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.
Right now, six people are being held in solitary confinement in Zimbabwe -- released from their cells each day, according to a report from family members, for just 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the late afternoon. They have not even gone on trial yet. When they do, the death sentence is a real possibility. Their offense is that they organized a meeting where video footage from the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt was screened and the events there were discussed.
I do not know this for certain, but it seems likely that they also may have incited people to commit acts of reading. One of the masterminds behind the gathering, after all, was was Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former Member of Parliament and leader of the the International Socialist Organization of Zimbabwe. He also teaches labor law at the U of Z. You know how it is with both professors and radicals. They are always trying to get you to read something.
Now, all this unauthorized thinking about the outside world is clearly a matter of grave concern to the regime of Robert Mugabe, who has been running Zimbabwe for as long as it’s been called “Zimbabwe.” That comes to 31 years now -- just a little longer than Hosni Mubarak was in power in Egypt. On February 19, as the meeting was taking place at the Labour Law Center in the capital city of Harare, security forces raided it and arrested dozens of people, including students and trade union members. They were detained for a week at a police station, without legal counsel, and a number of them later described being “beaten with broomsticks, metal rods, and blunt objects on their bodies and the soles of their feet,” according to a article in The New York Times.
On Monday of this week, 39 of the prisoners were finally released. The six who remain in custody are being charged with treason; if found guilty, they could be executed. Meanwhile, other opposition groups are being harassed, with at least one MP being arrested. Evidently this is the government’s way of preparing for the national election to be held later this year. President Mugabe is, as the old saying goes, a firm advocate of the two-party system: there should be one party in power, and the other in jail.
Last Tuesday, with my column for the week not quite done, I hurried over to the Embassy of Zimbabwe in Washington, DC, which is just a few blocks from Inside Higher Ed's world headquarters. There was what any activist must feel obliged to call "a small but spirited demonstration" on the sidewalk in front of the place. We gave leaflets to passers-by, and people in cars honked their horns in what one hoped was solidarity. At one point I even directed a few choice words, by bullhorn, to any of the diplomatic staff who might have been inside. (This was not cathartic. It would have been better to say them in person, but the front gate was locked.) And then I rushed back home, to my desk and my deadline, trying to put out of mind the image of being whipped on the soles of the feet with a metal rod.
That very same day (March 1) turned out to be the occasion of the Million Citizen March in Zimbabwe, which was organized on Facebook. The press abroad gave it almost no coverage. In a way, this was understandable, since nobody showed up for the Million Citizen March. One of the few reporters who did mention it found widespread suspicion that the whole thing was “a ploy by Zimbabwe’s intelligence service to lure activists onto the streets so they can be arrested.”
The benign neglect by the media of this not-quite-historical event is worth some reflection, though. As I wrote in this column a month ago, there has lately been a strong presumption that social networking is, as such, democratogenic. It is true that platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Twitter can be helpful, even catalytic, for popular mobilizations. But as the authors of a recent report from the United States Institute of Peace note, there is a strong confirmation bias on that point. People only pay attention to the role of social media in political movements when the latter are gaining strength or moving forward. If the opposite happens -- if support begins to dwindle, or a campaign is stillborn -- it never occurs to anyone that online communication may have generated or amplified public fear, cynicism, or passivity. That seems to be what happened with the Million Citizen March.
There's no substitute for the more inconvenient forms of activism, which require working with people you don't already know, and might not particularly like once you do. Not all solidarity involves friendship. But saying that doesn't mean discounting the possible value of social networking. The Facebook group "Calling for the Release of Zimbabwean Activists" is by far the best source of information on the detainees, and it provides a sense of what people around the world are doing to win their freedom.
Someone once defined politics as the art of knowing what to do next. Returning from that session with the bullhorn, I decided the next step would probably involve you, the readers of this weekly column, who have a vested interest in the release of Professor Gwisai and the other prisoners. Remember, they have been subjected to incarceration, beatings, and the threat execution for holding what was, in essence, a seminar on current events. Although not an attack on academic freedom in the strictest sense, it constitutes a brutal assault on the life of the mind.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” reads Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; “this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Obviously that proclamation has about as much sway with the world’s despots as the Declaration’s prohibition on “torture or … cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5). But the vanity of dictators is a curious thing. They do sometimes respond to public pressure from abroad. They can, on occasion, be shamed. And for the sake of the Zimbabwean political prisoners, we must try.
