The Presidential Perspective on Academic Freedom

Academic leaders discuss Middle Eastern branch campuses, restrictions on so-called "sensitive" research, and other topics related to academic freedom -- including confusion about the term.
November 3, 2008

NEW YORK CITY -- Growing external pressures impinging on the university in a globalized, increasingly interconnected world were common concerns during a conference on threats to academic freedom and free inquiry that concluded Friday at the New School. On that note, what more iconic example of the “global university” is there than the American college branch campus built in the Middle East, at the expense of an oil-rich host? (A "mini" New York University is planned in Abu Dhabi, for instance, and there's an entire "Education City" featuring multiple American universities in Qatar.)

“Institutions that ally themselves with rich emirates and so forth justify it by saying that this is after all a global world of knowledge and that science has no boundaries and knowledge has no boundaries. And they also justify it by saying they’re going to bring, or help bring, an advanced form of university life and education to areas that have lacked that,” said Hanna Holborn Gray, a former president of the University of Chicago. “I happen to be an academic purist, so I tend to say that’s for the birds.”

Such a total institution-to-institution alliance “will inevitably present some kind of problem, some kind of compromise,” Gray said, adding that she believes, in principle, that universities should not accept large gifts from foreign governments. “I think too many people are taking this particular plunge and I don’t like it much.”

Gray spoke Friday afternoon at a panel discussion of former and current university presidents, the closing session of a three-day conference, "Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times." Covering expansive ground, the presidents began by analyzing the very terms that dominated the conference as a whole -- “free inquiry,” “academic freedom,” and “institutional autonomy." The terms themselves suggest that these values are distinct but interrelated, said Gray, who spoke of the misuse of the term “academic freedom” when cried as an automatic response to criticism.

“So, for example, those who say today that Bill Ayers’s academic freedom is being violated because he is being attacked by opponents of Barack Obama are speaking nonsense in my view," Gray said, referring to the education professor whose history in the Weather Underground, and connections to Obama, have played a role in the presidential campaign. "He may not deserve the attacks he is receiving, but because he is an academic doesn’t mean that his academic freedom is being attacked.” Academic freedom, Gray continued, is "too important a value to squander, too important a value to allow the crying of wolf to make [it] meaningless in the eyes of the public -- that may simply think that we are claiming a special privilege.”

Speaking also of common confusion on what academic freedom is, Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities and former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, tried to disentangle it from the concept of “free speech.”

“I think frequently those two freedoms are confused. The notion that academic freedom has its roots in the First Amendment is not, I think, a very apt description of why we have academic freedom,” Berdahl said, pointing out that faculty are subject to evaluation by their disciplinary colleagues (though it should be said that commitments to “disciplinary orthodoxies" and conventions were also discussed at the New School conference as potentially powerful internal constraints on free inquiry). “Faculty are not necessarily free to take any position that they choose.”

“I’ve always thought of academic freedom as being the freedom, basically, for scholars to apply the disciplinary processes of scholarship and research to what they want to study and what they want to teach,” said Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He offered his working definition in prefacing his thoughts on threats to free inquiry in science since September 11.

Vest cited, for instance, an increase in the use of the term “sensitive but unclassified” by federal sponsors of research. With classified research, he explained, there's a bright line, and universities choose whether or not to undertake it. Now, Vest continued, federal sponsors are increasingly using the restrictive “sensitive but unclassified” tag. “Universities have had to make decisions. They either agree to these terms -- and some have -- or they reject the contract and some have … or they choose to fight the restriction and go argue with the Department of Defense or whoever it is.”

He added: “Nine times out of 10, if you’re willing to spend a year arguing about this, you’ll usually win.”

While much of the discussion at the various conference sessions covered past or present threats to free inquiry in universities, two academic leaders used their podium Friday to highlight challenges facing the future citizenry. Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst College, pointed to purposeful underfunding of and inequalities in the K-12 system. He emphasized that without an educational system that offers mobility for talented individuals to join the ranks of scholars, free inquiry is at risk.

Moreover, colleges need to be advocates for K-12 education, "inspire" their students to enter it, and generally, Marx said, “not hold ourselves above it.”

Meanwhile, Joseph W. Westphal, provost of the New School and former chancellor of the University of Maine, pointed to weaknesses at the next rung up of the educational system – colleges themselves.

“There’s a certain abandonment of core curriculum, of civic education, across our universities,” said Westphal. He mentioned curricular compromises colleges have made to compete (not requiring a foreign language, for example), a failure of campuses to truly internationalize, and the migration of the start of the college student’s weekend from Friday to Thursday to Wednesday nights. “I think we’ve lowered our academic standards,” said Westphal. Given all this, he wondered how students would respond to a McCarthy-like era if one arose in their futures.

“What happens when that happens? Are future students going to be able to respond to that?"


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