball coach at the University of Oklahoma lost his job in 2005. Zaruba’s declaration was a warranted expression of personal anguish, an instructor’s reflexive act of higher education witness. Firing him summarily undermines academic freedom, eviscerates shared governance, and diminishes us all. Allen Zaruba deserves his job back.
I was an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, the heyday of identity politics. We read copious amounts of Cornel West and bell hooks, demanded multicultural centers and gender studies departments, applauded Ellen’s coming out and protested demeaning mascots like Chief Illiniwek. “Race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality” was repeated so often, it almost became a single word.
No doubt parts of the identity politics movement went off the cliff (down with Western Civ!). And there was pushback, of course (only the West has civilization!). But over all, university administrations recognized an important opportunity and charted a sensible middle course.
In a society with too much racism and sexism, in a globalized world with too much ignorance and misunderstanding, campuses could be alternate universes – models where equity, harmony and appreciative knowledge of other cultures were the norm, launching pads for leaders who absorbed that larger vision and learned the skill set to improve the broader society when they graduated.
So new centers were started, new professors hired, new course requirements added. And most importantly, new norms were set. College leaders at the highest level defined their campuses as models of inclusiveness and open-minded learning. Incidents that were seen as marginalizing a particular group (white students showing up to a party in blackface), or books like The Bell Curve that argued that some races simply had lower aptitude than others, were met with the higher education equivalent of social outrage. Of course, the flags of “free speech” and “academic inquiry” were raised, but the mantle of building an inclusive learning community carried the day.
Muslim students waking up to chalk drawings mocking the Prophet Muhammad on their college quads are probably likely wondering why their identity is not a cherished part of the college ethos of inclusiveness. In case you missed it, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which is today, is a campaign that has hit several campuses already and has the potential to scale, fast.
The only ingredients you need are a handful of students who believe they are crusaders for free speech, some chalk and the cover of darkness. The campaign was sparked by Comedy Central’s decision to censor an episode of “South Park” that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning manner. “South Park” has a reputation for offending roundly, and is, of course, on a cable channel people pay for and opt in to. A college quad is a public place where there is an implicit promise by the university that students of all backgrounds will feel safe and accepted.
When there is a racially demeaning event on a college campus – like the Compton CookOut at the University of California at San Diego – higher education responds like it’s a five-alarm fire. Administrators organize town hall meetings to discuss the threats to inclusiveness, Presidents send out e-mails to the whole campus calling for racial sensitivity. Faculty committees are formed to submit recommendations on how to make minority students feel welcome. The incident is used, appropriately, as a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm and expand the university as an inclusive learning environment.
If there was any alarm raised by higher education in response to the chalking Muhammad incidents, it’s been hard to hear. (With the important exception of chaplaincies on certain campuses that have adapted to engage religious diversity.) For the most part, the discussion has been in the free speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam frame. But isn’t this incident also a teachable moment about identity? Shouldn’t universities be boldly advancing the narrative of actions that build an inclusive campus vs. actions that marginalize a community?
While this particular incident may be about the sensitivities of Muslim students, there is a much larger issue at play here. What the race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality movement of the 1990s missed was religion. But faith can’t be swept under the rug any longer. Religion is the new fault line in the culture wars. From the “The Passion of the Christ” to the passions raised by the Middle East, from the new aggressive atheism to the religious revival among evangelicals and Muslims, conflicts in the culture are quickly becoming conflicts on the quad.
Colleges ought to view this as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a headache to be ignored. Just as campuses became models of multiculturalism, so too can they become models of interfaith cooperation. After all, campuses gather students from different religious backgrounds (including no religion at all), they view themselves as a vanguard sector that models positive behavior for the broader culture, and they already have an ethos of pluralism.
An awful lot is at stake here, especially if campuses want to maintain their reputation as inclusive learning environments. Just about the only agreement among different religious student groups right now is that the only identity you can openly insult on a campus without inviting social outrage is religion.
And as far as being the nation’s flagship learning environments, higher education ought to consider this: Probably the most salient thing many U.S. college students know about the central figure in the world’s second largest religion -- among the most influential people in history -- is that Comedy Central won’t let him be portrayed on South Park.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues.
On Friday, July 16, Ben Raines, a reporter for Mobile, Alabama’s Press-Register, published a story detailing extensive efforts by BP to employ scientists engaged in (or likely to engage in) research about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Inside Higher Ed has since conducted independent interviews for its own coverage. The contracts offered by the giant company, according to both sources, restrict the scientists from publishing research results, sharing them with other scientists, or even talking about them for as long as three years, a serious restraint in the midst of an ongoing crisis.
Both during the immediate crisis and for an extended period as government leaders and the courts figure out how to respond to the Gulf tragedy, the work these scientists do will essentially belong to BP, which will be free to suppress it or characterize it in any way it chooses. Faculty members under contract to BP, meanwhile, would be unable to testify against the company in court and would be available to testify on the company’s behalf. Several faculty members in the area have confirmed to the American Association of University Professors that they have been offered contracts by BP in exchange for restrictive confidentiality clauses. A notably chilling provision directs contracted scientists to communicate through BP’s lawyers, thus raising the possibility that research findings will be constrained by lawyer-client privilege.
The oil spill is not only a catastrophic economic and environmental disaster for the Gulf region; it also has major implications for energy policy in both the United States and the rest of the world. The ability to share research results promptly and freely is not only a basic tenet of academic freedom; in this case, it is also critical to the health of the region and the world. While more investigative work is needed, the very prospect of an interested corporation worth billions of dollars blocking the free exchange of university research and controlling the work scientists choose to do is deeply disturbing. If knowledgeable scientists cannot testify in court, the ability of injured parties to win just compensation is also jeopardized. But the long-term threat to American society is still more grave: we need independent faculty voices, perhaps more so now — in a knowledge-based society — than ever before.
In its founding 1915 Declaration, the AAUP warned of the “danger of restrictions upon the expression of opinions” that “call into question the moral legitimacy or social expediency of economic conditions or commercial practices in which large vested interests are involved.” Our 2004 “Statement on Corporate Funding of Academic Research” establishes the fundamental standard: “Such contracts should explicitly provide for the open communication of research results, not subject to the sponsor’s permission for publication.”
Universities that prohibit faculty members from doing research that violates this principle, in my view, are protecting academic freedom, not restricting it. Of course in recommending that universities enforce this principle I am going beyond current AAUP policy. The world has changed. The increasing impact of corporate funding on the integrity of faculty research is among the changes higher education must confront. The decision about whether to sign restrictive contracts is not simply a matter of individual choice. It has broad implications for higher education and for the society at large.