To that end, please consider endorsing and helping to circulate this call for the prisoners to be released and all charges dropped. It is literally a matter of life or death.
I'll sketch out a claim that academic freedom flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then consider why, then ask what may be learned from that time to help us understand and act in our time. My argument will not yield a happy ending, but maybe a bracing one.
To clarify: opposition to the Vietnam War became noisy by 1965. Many professors had been critical of U.S. policy well before that year (Hans Morgenthau's articles in The New Republic and elsewhere were especially important to me.) A student movement, led by Students for a Democratic Society for a while, had made the war its main issue. Teach-ins began shortly after the bombing of North Vietnam, in 1965, and spread rapidly from campus to campus. These usually took the form of debates, but anti-war arguments drew the crowds and interest. Most of the anti-war speakers were faculty members. Many had tenure and reputation: Morganthau, Anatol Rapoport, William Appleman Williams, Eric Wolf, Stanley Hoffman, Herbert Marcuse, Seymour Melman -- a mix of establishment scholars and rebel professors. Some were untenured faculty members or grad students. Of these, some lost jobs (Staughton Lynd), some never became college teachers (Jerry Rubin), some became famous professors (Joan Wallach Scott). Opposition to the teach-ins was fierce. For an extreme example, in a letter to The New York Times, Richard Nixon accused Eugene Genovese of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” (i.e., of treason, punishable by death) for saying, at the Rutgers University teach-in, that he would welcome a Viet Cong victory.
Yet I don't know of any tenured professor who spoke out early and openly against the war and was fired for such activities, though many, such as Melman, were under FBI surveillance for years. Some academics in the movement did civil disobedience and began to accumulate arrest records. Many publicly supported draft resistance, and along the way committed the crime of turning in their own ancient draft cards. I did so in a demonstration on the steps of the Justice Department, and was depicted in the act on the Walter Cronkite show, but there was no consequence beyond a visit to my office the next Monday of two FBI agents. Like many others, I also broke more serious laws, for instance, by helping draft resisters and AWOLs get to Canada or Sweden. My FBI file as of 1976 shows that the agency knew nothing of such doings, and, to my chagrin, concluded from my acts of free speech that I was not dangerous.
Did anyone lose a tenured professorship for antiwar speech during this period? Not to my knowledge. Doubtless, activism against the war counted as at least an unspoken reason for refusing to tenure some junior faculty members, and to block initial job offers to others. Interestingly, of the "Boston 5" -- Benjamin Spock, Mitchell Goodman, Marcus Raskin, William Sloane Coffin, Michael Sperber -- charged with violating the Social Security Act in a kind of show trial, the only academic, Sperber, a grad student, eventually went on to a solid academic career. I mean this loose bundle of facts to show why I think academic freedom worked splendidly (better than the First Amendment) to protect speech and other kinds of protest against and resistance to a major war. Now, to broaden the claim.
Speech and action for civil rights and then for black liberation were a lot more risky, especially in the South, and especially before 1965. My impression is that academic freedom held up pretty well after that, in a formal way, though of course racial discrimination went on and goes on in all the interstices of university life, including hiring and tenure. Discrimination was powerful against feminism, too, when, around 1970, it challenged received truth and the customs of male supremacy. But feminist ideas and proposals won the protection of academic freedom through the decade. Gay and lesbian rights arrived a bit later, through a similar process. One could go on. I’m open to correction on any of this, but will settle for the proposition that the idea and practices of academic freedom protected a lot of dissent and resistance during those years.
Few of the dissenters were fired, almost none de-tenured. Many lost jobs before tenure, then found other jobs. And many young people from liberatory and antiwar movements or strongly influenced by them landed in academic positions, even after the postwar boom shut down around 1970, and applicants began to outnumber jobs in the humanities and social sciences. Already, before 1970, movement people were an active presence in professional organizations. Radical caucuses began forming: in the Modern Language Association in 1968; in the American Historical Association in 1969. Some created left, feminist, and activist scholarly organizations of their own -- the North American Congress on Latin America in 1967, the Union for Radical Political Economics in 1968, Science for the People in 1969-70.
