Is Academic Freedom All That Fragile?

Itís less imperiled than two law professors think, and competing rights should be considered, too.

By George Leef


November 03, 2009

In 2003, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill chose as its summer reading assignment for incoming students an extremely controversial and tendentious book, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. The Pope Center criticized that choice as a poor one and so did others in North Carolina, particularly the Committee for a Better Carolina, a conservative student group. Its attack on the choice led to a political brushfire as a number of Republican legislators used the controversy to blast the liberal dominance at UNC.

In the end, nothing much happened. Some students read the book and others ignored it. Perhaps a few students remember its socialistic message; perhaps a few taxpayers remember it as an instance of the misuse of their money.

Yet the authors of a recent book For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom remember the incident and use this incident as the lead example to argue that academic freedom is in jeopardy. Professors Matthew Finkin and Robert Post (respectively of the University of Illinois Law School and Yale Law School) contend that academic freedom “has slipped from consciousness.” They’re worried that “Public opinion threatens the autonomy of the scholarly profession in many ways.”

The book seeks to make the case that, as their title says, academic freedom is really “for the common good,” not just for faculty. That is, society gains from protecting the right of professors to expand the frontiers of knowledge through uninhibited scholarship. Academic freedom, they maintain, “establishes the liberty necessary to advance knowledge, which is the liberty to practice the scholarly profession.”

True, a society without academic freedom would suffer. If professors feared to probe questions because the answers might upset someone in a position of power, we would lose the benefit of their brainpower. One reason why the Soviet Union and other communist states remained backward is that intellectuals had to hunker down in a posture of obedience to Marxism.

We don’t have to worry about that, fortunately. The U.S. protects freedom of speech and press. (For the Common Good doesn’t go into constitutional guarantees of freedom to speak and publish, but that bulwark is very important.) Moreover, we have many institutions where academic freedom is prized, and not just colleges and universities. Some scholars work independently and many more do their work at many research labs and think tanks where public opinion is rarely considered, except sometimes to how to change it.

Freedom to pursue academic research is widespread and secure, but Finkin and Post write as if academic freedom were a fragile glass figurine that might be crushed under the least pressure. They declare that the threat to it “looms larger than ever.” In contrast, I think it’s more realistic to regard academic freedom as a hardy plant that grows readily throughout America, one that will survive perfectly well if we acknowledge that there are competing rights and interests that also matter.

Consider the interests of taxpayers. The authors don’t come right out and say so, but the tenor of their writing is that protests from taxpayers threaten academic freedom; that scholars can’t accomplish all the good they might do if the opinions of ordinary people are allowed to get in the way. If the masses of semi-educated people get upset over books they don’t like, professors they don’t like (remember Ward Churchill?) or courses they find inappropriate, we need to fend them off. Academic freedom is, after all, in their best interest, even if they don’t realize it.

But in a democracy, there is nothing harmful in some push-back from the people who have to put up the money for public colleges and universities. If, for example, taxpayers through their elected representatives decide that we’re spending too much on academic research and want to cut back (as Senator Thomas Coburn, for one, advocates) that doesn’t curtail academic freedom. It simply means that scholars will have to find other sources of funding. Given the dubious nature of much academic research, that would be fine.

Another of the threats Finkin and Post perceive comes from trustees and administrators who might (and sometimes have) terminate professors for saying and writing things that upset those in power at the school.

They cite a rather famous case involving Stanford professor Edward Ross, whose populist views on economic issues in 1900 were most bothersome to Leland Stanford’s widow. She instructed Stanford’s president to inform Ross that his services would no longer be desired after the conclusion of the academic year. It seems utterly indefensible for a university to decline continued employment to a professor just on account of his views clashing with a university big-wig’s, but the authors don’t mention that Ross was promptly hired at the University of Nebraska and later enjoyed a lengthy term on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin.

Ross was no doubt inconvenienced due to his clash with Mrs. Stanford, but it didn’t prevent him from speaking his mind and pursuing his research. He merely had to do that elsewhere.

Finkin and Post, along with the AAUP, conceive of academic freedom as a right belonging solely to professors, but there is another view that regards academic freedom as residing equally with institutions. They briefly mention that view, noting that Alton W. Parker, who served as the Chief Judge on the New York Court of Appeals and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency in 1904 upheld it. They quote Parker: “And as to the founders of, and donors to, institutions of higher learning…I am in favor of their having the like complete freedom within their province which I accord to teachers within theirs—freedom to insist upon it that the doctrines they believe to be true…shall be taught in such institutions.”

Is that idea wrong? Finkin and Post never really engage Parker’s position, but there’s a good case for it. If people who are thinking of establishing colleges and universities have a strong desire to advance certain beliefs and oppose others, why shouldn’t they be free to act accordingly? Academic freedom shouldn’t trump everything else and it won’t wither away if some schools operate on the basis of restricted professorial freedom.

Consider the National Labor College, about which I wrote recently. The people who run it want students to hear a pro-union version of economics and history. If an economist who believes that government intervention in labor markets is harmful were to apply for a position at the NLC, he wouldn’t even get an interview. That, however, wouldn’t undermine academic freedom in the least. Pro-market scholars have many other options.

Academic freedom will thrive even if some institutions choose to set boundaries and decline to hire those who seem likely to cross them. With our great variety of educational institutions, scholars will sort themselves out. Those who want the wide-open spaces of complete academic freedom will find institutions offering it; those who are content with doctrinal restrictions on teaching and research will also find suitable places.

Freedom to run a college in accordance with the beliefs of a religion or the beliefs of its founders may cause some boundary friction with the ideal of complete academic freedom, but society can tolerate that. That friction is no reason to cry “Wolf!” as Finkin and Post have done.

I am not arguing that we should be indifferent to incursions against academic freedom. It’s a good thing that the country has groups like the AAUP (which the authors treat like a knight in shining armor) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars, both of which defend academic freedom (sometimes when the AAUP takes a pass) but receive no attention in the book.

In a free society, there are occasional skirmishes at the contested boundaries of academic freedom, but those skirmishes don’t imperil the concept itself.


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