At least one university has refused an institution-wide contract with BP for exactly these reasons. Many individual faculty members are declining BP offers or withdrawing from existing ones. Perhaps this is the time to reexamine the increasing role corporations are playing in funding and controlling university research. Universities should work with faculty to set ethical standards for industry collaboration that champion the public interest and discourage faculty members from selling their freedom of speech and research to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, we urge other news media to join the effort to interview area scientists, gather copies of BP contracts, and publish the results. This story needs to be told in full. Universities should also consider where the public interest lies before permitting faculty members to sign contracts that limit the free exchange of information and bar public testimony. BP itself should certainly invest in research related to the spill, but it should do so without curtailing either faculty members’ free speech rights or their academic freedom. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to all of our health.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.
Depending on your politics, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s “fraud investigation” involving the climate-change research of the former University of Virginia assistant professor Michael Mann is either a witch hunt or a long-overdue assault on the Ivory Tower.
But Mr. Cuccinelli’s demand last month for a decade’s worth of e-mails and scientific work papers from Professor Mann’s former employer, UVa, should give comfort to none of us. A fundamental principle is at stake, often described in shorthand as academic freedom. More to the point, it’s the understanding that government will not without extraordinarily compelling reasons intrude on the process of scientific discovery. It’s a principle on which liberals and conservatives alike can agree.
The ill-advised investigation in Charlottesville transgresses a long-honored boundary, with implications that extend far beyond the Albemarle County courthouse where the university has filed a petition to block the subpoena. That is why I, along with other higher education leaders, scientists and scholars (including even some of Professor Mann’s scientific detractors), support the university’s legal battle.
The stakes are high. Academic freedom protects scholars of every stripe from government repression or retaliation, especially when they take on controversial topics and espouse unpopular theories. Throughout history, nations that protect academic freedom have strong institutions of higher education. Where academic freedom is weak, governmental power goes unchecked.
The matter concerns not just the academy but all of us as citizens. We know that a thriving, independent, intellectually diverse higher education sector is best able to produce the scientific discoveries and advances in knowledge that make society better. The process that leads to innovation involves dialogue. Scholars debate hypotheses, examine data, and scrutinize each other’s ideas.
At their best, the exchanges are blunt and unstinting: thus theories are criticized, refuted, honed, and improved. The free marketplace of ideas in which this exchange takes place is the best engine known to mankind for producing innovation while weeding out discredited hypotheses. Society has a strong interest in ensuring that scholars can engage in dialogue without the chilling threat of government intrusion.
History shows that when governments interfere, science is stifled, and society suffers. For his theory that the sun was but one of an infinite number of stars, the 17th century astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake -- setting back astronomical discovery by perhaps centuries. The Soviet government persecuted the plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov for his contention that principles of genetics, not Marxist ideology, should inform agricultural policy -- while the Russian people starved. Here in the United States, McCarthy-era persecution chilled scholarship to the detriment of all.
Mr. Cuccinelli argues that he is trying to protect Virginia taxpayers from fraud. No doubt inquiry is appropriate in cases where there is real evidence of financial wrongdoing. But Professor Mann has been cleared of wrongdoing by numerous scientific and governmental bodies that have investigated Climategate. And the exceedingly broad “civil investigative demand” served on UVa sweeps in scientific papers and scholarly exchanges between colleagues -- exactly the kinds of exchanges that prosecutors should be chary to disturb.
What’s more, Mr. Cuccinelli, who is separately suing the EPA to block regulation of carbon emissions, has a legal stake in the climate change debate: he seeks to make the scientific validity of research like Professor Mann’s an issue in the EPA case. The attorney general’s positions, and the subpoenas themselves, have led many to question whether his investigation of Professor Mann is really about financial misfeasance, or whether it is about the politics of climate change.
Next month, an Albemarle County court is scheduled to hear the UVa subpoena case. If the attorney general’s request is granted, the chilling effect on important academic research will be felt at Thomas Jefferson’s university, throughout Virginia, and beyond. That prospect should give all of us pause, no matter whether our politics are blue, red or green.
Molly Corbett Broad
Molly Corbett Broad is president of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for more than 1,600 college and university presidents and more than 200 related associations, nationwide.
Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing reveals the ways in which malicious and unfounded accusations can destroy lives, friendships, families, and institutions, including academic and military ones. During her wedding ceremony, a bride’s fiancé falsely accused her of prior promiscuity. The fiancé and his lord believed they had seen the evidence of the bride’s infidelity with their own eyes, but the evidence had been cooked by the lord’s bastard brother, who staged a misleading scene to deceive them. Besides destroying the wedding and humiliating the innocent bride, the slander led to dissension within the state and the army. It took a fool who proudly called himself an “ass“ to bring the unfounded accusation to the attention of the authorities, the fiancé, and the lord. They exemplified virtue by acknowledging and repenting their overreaction to the false accusation, thus leading to a happy ending believable only in romantic comedy. All’s well that ends well in comedy, so in this case the false accusation was indeed much ado about nothing.
But that is not always the case. Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article, “YouTube and Context,” makes clear I was falsely accused of advocating rape in a lecture I gave on Joseph Conrad and Nicollo Machiavelli at the annual ethics conference at the U.S. Naval War College this past May. The accusation occurred via the Internet on YouTube. A sound and video bite of a little over three minutes from my lecture was posted under the headline, “Naval War College Professor Advocates Rape.” Within a few days, over two thousand viewers saw the clip, which soon attracted the attention of the Pentagon and Congress.
The only problem is that I never advocated rape, which would be crazy in any forum, especially an academic one, and most especially a military one. When an accusation sounds too crazy to believe, look again. Gender-related sensitivities in the American military going at least as far back as the infamous Navy pilots’ Tailhook groping scandal make leaders extremely careful to avoid giving offense to anyone. And indeed, I was not speaking in my own name. Instead, as revealed in the full transcript of my remarks, I was revealing why Machiavelli deserves his infamy as a “teacher of evil” because he did indeed advocate the rape not of women, but of the peoples and countries his ideal leader would subjugate. Hence the title of one of the most insightful books on Machiavelli today, Machiavelli’s Rapacious Republicanism, by an old acquaintance of mine from graduate school, the brilliant Austrian scholar, Markus Fischer.
Interpretation is not advocacy. I was interpreting Machiavelli, not advocating Machiavellianism. The person who posted the clip either did not know the difference, in which case he or she was not prepared intellectually for the thoughtful discussions of any academic institution, or did not care, in which case the individual defamed not merely me, but also my institution by deliberately taking my words out of context. As one of my senior colleagues has remarked, the YouTube post was "an act of cyberterrorism not merely against Karl Walling, but the War College itself."