One of these, the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization, reformed an earlier newsletter into the Radical History Review (1973). Radical Teacher had a similar prehistory in the MLA Radical Caucus (1970), and was reborn in 1975. A little before that, The Black Scholar (1969) and The Journal of Black Studies (1970) were founded. The Insurgent Sociologist began in 1971, Radical Philosophy in 1972, Signs (Journal of Women in Culture and Society) in 1975, the Lesbian and Gay Studies Newsletter in 1978. In short, over less than a decade a left, anti-racist, feminist, and queer movement culture formed itself and grew, first on the edges of the academy, and then toward, and even in, its center. We could argue whether the change was a revolution or a sell-out, but for my purposes, what needs emphasizing is that although in the process a few people were fired and more denied entry or permanence, what had been critique from outside the academy won a marginal, then a substantial, place inside it.
Centrally, the idea of academic freedom embraces advocacy of unpopular or contrarian ideas. Why not extend it to include winning legitimacy, or even dominance, for some of those ideas? This happened. In the late 60s, the Dissenting Academy, to cite the title of Theodore Roszak’s 1967 collection, took on the established paradigms of most non-scientific fields, and did so with a certain edge. Louis Kampf titled his essay on his and my discipline, "The Scandal of Literary Scholarship." Marshall Windmiller’s on the international relations establishment was "The New American Mandarins." Robert Engler’s on social science was subtitled, "The Shame of the Universities." In the follow-up dissenting academy volume on literature (The Politics of Literature, edited by Kampf and Paul Lauter), Bruce Franklin's contribution was called, "The Teaching of Literature in the Highest Academies of the Empire." (Full disclosure: it had also appeared in College English, a standard professional journal, of which I was the editor.)
I offer this slightly frivolous detour from my main argument to indicate how cheerfully embattled we were, and to stand in for a much-too-long narrative of how the rough and ready critique we brought to bear on established academic knowledge engaged, modified, and in part replaced established academic knowledge. That transformation included redrawing the boundaries of who and what is important to study: women’s voices, African-American history, popular music, movies, and so on, were brought in from the margins. It included the revival of concepts pretty well exiled from the 1950s academy, such as commodification and class. It include new bodies of theory and analysis such as social constructionism, environmental science, and cultural studies.
One more step along this argumentative path: it should count as evidence of healthy academic freedom not just that one or another dissident is able to teach a course beyond the edge of disciplinary custom and not be fired, but especially that a phalanx of dissidents should be able challenge custom, defend innovations, and establish new topics and new approaches as worth curricular standing. That happened too. Since it is today the most visible accomplishment of '60s movements in higher education, I will simply wave a hand in its direction: gender studies, queer studies, Chicano studies, disability studies, peace and conflict studies -- the list could be long. Also, college catalogs are full of courses in traditional departments on these and many other topics not to be found there in 1965. As on the question of whether acceptance in the traditional university was good or bad for oppositional and reformist movements, I offer no judgment on whether acceptance was good or bad for the traditional university. I just restate my original claim that academic freedom strongly protected dissident writing and teaching, from c. 1965 to perhaps the end of the '70s -- remarkably, because much of that writing and teaching opposed and resisted U.S. engagement in a major war, was stigmatized as unpatriotic or treasonous, supported liberation movements challenging all kinds of privilege and authority, questioned foundations of knowledge in various disciplines, and violated professional decorum in ways both gentle and rude.
Why did the university experience such an outbreak of academic freedom, after a decade and a half of repression by Cold War urgencies, and co-optation by government support? The reasons are obvious, and compelling enough to pose difficulty for anyone who thinks academic freedom did not flourish through the Vietnam War period. First, large popular movements gave heart and momentum to faculty members (and students) who opposed government policies and academic orthodoxies. I have not mentioned the student movement, but it was already a force inside the university by 1965, and often an ally there of faculty dissidents -- especially around draft resistance and anti-war issues. These students felt like "our" kids. Within the next few years, minorities increased among undergraduate, then among graduate student and faculty populations. Women earned graduate degrees and joined faculties in larger proportions than before. Many gay people had always studied and taught in universities. From the early '70s on, they announced their presence, and became a movement both in and outside of higher education. University radicals could not be dismissed as isolated cranks, or see themselves that way.
