Academic Freedom Under Attack | Higher Ed Gamma
Academic Freedom Under Attack | Higher Ed Gamma

If there’s any obvious generational or political divide within the academy, it involves free speech and academic freedom.

Some recent newspaper headlines feature the latest blowups:

“Debate erupts at N.J. Law School After White Student Quotes Racist Slur.”

“Rutgers professor faces open letter accusing her of Hinduphobia”

Bias response teams, disruptive student protests, social media quips, and meddling in hiring and firing of faculty by politicians, trustees, alumni, and donors -- all have sparked controversies over academic freedom and free speech.

The standard liberal view was summed up by Yale University’s 1974 Woodward Report, which stated that the university is the place to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

According to this view, the proper response to misleading scholarship or hurtful or even injurious speech is open debate.  Or put more crassly, hypersensitive fragile flowers should toughen up, grow a thicker skin, and recognize that sticks and stones may break their bones but words – not matter how offensive -- will never hurt them.

But that view has received pushback from those who emphasize the power of words to inflict pain, induce trauma, and create a hostile learning environment. In their opinion, free speech is often wielded as a weapon by the privileged to silence others.

This view of the power of language, which treats words as value-laden and ideologically purposeful bludgeons used to shape attitudes, evoke emotions, and induce actions, has its roots in Kenneth Burke’s classic 1966 study Language as Symbolic Action.

My own campus has been rocked by a number of widely publicized dustups over academic freedom:

  • In 2012, UT-Austin launched a fact-finding inquiry into allegations of research misconduct against a tenured sociologist who had published a study, partly funded by two politically conservative organizations, that reported that children “most apt to succeed well as adults — on multiple counts and across a variety of domains — when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”
  • In 2015, members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee disrupted a public lecture at the UT Law School by a Stanford professor titled “The Origin of a Species: The Birth of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Culture.”
  • In 2019, a Classics professor, who had received no formal complaints of sexual misconduct, became the target of protests because of his work on ancient pederasty and the age of sexual consent.

Much of the scholarship on academic freedom tends toward the abstract and the philosophical:

  • What does academic freedom cover?  Does it extend beyond teaching and research to extramural speech?
  • Given professors’ special expertise, is their right to public expression greater than that offered by the First Amendment to other individuals?
  • Does academic freedom apply only to faculty or does it extend to students and staff?
  • What should happen when the academic freedom of faculty and students conflict?
  • What are the limits of academic freedom? Should peers punish faculty members when they consider their scholarship, teaching, or public expression to be unprofessional or offensive or an attempt to indoctrinate students ideologically or politically?

We ought not dismiss the discussion of academic freedom and campus free speech as a trumped up wedge issue of only marginal importance.  According to one 2020 survey,  62 percent of sampled college students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe.  Then think of the instructors and staff members who lack tenure and for whom academic freedom is a fantasy.

At the same time, for those of us who teach or research hot topics, academic freedom is anything but a theoretical matter.  

  • What should we do with primary sources or literary texts or court decisions that contain nasty words?  
  • How should we respond when a student says something odious or distasteful?  
  • Can we assign role-playing activities in which a student might be compelled to assume a position that they find repugnant?
  •  Can we require students to watch a film clip or read a text that they find objectionable but which the instructor finds essential?

What makes the disputes over academic freedom and free speech especially wrenching is that these clashes pit core academic values against one another.  Even as we believe that faculty should be able to teach without fear of censorship or reprimand , we also feel that hectoring, insults, slurs, demeaning language, or insensitive comments have no place in classroom settings.

A new book by Jonathan Zimmerman, the prolific historian of education who frequently addresses issues of public concern (including sex education and campus politics), not only offers a fast-paced account of free speech’s contested history, but a powerful argument that liberty of speech has been essential to every movement for equality and social justice.

Although Zimmerman’s book is not specifically about the academy, a number of its key examples are drawn from colleges and universities.  

One of his major themes is that restrictions on free speech often wind up harming the most vulnerable.  Thus, ironically, the University of Michigan’s 1987 free speech code, which barred “any behavior…that stigmatizes…an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status,” was used against Blacks in 20 cases, in one instance, for using the term “white trash.”

Another theme is that silencing speech is as often about suppressing an unpleasant truths as it is about reckoning with past evils.  As an example, he cites the University of Kentucky’s decision to remove a 1930s-era mural, even after it commissioned the Black artist to create a counter-installation.

Said the artist of the new artwork, Karyn Olivier, “removing the mural chooses silence, erasure, and avoidance over engagement, investigation, and real reconciliation.  Is the hope that we’ll simply forget our shared history?”

Toward the end of Zimmerman’s book comes a powerful reminder that efforts to suppress free speech will likely reinforce “the spirit or suppression and intolerance, which are never far from the surface of American life.”

My own view is that the best we can do as instructors in these highly politicized and polarized times is to:

Explain why we have chosen to integrate a particular text or activity into our classes, and express our willingness to discuss this decision
As a historian, I have no desire to whitewash the past and I include an objectionable materials warning in the syllabus.  I warn my students that many will find topics – such as war, inequality, conquest, and slaughter  -- covered in the class to be disturbing, and that the readings and audio-visual sources contain depictions of explicit violence, sexual brutality, ethnic and gender stereotyping, obscenity, profanity, offensive language, and endorse views that many will consider immoral.

I also advise them that the class will touch on mature subject matter regarding politics, economics, foreign policy, class conflict, racism, sexism, and sexuality, in U.S. history, in a scholarly and critical manner. In addition remind them that these sources were in wide circulation in the culture at large, and are, in my opinion, essential to understanding this country's history and culture.

Affirm your personal commitment to civility and to your students’ emotional well-being.
Be clear: No student should ever feel vilified or demeaned in your classes, and that requires you to be highly sensitive to the power dynamics in your courses and to respond immediately to the intentional and unintentional, direct and indirect, subtle or overt indignities interactions, or expressions that convey bias or disrespect.

Practice what you preach.
If you genuinely believe that a classroom is a place to ask questions, express opposing ideas and interpretations, and engage in constructive debate, then you need to model that form of academic practice.  You need to demonstrate that whatever progress takes place in the academy is an outgrowth of controversy and counterargument.

Within the academy all knowledge is provisional, all perspectives are contested, and even supposedly foundational facts are subject to dispute.  A willingness to present and analyze contrasting points of view is not to succumb to false equivalences; it is to take ideas seriously, if only to expose their limitations or errors.

I understand: A contingent of students today believes that free speech is a tool for reinforcing the opinions of the privileged and powerful and a license for voicing hateful ideas and divisive attitudes, and that a defense of academic freedom is simply a way to exclude critical perspectives that lack an academic pedigree.

But the answer is not to restrict speech but rather to bring more voices and ideas into the conversation. It’s essential at this moment of division to remember:  We embrace free speech and academic freedom precisely to provoke the debates that this society sorely needs.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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