Such libels are bound to be increasingly common in the YouTube age and a threat to any professor in the classroom. Any one of us could be next. How can we speak freely if we must fear that any student might post distortions of our remarks on the Internet? Can we allow video vigilantes to incite mobs in the university? Can administrators be intimidated by the vigilantes and still retain the trust and respect of faculty? Don't forget that a significant portion of world opinion believes that the lamentable events of 11 September 2001 were the result of a conspiracy in the Bush administration, or Israel, or any of a number of the usual scapegoats on libelous Internet websites, not the work of Al Qaeda. This despite the fact that Al Qaeda has claimed credit for the attack! How can we prevent the cyberterrorists from winning?
Because this is the first time my institution has had to deal with this rising threat to any academic institution, it made several rookie mistakes in handling it, but it should be those mistakes, not the individuals who made them or the institution itself, that are the issue now. My institution may be the most intellectually happening place in the American military, but we are all rookies with Internet libel. We have a common enemy in those who would attack the academy with the Internet equivalent of scribblings on bathroom walls. What can academic institutions do to prevent such mistakes in the future?
Both common sense and common courtesy would dictate informing a professor about a potentially scandalous Internet clip from his or her lecture, seminar, or other professional work, and asking for an explanation before demanding an apology or taking disciplinary action. Especially in light of the Shirley Sherrod incident, in which a conservative blogger defamed a member of the Obama administration by deliberately posting a clip from her remarks that made her seem to say the opposite of what she intended and actually said, prudence would dictate a careful investigation of the facts, including a transcript when it is available, before making hasty judgments.
Much against my own judgment, under heavy pressure, and before I saw the YouTube clip, I did issue a tepid apology, the gist of which was blame Machiavelli, not me. He after all was the one who used rape as a metaphor for leadership. Discerning members of the audience understood this, but this sensationalist farce acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own. That YouTube, since the publication of Scott Jaschik’s article, but also perhaps through requests from my institution, has withdrawn the libelous video from its site is no great consolation. The post generated at least a dozen other articles and two television stories. The effects of this false accusation will endure as long as they remain on the Internet and are unrefuted. Hence, when the facts are finally known, when they reveal the accuser has distorted a professor’s words to make him or her appear to say exactly the opposite of what the professor intended, and actually said, make the facts known widely and publicly. Just do the right thing, as the Obama administration did when it acknowledged Shirley Sherrod had been defamed.
Shirley Sherrod knows the name of her accuser, whom she reportedly intends to sue. My accuser used an anonymous e-mail address. My institution apparently has no conclusive evidence to identity him or her yet, and may never acquire it, so some thought needs to be given to how to deter libel when anonymous e-mail addresses may make posters unaccountable.
As often happens in moments of hysteria, it is sometimes tempting to blame the victim. I used the word “bitch” twice in my remarks: once in depicting the mindset of a rapist; the other time in portraying the victim’s likely attitude toward her rapist. So I was reprimanded for using offensive language, though it is not my words, but Machiavelli’s view of leadership that is truly offensive. Rape is a common metaphor for conquest and tyranny. As revealed in Chapter 25 of The Prince, in one of the most famous passages in Renaissance literature and philosophy, Machiavelli used the metaphor of the rape of poor Fortuna to reduce politics to war and war to crime. The word hubris, often translated as overweening pride, that is a common theme not merely of tragedy, but also of strategy, stems from a Greek word for rape, with hubristic characters depicted as having lost all sense of limits. Machiavelli challenged the philosophy and religion of his time by questioning whether there can be any ethical limits to strategic thought and action. Unless conferences on professional military ethics are to be mere Sunday school exercises, that question deserves serious attention from those engaged in unconventional wars, in which the customary limits of war come frequently into dispute. What better way to reveal what is most shocking in Machiavelli than to use language that approaches the limit of what is considered acceptable in our time?
It would take the comic genius of Tom Wolfe to explain how my critique of Machiavelli was twisted into the advocacy of the very crime for which I was indicting him. Not merely feminists (who can easily find at least a hundred articles on Machiavelli and feminism with a quick web search), but all decent minds should turn their anger on Machiavelli, not me, while recognizing that he was also a political and military genius, the sort both insurgents and counterinsurgents, terrorists and counterterrorists have much to learn from today. With the United States bogged down in two counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, understanding Machiavelli could prove very useful, if only for learning to think like our worst enemies. How can we learn from evil geniuses without becoming like our own worst enemies? That was one of the big questions of my lecture. That it was obscured by a reckless vigilante is a terrible, terrible pity.
It will take careful thought to save academics from this sort of outrage in the future. It will require a mix of technological, ethical, and institutional fixes. I do not believe it is possible any longer for individuals at my institution to post clips of lectures from its video archives without permission. So there is now a gatekeeper, though perhaps at the regrettable price that recordings of important lectures will be less freely available in the future. Whether gatekeepers are worth this price needs to be examined carefully. It may depend on circumstances.
Since anyone with a cell phone could commit the same offense, technological fixes of institutionally-controlled Internet systems will certainly not be enough. The most unsung heroes of colleges and universities are those who teach English composition. Just as they do (or should) teach rules of evidence for written citations, so too ought they teach students to apply those same rules to video citations, with students warned that plagiarism, deliberate distortions, misleading quotations, and the like are not merely unethical, but may also put them in serious legal jeopardy. My institution does not have a faculty senate, but it surely needed one in this instance to slow down the rush to judgment. Institutions that already have faculty senates might assign Internet libel cases to committees within them, which would serve both the dignity of those institutions and the rights of the accused by providing some form of due process.
And one other thing. Professors teaching Shakespeare might use Much Ado About Nothing to get students to think about why libel is a serious problem, which will help them understand why the thoughtfulness induced by careful reading of old books is relevant to our so-called information age, and perhaps our only salvation from the snap judgments that age frequently induces. Such thoughtfulness is the aim of my teaching, which, with a little drama now and then, has helped me turn on more than a few light bulbs. It would be a crime to let the cyberterrorists turn out the lights of the academy.
Karl Walling is a professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College.
On Friday, Inside Higher Ed sadly reported on an effort underway by the state superintendent of Arizona to use the subpoena powers of a federal court to obtain data from education research scholars at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. The research in question examines the state’s approach to educating children who are not native speakers of English. If the pending cross-motion of the state superintendent to compel production of experts’ source data prevails, the outcome of that determination could compromise the privacy protection promised to research participants and the confidentiality of the data.
Today, a federal judge has an opportunity to issue an order that prohibits the release of any information that would directly or indirectly disclose the identities of teachers who participated in important education research studies. Or the court could strike a blow to science serving the public interest by ordering identifiable information to be disclosed and thereby making teachers who voluntarily participated in these studies vulnerable to harm (e.g., loss of jobs, public criticism). In addition, the court ruling may result in a broader and longer-term impact by chilling the willingness of others to participate in research or stifling researchers from undertaking some of the studies most necessary to policy and public decision making.