On the other side, the Right was weakly organized, except for white supremacists in the south. Goldwater, herald of the new conservative movement, lost badly in 1964, and did so in part because of his wish to escalate the war in Vietnam. Few formations were comparable to the Tea Party or the various Lynne Cheney and David Horowitz fronts clamoring for expulsion of unpatriotic university teachers. Fundamentalist groups did not noisily attack feminists and abortion rights until well after Roe v. Wade. The chief antagonists of campus activists were local administrators, many of whom had held faculty positions and faculty values. Above them were trustees, representing business values by and large, but increasingly mixed in their support of the Vietnam War, and often at least sentimentally friendly to civil rights.
The principles embodied in the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement were adequate protection against such bosses. More vaguely, we, our students, and our immediate bosses had a class affinity that counted for something. We were of the confident, rapidly expanding professional-managerial class, at a felt distance from patriotic blue collar workers who resented our expertise and were soon to emerge as the "silent majority," then as Reagan Democrats. Campus culture defined an "us," however divided, and academic freedom was part of that culture.
One more condition of the academy’s tolerance during this period: its prosperity. This is not a sufficient condition, plainly, for higher education grew and prospered in the '50s, too, and yet witch hunts happened. But expansion of the university system had proceeded by the late '60s to the point where tenure-track jobs were more numerous than job seekers, and second and third jobs were easy to find for people denied reappointment or tenure. A more subtle consequence of the boom, I conjecture, was an ethos friendly toward provocative ideas, which could eventually make individual or departmental reputations. Within limits, points were given for novel or unconventional inquiry. That ethos may have protected seriously egalitarian and even anti-imperialist thought, when the movements came along.
Whatever the plausibility of that last thought, boom times will not underwrite academic freedom in its next golden age, should there ever be such a thing. Instead of department chairs lining up to interview candidates, it is certain that, for a while at least, the academic job market will remain at its nadir. English and other modern language departments will award Ph.D.s this spring to about three times as many people as the 600 or so tenure-track openings. These 1,800 new aspirants will be joined in the job market by maybe 1,500 people who failed to land tenure-track jobs last year or the year before or the year before that. The situation is nearly that grim in other humanities and social science fields. Unless graduate programs in those areas drastically cut back on admissions, the relation between new entrants and new jobs, which has been out of whack since the postwar boom peaked around 1970, will remain highly unfavorable. That is to say, the university has not for a while met one basic measure of a successful profession: that it adjust the flow of new members to protect its market haven. A highly likely result will be the profession’s declining ability to defend practitioners who come under politically driven attack from outside.
To look at the situation from another angle: the AAUP annual report, released April 11, tells that 75 percent (up from 70 percent) of people now teaching in colleges and universities are off the tenure track: contingent workers on short or part-time contracts. These people have no academic freedom beyond what is granted by the indulgence of their employers. I do not mean just the right to say unpopular things, but the right to plan courses, choose texts, and have a voice in curricular decisions or academic policy. The casualization of academic labor is not likely to slow down. Outsourcing and subcontracting are deep trends in U.S. and global employment, in technical and professional areas as well as in manufacturing, sales, and the like. Funding for public universities has long been in decline; I foresee no significant reversal of that trend.
The attack on public education and services in general looks to continue, even if liberals regather to push back the assault of the Tea Party and billionaire underwriters such as the Koch brothers. The recent success of these forces in abolishing the right of faculty members to bargain collectively in Wisconsin and Ohio could be the first of many such victories, portending wide application of the 1980 Yeshiva decision to public institutions, as the language of the Ohio bill makes explicit. Finally, and to shorten a potentially endless list of privatization troubles, more than 10 percent of enrollments today are in for-profit universities, with the number increasing fast in spite of bad conduct and congressional investigations. Needless to say, proprietary institutions have no tenure, and have roughly the same commitment to academic freedom as does Burger King.
Could academic hardship bring on a renewed militancy among professors? Could worldwide hard times help us make alliances with other sectors threatened by privatization and the increasing power of the rich? Could endless war stimulate academic freedom as the Vietnam war did? Will the social disorder attending on peak oil and other natural barriers to capitalist growth crush all dissent, or perhaps bring on a resurgence of rebellion? The arrival of these crises could make a decline in academic freedom seem like a shortage of truffles. But maybe not.
Richard Ohmann is Benjamin Waite Professor of English Emeritus at Wesleyan University. This essay is adapted from a talk by the author this month at New York University's Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center.
