Academic Freedom Under Many Assaults

October 31, 2008

"Academic freedom," that is, the inalienable right of every college instructor to make a fool of himself and his college by vealy, intemperate, sensational prattle about every subject under heaven, to his classes and to the public, and still keep on the payroll or be reft therefrom only by elaborate process, is cried to all the winds by the organized dons.
-- The New York Times, 1916 editorial

NEW YORK CITY -- In prefacing his remarks with The New York Times’ response to the American Association of University Professors' first report on academic freedom, Robert M. O’Neil set up his argument that academic freedom has since -- but only relatively recently; hence the Times' scathing tone less than a century ago -- evolved into a “canonical value.”

“There are plenty of examples to support the view that academic freedom is not fully understood or accepted. But at least in my view we’ve come a long way from McCarthyism,” said O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and a former University of Virginia president.

Or have we?

“It is by no means clear how much the academic community has learned from the McCarthy years,” said Ellen W. Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University who, like O’Neil, spoke Thursday during a conference focused on "Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times," held at The New School, in New York City.

Citing some examples, Schrecker mentioned the University of Nebraska’s recent cancellation of a speaking appearance by William Ayers, the education professor whose history with the Weather Underground has played a prominent role in the presidential campaign; the high-profile dismissal of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado; and the tenure denial of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University. “Universities are still accommodating themselves to the demands of politicians and other outsiders to eliminate embarrassing faculty members,” Schrecker said.

“In the name of financial exigency and market competitiveness, administrators have been subverting the autonomy of the faculty. Worse yet, faculties are disappearing,” she continued. “Two-thirds, that’s two-thirds of today’s teaching, is being done by what’s known as contingent faculty members. These people, no matter how skilled or qualified they may be, cannot provide the same kind of education as a traditional faculty."

Scholars at the conference Thursday focused heavily on the subhead of the conference title – “Universities in Dangerous Times." They discussed growing threats to academic freedom coming from outside the university (external political pressures and corporate influences, for example), and also from within. In terms of threats coming from within the university structure, speakers and audience members referenced long-standing tensions, such as those between moneyed trustees and faculty, but also newer threats created by changes within the university itself. These changes encompass not only a shrinking proportion of full-time faculty, but even a redefinition of the very word “professor," one speaker said.

“We often ignore the very wide range of institutions in which contemporary academics work,” said Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council and a New York University professor. As higher education has grown, the so-called American "professoriate" has too, from 246,000 around 1950 to more than a million today, he said. "'Professor’ becomes a word that covers a variety of different job conditions. These professors teach varied teaching loads, they teach different levels of students, they do different levels of research, they have varying job security.”

Calhoun said: “We situate our thinking about academic freedom and how to preserve it in relationship to these institutions where we work, and changes in these institutions -- realizing that they have become very big business.”

The twin issues of the corporatization and politicization of the university and their impact on free inquiry were undercurrents throughout Thursday’s sessions. From the beginning, said Joan Wallach Scott, a professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies’ School of Social Science, universities have depended upon philanthropy or state legislators, or both. In either case, she said, “the question of strings attached to the money is always a problem" -- one that requires a seemingly eternal vigilance.

In addition to considering changing university structures that could limit free inquiry, speakers also scrutinized the organizations whose very existence makes academic freedom possible – disciplinary societies. “Disciplinary communities provide the consensus necessary to justify academic freedom as a freedom for faculty,” said Scott, in that they certify the competence of faculty in their fields. At the same time, however, in setting up standards of judgment and norms, the resulting “disciplinary orthodoxies” can limit free inquiry on the part of scholars.

Scott said, later on, “It’s a certain awareness of the perils of disciplinary orthodoxy that ought to be required of faculty.”

Also on Thursday, scholars spoke of specific circumstances surrounding academic freedom at Israeli and Palestinian universities (neither prognosis was promising), and academic freedom at emerging research universities in Africa. While it’s generally accepted at these developing institutions "that academic freedom is an absolutely necessary condition,” in reality the situation is more bleak, said Ahmed Bawa, a distinguished lecturer in physics and astronomy at Hunter College who has worked on higher education issues in Africa for the Ford Foundation.

New research institutions are emerging in a much more interconnected world than did early research universities in the United States and Europe, said Bawa; this being the case, they are subject to strong external pressures.

The three-day "Free Inquiry at Risk" conference is being sponsored by the New School’s School for Social Research, and commemorates the 75h anniversary of the “University in Exile,” created within the New School in 1933 for scholars who fled from fascist Europe. The conference continues through today, which features a panel of American college presidents as well as an examination of free inquiry in a number of countries in transition.

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