In the human sciences — whether in biomedical or social and behavioral science — advancements to knowledge depend on individuals’ willingness to participate in research. In science, we have long recognized that responsible conduct of research and quality science require the ethical treatment of those willing to be studied. Across ethics codes in the human sciences, including the Ethical Standards of the American Educational Research Association, informed consent and protecting the confidentiality of identifiable information are bedrock to the conduct of research.
In 1979, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research set forth Ethical Principles and Guidelines (widely known as the Belmont Report) that emphasized the centrality of informed consent and protection of research participants from increased risk of harm due to their participation in research. The Belmont Report led to passage in 1981 of the Code of Federal Regulations for the Protection of Human Subjects (45CFR46), which delegates review of research and implementation of the regulations to institutional review boards (IRBs) at universities and other institutions.
Under 45CFR46, institutions and their IRBs are provided with some degree of discretion in specifying human research protection plans, but have the affirmative responsibility of ensuring that the research procedures set forth by the research scientists protect the privacy of subjects and the confidentiality of data. Discharging their responsibilities, the IRBs at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University approved the research procedures set forth for these studies to protect the identities of participating teachers and any information that could disclose their identities. Following these protocols, faculty members made commitments to the teachers participating in their research, and teachers gave their consent to participate with the understanding that the data in these studies would not be used in any way that could reveal their identities. These protocols reflect a commitment of researchers to their research participants; by virtue of their review and approval, the institutions’ IRBs also affirmed their commitment to the specified plans.
With these education research studies now completed and reports from them independently peer-reviewed and made accessible by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, two of the investigators have agreed to appear as expert witnesses before the U.S. District Court of Arizona. As with any scientific expert appearing before the courts, these education researchers can be cross-examined with respect to their own expertise or about the studies that they seek to present. Serving as expert witnesses, however, does not waive in any sense the agreements that researchers made to research participants or the responsibility of the universities and their IRBs to ensure that these commitments are honored.
In an open society, we should engender a commitment among scientists to disseminate their findings on important matters of societal dialogue and debate. Scientific discoveries that are relevant to high profile or controversial issues — whether global warming, disease transmission, efficacy of first responders in disasters, recovery from traumatic events — need to be part of the public discourse where sound science can contribute to policy and practice. There is no more important an arena where science can matter than education, where schools and communities are struggling with limited information and equally limited resources to help guide effective interventions and outcomes, including in this case those related to instruction for English language learners. There is every reason to support and encourage scholars who undertake quality research to publicly present it without fear of undermining how ethically responsible research is done in all of human science or putting their research subjects at direct risk.
Looking ahead, there are steps that institutions and their faculty members or researchers can take to reduce the likelihood of disclosure — including forced disclosure through legal proceedings. These steps range from how and where identifiable data are retained to strengthened data protection plans through obtaining Certificates of Confidentiality from federal agencies, in particular from the National Institutes of Health. These certificates are intended to protect the privacy of research subjects by protecting institutions and investigators from being forced to release sensitive information that could be used to identify participants, including education research addressing sensitive topics (e.g., truancy). Certificates of Confidentiality are intended to encourage recruitment of subjects on sensitive issues by enhancing privacy protections and reducing concerns about participation. Although these certificates are more visible to researchers working in areas where criminal or civil legal proceedings are more likely (e.g., medical malpractice research, studies of drug treatment programs), little is known about the strengths or durability of these protections. On less sensitive topics — as with many studies in education — the research may not qualify at all for Certificates of Confidentiality, even if sought.
Parties in a dispute, as in the Flores v. State of Arizona et al., the suit that has led to the demands for information about the education research conducted in Arizona, certainly have a right to present and scrutinize the research and findings presented before the court. To review the methodology, the data analyses, and the findings — much of which seems to be provided in the reports on the UCLA website — does not, however, require knowing the identity of the research participants. In one of the studies, a survey of some 800 teachers, the investigators themselves do not know who the anonymous respondents are. By forcing disclosure of information about specific schools or school districts, the identities of now anonymous participants could be deductively disclosed.
In the social sciences and very much evident in education research, there is a history of data access under restricted licensing agreements that allow other bona fide scientists to reanalyze data or undertake additional analyses adhering to the original confidentiality agreements made with research participants. As a condition of these licenses, there are very stiff penalties for violation. It would seem that such steps would not be necessary in the pending case because the court could satisfy itself that the expert testimony is reliable based on the factors established by the Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. without needing to know the names of the participants. If there are questions unaddressed that are important to the Court, it would be far better to ask the researchers to provide further analyses or to have other qualified scholars undertake analyses under restricted conditions than run the risk of compromising teachers or intimidating researchers by compelling disclosure of the identities of human subjects.
We are at a time in our history when science is sorely needed to advance the public good in education and elsewhere. These universities should stand firm in protecting the integrity of science and backing their IRBs that approved of the research protocols guaranteeing that subject identities would not be revealed. Were the universities to do otherwise, they would need to scrutinize whether breaches of confidentiality constitute adverse events according to their own guidelines. For academic researchers or their universities to face this challenge when researchers and their studies could be scrutinized without revealing participants’ identities is a sad moment indeed. In an era when good evidence in education can help to make wise decisions, we can only hope that the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona will defend the interests of these researchers and those who serve science and society through their participation in research.
Felice J. Levine
Felice J. Levine is executive director of the American Educational Research Association. She is associate editor of theJournal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics.
Antioch College, emerging from the ashes of its involuntary auto de fé, plans to appoint a new president shortly and bring in its first class of new students in the fall of 2011. From the college that was the first to treat male and female students equally, that first promoted student discussion in the classroom, that practiced community-wide governance of a sort few other institutions could even imagine, that gave African-Americans scholarships before most colleges would admit them, and that invented what remained the most ambitious work/study program anywhere, this is news that matters. Now, when so much of higher education is on the verge of abandoning the liberal arts for a corporate agenda, Antioch’s presence is more important to American higher education than it has been for decades.
The reopening of the college is also, to understate the matter almost beyond recognition, both an opportunity and a challenge. It is an opportunity first of all to reinvent undergraduate education — to position academic disciplines as points of intersection with other bodies of knowledge, as platforms from which to structure understanding of both history and the contemporary world. Disciplinarity needs to become more cognizant of its others, more interdisciplinary, more self-critical, more global. But it does not need to be abandoned. Yet those working on the Antioch curriculum have also faced the challenge of creating a coherent and credible plan for what is scheduled at first to be less a small college than a nanocollege with a nanofaculty numbering fifteen or fewer.