John Jay’s procedures for awarding honorary degrees are unusual; the selections are made by an elected committee of the Faculty Senate. At the time I was nominated for the award, the John Jay administration had recently caved in to outside political pressures to end the employment of an adjunct instructor. Because of my scholarship on academic freedom, the faculty committee hoped that by honoring my work, the college would be making a quasi-official statement that it would not allow such a violation of academic freedom to recur.
And, it has not. The refusal to grant Tony Kushner the honorary degree John Jay’s faculty and administration wanted to give him is the doing of CUNY’s trustees who – officially at least – have the final say. But that action, though legal, is a violation of academic freedom. The trustees invoked illegitimate political factors to override a carefully considered decision by the John Jay faculty.
Admittedly, the awarding of an honorary degree may not be central to the educational mission of an institution. Certainly, Tony Kushner will not suffer unduly from what the CUNY trustees have done. But the rest of the academy cannot help but feel the chill.
At the moment, most of these threats to academic freedom have targeted scholars who work in such sensitive areas as Middle Eastern studies, labor studies, or climatology. But in today’s volatile political environment, who knows what field might next come under fire or what academics will feel compelled to prune their syllabuses, avoid controversy in the classroom, and direct their research into some safe area?
Moreover, because more than 70 percent of all the instruction in American institutions of higher education is now in the hands of men and women with part-time or temporary positions, academic freedom is particularly at risk. These faculty members have no job security, and thus no academic freedom, whatsoever. Unless they are protected by a union contract, they can be fired at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. In addition, because their reappointments depend on student evaluations, few are tempted to raise controversial issues, challenge their students, or even give low grades.
I’ve watched and written about these developments for several decades now. The chill is definitely deepening. When I learned about the CUNY Trustees’ action with regard to Tony Kushner, I felt compelled to protest it as best I could. Freedom of expression on our nation’s campuses is too fragile – and too important – for us to allow it to become hostage to external political forces with repressive agendas and an academic community too spineless to stand up against them.
May 5, 2011 Benno Schmidt, Chair Board of Trustees City University of New York 535 E. 80th Street New York, NY 10075
Dear Benno Schmidt:
I am writing to protest the CUNY Board of Trustees’ recent action to override the decision of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to offer an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.
I am also writing to find out how to return to you the honorary degree from John Jay that I was awarded in 2008. It was the greatest honor I had ever received; and my gorgeous yellow and blue satin hood, which I am thinking of giving to Mr. Kushner, is – or at least was – one of my most cherished possessions, since I had been selected for it by the John Jay faculty in recognition of my scholarship on academic freedom.
But with honor comes responsibility. I cannot, therefore, remain silent when the very institution that once recognized the value of academic freedom now demeans it. That freedom is more than just the protection of the teaching, research, and public activities of college and university teachers. It also extends to the entire campus, fostering the openness and creativity that allow American higher education to flourish.
When an academic institution lets extraneous political considerations override educational priorities, not only is it limiting its members’ free expression, but it is also undermining the quality of the education it offers. Censoring outside speakers, including honorary degree recipients, like refusing to hire instructors or firing them because of their reputed political views, tells students, faculty members, and the rest of the public that some ideas cannot be allowed on campus. Such constraints negate the sacred mission of higher education within a democratic society.
I received my honorary degree from CUNY because of my scholarship on the McCarthy period, when over one hundred professors (including at least fifteen from the New York City municipal colleges) lost their jobs for political reasons. I assume that no one within CUNY’s Board of Trustees or administration wants a repeat of those dark days. Certainly, the John Jay faculty and administration, whose judgment the CUNY Trustees overrode, realize the value of academic freedom today.
I urge you, therefore, to reconsider your decision with regard to Tony Kushner and to restore to this eminent, albeit controversial, American playwright the honorary degree that the faculty at John Jay has appropriately awarded him.
Members of the College Republicans group at Santa Rosa Junior College had had enough. They were fed up, they said, with talking among themselves about various professors who, by expressing unvarnished liberal views as fact, made the students feel uncomfortable expressing their opposing views in class.
When Ward Churchill's scheduled appearance at Hamilton College this month was called off because of threats of violence, the debate about his appearance didn't go away. In formal forums and informal discussions, online and in person, students and faculty members have continued to talk.