Who is to make up that faculty? The investigative report issued by the American Association of University Professors after Antioch University announced it would close its founding (and only) residential college, and completed after a group of alumni formed the Antioch College Continuation Corporation to purchase the college from the university and reopen it, makes the AAUP’s position clear: “we trust that the Antioch College Continuation Corporation will appreciate the fundamental importance of the tenure system and will offer reinstatement to those whose appointments terminated with the closing, restoring their tenure rights.” Although, as an engaged alumnus, I recused myself from the AAUP investigation and had no hand in writing the report, I strongly endorse its conclusions. In practical terms, its recommendations mean the college could simply reinstate tenured faculty. "Could" does not mean they have to do so. The AAUP has never maintained that the college is legally required to do so. The obligation is moral and professional, not legal. If the college is determined to conduct searches for positions that qualified faculty a few blocks from campus could fill with distinction, it could include something like the following statement in its ads: "Preference will be given to faculty members who previously held tenure at Antioch College in 2008."
Antioch College has had to walk a fine line since purchasing its freedom from the university. Not wanting to assume all the contractual commitments of its namesake, the new college has repeatedly asserted it is not a successor institution. Yet on August 12, 2009, it filed documents in the Greene County, Ohio, probate division of The Court of Common Pleas stipulating that “Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC), an Ohio non-profit corporation, was established with the purpose to resume the operations of Antioch College as an independent institution with its own fiduciary board of directors.” The operative verb is “resume.” But more fundamentally, at every turn the college seeks to reinforce its identity as the inheritor of the Antioch College spirit and legacy. At the June 2010 alumni reunion a two-story high portrait of key Antioch president Arthur Morgan towered over the proceedings. A 1942 film about the college was shown; it was directed by long-term theater faculty member Paul Treichler, who would later become my father-in-law. Famous graduates gave talks. An entirely new college could not sponsor any of these events and would be unable to hold an alumni reunion.
For reasons that remain unclear, neither the college’s interim president nor its Board Pro-Tem, eventually to be replaced by a Board of Trustees, has been willing to commit itself to rehiring the former tenured faculty members. Some of those who lost their jobs in 2008 have since taken other positions. Some retired, having no other way of maintaining an income. Realistically, some six to eight former Antioch College tenured faculty members would welcome jobs at Antioch College. And there lies the opportunity.
These people, most of them originally hired in national searches, share a deep commitment to the college’s rebirth. Unlike most faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities, whose knowledge of curriculum development is narrowly departmental, Antioch faculty members have experience in designing and implementing a campus-wide interdisciplinary curriculum. They understand the rich relationship between course work and the incredibly formative work experiences the college requires. They have been participants in community government. They have hands-on knowledge of the resources on campus and in the community. They are exactly the core of dedicated faculty members a new Antioch president will need to build the new college. Former Antioch faculty have made similar arguments on their new website. Indeed the first priority should be to hire those of the former faculty with the greatest leadership capacity.
With a cohort of seasoned college faculty as a core, others could be appointed who had no previous relationship with the college. But an entire permanent faculty without Antioch College experience would be unrealistic and unworkable. Worse still would be an Antioch faculty composed mostly of new Ph.D.s, absorbed largely in their doctoral research and wholly unprepared for the diverse demands of reviving an institution with a unique mission and a distinctive history. In addition to reinstating the faculty, the board would be well-advised to find ways of enrolling former students who lost the chance to complete their degrees when the college was closed. The immediate alternative — a student body composed entirely of freshmen — does not offer an ideal educational model.
A few former Antioch faculty members were hired temporarily as “Morgan Fellows” to help flesh out the new curriculum in 2009, but their title made it clear they were no longer really faculty members, and they certainly did not possess academic freedom as the AAUP or American faculty members elsewhere would define it. I participated in the search, but my expectations about the intellectual and administrative environment the Morgan Fellows would work in were not fulfilled, nor were plans to increase their numbers. They had to work on a curriculum I considered largely imposed from above. In my view no satisfactory mechanism was established to bring other former faculty members fully into the planning process. The current contracts of the Morgan Fellows specify that they are at-will employees who can be fired without notice.
The college’s new leaders, meanwhile, have put forward a number of implausible arguments about why they cannot simply reinstate Antioch faculty as Antioch faculty. In general, new institutions have greater flexibility in deciding how to hire their faulty, but college administrators have oddly claimed the opposite. But the most hollow of their arguments — sent aloft as a trial balloon in multiple conversations and meetings this summer — went “How can we rehire these people? The university won’t give us their personnel files.” I suggested in reply, when representatives of the board met in the AAUP’s Washington offices, that I could supply the names and vitas of the tenured faculty and even some of their tenure and promotion papers if necessary, but no one among the board’s representatives was interested.
More recently, vague, dark warnings have been issued in meetings of college stakeholders that the college would be placed in grave jeopardy if it hired faculty members outside national searches. But of course colleges and universities already have multiple programs to hire faculty members without searches — target of opportunity programs to hire minority faculty members, special programs to hire spouses or partners, programs to hire distinguished senior or promising mid-career faculty members. Colleges routinely give preference to teachers familiar with an institution’s history and mission. Some colleges give preference to hires from their own geographical region. The list goes on, with religious colleges, women’s colleges, and Native American colleges establishing other sets of preferences and hiring priorities.
If Antioch genuinely needs a nuclear physicist and none are available from among its tenured ranks, it can do a national search. If, however, it needs a professor of literature, theater, communications, media, philosophy, photography, chemistry, or political economy, it might do well to look around its own neighborhood. If qualified former tenured faculty members are overlooked and new faculty hired instead, grievances can be filed with the AAUP. The AAUP staff is experienced in such matters. The series of weak excuses about why Antioch cannot rehire its own faculty, however, worries some that the college’s new president will accept a different strategy: deliberately initiating searches for positions in fields that do not match those of the former faculty. One final point needs to be stressed: if alumni end up volunteering to teach in place of tenured faculty and thereby deny unemployed Antioch faculty a job and a living, labor history has a name for such people: scabs. The moral and professional implications of accepting a job so the faculty victims of the college closure cannot have one need to be confronted.
When I told a college administrator a few months ago that, as AAUP president and a college alumnus, I was likely to write something about the need to rehire former faculty members, I was urged not to do so. The candidates for the Antioch president, he argued, would be discouraged if they heard there was disagreement about whether to rehire the faculty. As it happened, shortly thereafter I was among those nominated to be president myself. Given that my views on rehiring Antioch faculty were rather different from those of most board members — and given that my employment history does not match that of the typical college president — I had scant hope of getting the job. But my candidacy was a valuable opportunity to present a different perspective to the search committee. Now that my candidacy will not be going forward and that a president is about to be appointed, I can return to my earlier intention of writing about the issue.
Because all Antioch stakeholders — including its president — need to know that many are concerned about the fate of the tenured faculty. A new president will be joining a community and interacting with alumni that have powerful convictions about the matter. And, for better or worse, the new president will be dealing with a board that has embraced a paradoxical Alice in Wonderland view of its relationship with college history. They claim to be deeply devoted to tenure, just not the tenure of their own former faculty. One pill makes you Antioch, and one pill makes you not.
The board’s stance, however, is not really the product of a legal imperative. The debates among Antioch’s stakeholders are not over whether the college is a successor corporation. They are over whether Antioch needs to make a clean break with its past, something that cannot be done unless several decades of alumni and a thousand or more townspeople contract a fatal disease and do so sooner, rather than later. The question that troubles some is whether Antioch had developed a “toxic culture” in its last decades, as some of those involved in shutting down the college alleged. The corollary question is whether the college faculty had a role in Antioch’s troubles.
The AAUP’s investigative report holds that the college was more sinned against than sinning. Antioch University deprived the college of basic information about its financial condition, then imposed artificial depreciation costs on a budget that couldn’t bear them. It reduced the admissions staff to a dangerously low level. It virtually eliminated shared governance. Its chancellor inveighed against tenure. It thoroughly alienated the alumni, who then stopped donating to the college’s annual campaign. Finally, it imposed a radically new curriculum on the college without faculty input.
Antioch’s enrollment declined, but it continued to attract students of exceptional promise and talent. They could write and talk with an eloquence more typical of faculty members. But some also had the convictions and occasional intolerance of the young. As the college grew smaller, the critical option to live off campus — something I had needed as a safety valve when I was at Antioch in the 1960s — disappeared, because the institution needed the housing income. Antioch had always been something of a hothouse community — intense, passionate, politically committed, layered at once with affection and antagonism. Certainly the experience of the faculty members I worked with then, some of whom came to the campus in the 1930s, along with the newer faculty members I have continued to meet, confirms that Antioch’s community characteristics have a long history. What was needed at the end was not less toxicity but more civility — and more skill at framing campus actions for public reception. The views people were advocating were not toxic. The college needed leadership at the top willing and able to channel the intensity that was magnified by small scale.
The Antioch faculty members terminated in 2008 who I know well are thoughtful, insightful, and committed. They are ready to preserve the best of Antioch’s progressive traditions, without which Antioch would not be Antioch, and shape them anew for new times. Most are ready to work long hours in a project they see as more of a cause and a mission than a job. These former faculty members are supplemented by an unusually talented local arts community in the Yellow Springs, Ohio, area. The members of that community are also ready to work on the college’s behalf, but not if the faculty members themselves are jettisoned.
Rather than suppress debate about the college’s history and prospects, the Board and the new president need to encourage and manage it. Otherwise, the mounting divisions and recriminations that increasingly haunt every conceivable college future will only multiply. The renewal of the college must also be a time for healing, a process that cannot be facilitated by suppressing dissent. A tendency to treat those who would modify present plans as disloyal must be abandoned. The alumni have absurdly been asked to offer their “unqualified devotion,” perhaps the most un-Antiochian sentiment I have ever heard promoted at the college. I believe the best way to initiate the healing process is to begin by reinstating those few tenured faculty members who remain available. Bringing experienced faculty members on board will also be reassuring to the larger higher education community and will help the accreditation process. It is an opportunity that need not be missed.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.
Late last month, following a protest by House G.O.P. leader John Boehner and the Catholic League president William Donohue over its imagery of ants swarming over a crucifix, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video called “A Fire in My Belly” by the late David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition. (See this report in IHE.) Over the past week, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles painted over a mural it had commissioned from an artist named Blu; the mural showed rows of coffins draped in dollar bills. MOCA explained that the work was “inappropriate” given its proximity to a VA hospital and a memorial to Japanese-American soldiers, but has invited the muralist to come back and try again.
All of this in the wake of last spring's furor over the cartoon series South Park’s satirical depiction of Muhammad (or rather, its flirtation with that depiction). I didn’t pay all that much attention to the controversy as it was occurring, since I was still getting angry e-mail messages from Hindus who objected to a scholarly book for its impiety towards their gods. It felt like I had absorbed enough indignation to last a good long time. But there’s always plenty more where that came from. People feel aggrieved even during the holiday season. Actually, just calling it “the holiday season” is bound to upset somebody.
So it may not make sense to use the word “timely” to describe Stefan Collini’s new book That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (published by Seagull and distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic seems perennial.
A professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, Collini is also the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006) and Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (2008), both from Oxford University Press. His latest volume is part of a new series, “Manifestos for the 21st Century,” published in association with the internationally renowned journal Index on Censorship. As with his other recent work, it takes as its starting point the question of how criticism functions within a society.
The word “criticism” has a double meaning. There is the ordinary-usage sense of it to mean “fault-finding,” which implies an offended response almost by definition. Less obviously tending to provoke anger and defensiveness is criticism as, in Collini’s words, “the general public activity of bringing some matter under reasoned or dispassionate scrutiny.” Someone may find it absurd or perverse that there are critics who think Milton made Satan the real hero of Paradise Lost, but I doubt this interpretation has made anyone really unhappy, at least within recent memory.
Alas, this distinction is not really so hard and fast, since even the most dispassionate criticism often involves “a broader analysis of the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices.” And it is sometimes easier to distinguish this from fault-finding in theory than in practice. “Such analysis,” writes Collini, “will frequently be conducted in terms other than those which the proponents of a claim or the devotees of a practice are happy to accept as self-descriptions, and this divergence of descriptive languages then becomes a source of offense in itself.”
Not to accept a self-description implies that it is somehow inadequate, even self-delusional. This rarely goes over well. An artist showing coffins draped with dollar bills, rather than flags, is making a polemical point -- in ways that a scholar analyzing the psychosexual dimension of religious narratives probably isn’t. But offense will be taken either way.
Such conflicts are intense enough when the exchange is taking place within a given society. When questions about “the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices” are posed across cultural divides, the possibilities for outrage multiply -- and the problem arises of whether critique amounts to an act of aggression.
Let me simply recommend Collini’s book, rather than try to synopsize his argument on that score. But it seems like a good antidote to both clash-of-civilizationists and identity-politicians.
“Criticism may be less valued or less freely practiced in some societies than in others,” he writes, “but it is not intrinsically or exclusively associated with one kind of society, in the way that, say, hamburgers or cricket are. And anyway, different ‘cultures’ are not tightly sealed, radically discontinuous entities: they are porous, overlapping, changing ways of life lived by people with capacities and inclinations that are remarkably similar to those we are familiar with. While there are various ways to show ‘respect’ for people some of whose beliefs differ from our own, exempting those beliefs from criticism is not one of them.”
As a corollary, this implies cultivating a willingness to listen to critiques of our own deeply embedded self-descriptions. No easy thing -- for "so natural to mankind," in the words of John Stuart Mill, "is intolerance to what it really cares about." Amen to that.
Over the course of decades, a great many books, essays, and policies have been written and published about academic freedom. We have learned how to apply it to pedagogical, technological, cultural, and political realities that did not exist when the concept was first defined. Not only faculty members, administrators, trustees, and students, but also parents, politicians, and other members of the public, would now benefit from a concise summary of its major features. Sometimes academic freedom is invoked in situations where it doesn't actually apply. But many within and without higher education are not well-versed in all the protections it does provide. This statement is designed to help clarify both what academic freedom does and doesn't do.
PART 1: What it does do
1. Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.
2. Academic freedom establishes a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments. It preserves the intellectual integrity of our educational system and thus serves the public good.
3. Academic freedom in teaching means that both faculty members and students can make comparisons and contrasts between subjects taught in a course and any field of human knowledge or period of history.
4. Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.
5. Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to study and do research on the topics they choose and to draw what conclusions they find consistent with their research, though it does not prevent others from judging whether their work is valuable and their conclusions sound. To protect academic freedom, universities should oppose efforts by corporate or government sponsors to block dissemination of any research findings.
6. Academic freedom means that the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs of politicians, administrators, and members of the public cannot be imposed on students or faculty.
7. Academic freedom gives faculty members and students the right to seek redress or request a hearing if they believe their rights have been violated.
8. Academic freedom protects faculty members and students from reprisals for disagreeing with administrative policies or proposals.
9. Academic freedom gives faculty members and students the right to challenge one another’s views, but not to penalize them for holding them.
10. Academic freedom protects a faculty member’s authority to assign grades to students, so long as the grades are not capricious or unjustly punitive. More broadly, academic freedom encompasses both the individual and institutional right to maintain academic standards.
11. Academic freedom gives faculty members substantial latitude in deciding how to teach the courses for which they are responsible.
12. Academic freedom guarantees that serious charges against a faculty member will be heard before a committee of his or her peers. It provides faculty members the right to due process, including the assumption that the burden of proof lies with those who brought the charges, that faculty have the right to present counter-evidence and confront their accusers, and be assisted by an attorney in serious cases if they choose.
PART 2: What It Doesn’t Do
1. Academic freedom does not mean a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.
2. Student academic freedom does not deny faculty members the right to require students to master course material and the fundamentals of the disciplines that faculty teach.
3. Neither academic freedom nor tenure protects an incompetent teacher from losing his or her job. Academic freedom thus does not grant an unqualified guarantee of lifetime employment.
4. Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from colleague or student challenges to or disagreement with their educational philosophy and practices.
5. Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from non-university penalties if they break the law.
6. Academic freedom does not give students or faculty the right to ignore college or university regulations, though it does give faculty and students the right to criticize regulations they believe are unfair.
7. Academic freedom does not protect students or faculty from disciplinary action, but it does require that they receive fair treatment and due process.
8. Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from sanctions for professional misconduct, though sanctions require clear proof established through due process.
9. Neither academic freedom nor tenure protects a faculty member from various sanctions — from denial of merit raises, to denial of sabbatical requests, to the loss of desirable teaching and committee assignments — for poor performance, though such sanctions are regulated by local agreements and by faculty handbooks. If minor, sanctions should be grievable; if major, they must be preceded by an appropriate hearing.
10. Neither academic freedom nor tenure protects a faculty member who repeatedly skips class or refuses to teach the classes or subject matter assigned.
11. Though briefly interrupting an invited speaker may be compatible with academic freedom, actually preventing a talk or a performance from continuing is not.
12. Academic freedom does not protect a faculty member from investigations into allegations of scientific misconduct or violations of sound university policies, nor from appropriate penalties should such charges be sustained in a hearing of record before an elected faculty body.
These points are mostly adapted from nearly 100 years of American Association of University Professors policy documents and reports. Since its 1915 founding, the AAUP has been the primary source of the documents outlining the basic principles of faculty rights and responsibilities. It is also the source of perhaps the single best statement of student rights. Putting the principles above into practice, of course, requires a goodly amount of additional detail, information the AAUP continues to provide and update.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author, most recently, of No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (NYU, 2010).
Tenure is disappearing. Corporate and government interests are interfering with academic research. And since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, the courts are suggesting that faculty members who speak out on governance may be punished, and even fired. "Academic freedom now confronts challenges powerful enough to ask not what its future will be," writes Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, in No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (2010), "but whether it will have a future at all."
Nelson’s warning is timely. But his analysis is incomplete. Focusing on how political, corporate, and administrative intrusions threaten academic freedom, Nelson casts professors as victims of powerful anti-intellectual forces. But that’s not the whole story. And if academic freedom is to be saved, the whole story must be told.
That story begins in 1915, with the founding of the AAUP.
Professional Ethics and the Public Trust
In 1915, the fledgling professional association issued its Declaration of Principles, a document that explained what academic freedom is and why it matters.
Noting that our colleges and universities form "a public trust," the Declaration stressed that "trustees are trustees for the public" and professors' "duty is to the wider public to which the institution itself is morally amenable." Trustees have limited authority to intervene in academic matters — and in return the academy ensures that professors are as accountable as they are independent: because "there are no rights without corresponding duties the freedom of the academic teacher entail[s] certain correlative obligations." Chief among these is professors' duty to maintain strict professional standards.
Academic freedom is, as Neil Hamilton has explained, a social contract — and will be lost if academics don’t fulfill their end of it. "If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship," the Declaration warned, "the task will be performed by others … who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action is sure to breed suspicions and recurrent controversies deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities."
This prediction isn’t part of the story we usually hear about academic freedom. But it should be — for it is coming true.
In a 1993 survey, only 55 percent of professors said they "should, to a great extent, exercise responsibility for the conduct of their colleagues" — which means, the AAUP noted, that fully "45 percent failed to understand a major principle of professionalism, a predictable outcome of limited socialization in professionalism."
Forty percent of professors say their work has been plagiarized. But they have little recourse. Administrators, disciplinary societies and publishers are all retreating from the responsibility to address issues such as plagiarism. The same goes for conflict of interest. Stanford University, for example, forbids medical school faculty members from accepting drug company perks and payment for talks. But the policy is unenforced. The same is true for the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado at Denver, and others. Then there are the academic economists who fail to disclose their corporate ties. Their institutions aren’t stopping them — and the American Economic Association is so far behind the curve that it doesn’t even have an ethics code. The list goes on and on. No one is minding the store.
This is not the profile of a profession that deserves the public trust. And yet academe has far fewer checks and balances than other peer review professions. Doctors can lose their licenses. Lawyers can be disbarred. But incompetent or dishonest professors are often forever. If they have tenure, they are very hard to fire, and just about impossible to retire.
How did such a sorry state of affairs arise? After all, the AAUP was awfully clear, way back in 1915, about academics’ ethical obligations. Sadly, the answer arguably originates with the AAUP itself.
The AAUP’s Forgotten Committee
The AAUP handles the "rights" side of academic freedom with ease. Within a year of its founding, the AAUP had formed its first, most prominent committee — Committee A — to defend academic freedom. And, except for a regrettable lapse during the McCarthy years, the AAUP has been a forceful faculty advocate.
But the AAUP has historically been very weak on responsibility — what the 1915 Declaration calledacademic freedom's "corresponding duties" and "correlative obligations."
Shortly after the AAUP was founded, it formed a committee on professional ethics and appointed John Dewey, an AAUP founder, to run it. But then nothing happened. Late in life, Dewey is said to have remarked that Committee B had never even met. While Committee A established itself as a strong advocate for professors’ rights, Committee B let decades elapse before issuing a statement on professors’ responsibilities.
Committee B’s 1966 Statement on Professional Ethics outlined professors’ obligations in research, teaching, and governance, stressing responsibility, honesty, and respect for professional norms. But it was tentative, even toothless. "In the enforcement of ethical standards, the academic profession differs from those of law and medicine, whose associations act to ensure the integrity of members engaged in private practice," it reads. "In the academic profession, the individual institution of higher learning provides this assurance and so should normally handle questions concerning propriety of conduct within its own framework by reference to a faculty group."
A high-minded evocation of ideals, the statement offered little guidance regarding reporting, evaluating, and sanctioning misconduct. Deferential and placatory, willing only to offer occasional "counsel" and to “inquire into complaints” solely “when local consideration is impossible or inappropriate,” Committee B was a far cry from Committee A.
In 1998, for example, Committee B drafted a statement outlining professors’ obligation to respond to misconduct. Strong reactions ensued. "Some believed that individual faculty members should be responsible for speaking out and reporting misconduct to authorities when they have knowledge of violations and that, furthermore, guidelines should be developed to handle ethical breaches by faculty colleagues," writes former Committee B chair Wendy Wassyng Roworth. Others "expressed grave concerns about what such a policy might unleash. How could an individual be absolutely sure that he or she was right about a perceived wrongdoing? How could one assess the seriousness of an infraction? What would be the consequences of a false or mistaken accusation?"
The statement was never adopted.
The AAUP still maintains a committee on professional ethics. But it does not meet regularly, lacks the power of Committee A, and, apart from a brief spate of activity in 1990 that yielded advisory statements on plagiarism, conflicts of interest, and multiple authorship, the committee has not done much meaningful work. As Robert O’Neil observes in Academic Freedom in the Wired World, Committee B has "atrophied" — a sign that academe's commitment to professional responsibility has likewise withered.
Making Things Right
Cary Nelson argues that "academic freedom now confronts challenges powerful enough to ask … whether it will have a future at all." One of those challenges is to restore public trust in academics’ ability to govern themselves.
Here are some thoughts about how to begin:
The AAUP should recommit to professional responsibility and the social contract. It should revive Committee B, making it as prominent and important as Committee A. Like Committee A, Committee B should investigate cases, issue statements, and set standards. It should censure institutions that don’t enforce those standards — and, when appropriate, professors who violate them.
Disciplinary societies should define and enforce ethical standards. As of 2000, Hamilton notes, less than one-third of disciplinary societies had "adopted comprehensive, clear, and accessible codes of ethics." Few knew whether their codes were working. Every disciplinary society should have such a code. Societies should emphasize education and enforcement, coordinate with institutions to set standards and evaluate wrongdoing, and publicly censure institutions and individuals when appropriate. And societies should recognize that failure to frame ethical standards and to engage meaningfully with institutional efforts to ensure professional integrity (whether as an independent watchdog, adviser, or partner) damages not only the society in question — but the discipline itself. (We have only to recall the instructive case of former Emory history professor Michael Bellesiles to see the truth of this. While Emory investigated credible charges that Bellesiles had falsified the research in his award-winning Arming America, the American Historical Association discredited itself in classic tu quoque form, accusing Bellesiles’ accusers of harassment.)
Trustees should take professional ethics seriously. Trustees should guarantee that all graduate students and faculty receive ethical training. They should require workable mechanisms for reporting, investigating, and sanctioning misconduct. Such sanctions should cover disciplinary actions up to and including dismissal (the AAUP cites Michigan State University, the University of New Mexico, and Northwestern University as examples of how this can be done). Disciplinary policies must honor due process, and, as the AAUP suggests, should include the option of publicly censuring faculty members. Trustees should cultivate accountability at the departmental, college, and institutional levels. They should publish reports on what their institution is doing to ensure faculty and student integrity.
Faculty should restore the integrity of peer review. Faculty senates should adopt the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics and devise specific, consequential mechanisms for reporting, evaluating, and disciplining misconduct. Faculty should incorporate ethics training into undergraduate and graduate student education, faculty orientation, and continuing faculty education. Hiring, promotion, and post-tenure review should be rigorous, robust, and as transparent as possible. Adherence to professional standards should be part of faculty collective bargaining agreements and contracts.
Accreditors should require colleges and universities to maintain professional standards and assess whether institutions are adhering to them.
Failing credible institutional efforts, governors and legislatures should consider requiring public universities to train graduate students and faculty in professional ethics. Such education is required for lawyers in many states, and for law students in every state. Academia should follow suit.
Nearly a century ago, the AAUP predicted that failure to ensure professional integrity would license the regulatory intrusions of trustees, legislators, and others. Now that is happening. And while the professoriate’s collective abdication of responsibility is not the sole explanation for these intrusions, it is a shamefully neglected piece of the puzzle.
Academic freedom belongs to the public — it is not the property of academics. Professors must explain why academic freedom is vital to our democracy — and prove that they deserve it.
Beset by budget shortfalls, rising tuition, poor learning outcomes, and scandal, our colleges and universities are under more scrutiny than ever. Demands for accountability have never been louder. Failure to meet those demands has never had a higher price tag.
Professors must decide how much academic freedom is worth to them. Is it worth policing themselves — consistently, consequentially, and transparently? If so, academic freedom might just have a future after all.
Erin Oâ€™Connor and Maurice Black
Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black are research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.