Pro Academic Freedom OR Anti-Racism

April 11, 2011

As Dave Barry (Haverford ’69) would say, “I’m not making this up.”

At lunchtime today in both Carpenter Hall and Runyan Center, students from Ferit Güven’s Philosophy and Democracy Ford/Knight course were encouraging people to vote, handing them a ballot that gave three choices:  (1) Anti-Racism, (2) Pro-Academic Freedom, (3) Blank.  I declined to vote. 

Of course I don’t think there’s a conflict between these; I don’t think we need to choose between them, any more than I think we should have to choose between (say) democracy and philosophy.  Perhaps we’ll learn that this is an effort to make people think about possible tensions between the two (“results will be announced on April 18”).

For me, there is very little tension between the two, beyond the conflicts that can always be drawn out of any pair of abstract principles. Academic freedom is an essential cornerstone of universities.  We are also, at Earlham and elsewhere, committed to according fundamental respect to all individuals, no matter what their race or ethnicity (or gender, or sexual orientation, or….).  Given that ours is a society steeped in a history of racial inequality and racial violence, are there special steps we should take to create a safe, welcoming atmosphere for all, especially for those who come from groups that have been targets of discrimination?  Yes, but not if it means contravening academic freedom.  If we do that, we cease to be an institution of higher education.

But not everyone sees it that way.  The question of “pro academic freedom vs. anti-racism” does expose a rising issue around academic freedom.  When the principle first took hold in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, the threats to academic freedom came largely from three sources:  (a) monied interests represented on boards of trustees, (b) over-bearing college presidents, and (c) religious creeds of various denominations that sponsor institutions of higher education.  Later, (d) anti-communist sentiments became a new source of threat to academic freedom.  By and large (no, not entirely, of course) these threats have been beaten off — so much so that academic freedom is rarely discussed on college campuses.  The threat doesn’t seem real at all to many contemporary faculty, at Earlham or elsewhere.  But I think we’re seeing a new threat to academic freedom arising from within the academy rather than (as with the old ones) from outside the academy.

The institution of tenure has always rested on two dissimilar foundations:  academic freedom, on the one hand, and unusual job security for talented people who make the professional commitment to become professors, and thus to being less well-compensated, and lacking in job alternatives than other, similarly talented people.  Now, with the dramatic rise in the use of adjuncts (who are not eligible for tenure), the job security issue has become the core issue with regard to tenure, not the academic freedom considerations.

The new threat to academic freedom, the one from within, comes with regard to insistences that, within a college or university, no one should ever make statements that question equality of human capability across distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity and other demographic characteristics.  Those making this insistence make it on the ground that such utterances are not just offensive but harmful and degrading to those who have such an identifying characteristic. Hence the claim that we need to choose between academic freedom and anti-racism.  Hence, too, the claims of some on the political right that “political correctness” has become a threat to academic freedom.

Is this a truth claim (the insistence that within a college or university no one should ever make statements that question equality of human capability across distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity and other demographic characteristics)?  Is this a claim that we now know so much about the terms of equality in human capabilities that such questions are settled beyond the possibility of any doubt?  If so, then isn’t setting such issues outside the bounds of legitimate discourse the erection of a new creed?  Isn’t that what various churches sought to do in insisting on creedal beliefs that no faculty member or student could ever doubt or question?  Wasn’t the principle of academic freedom put forward, in part, to declare such creeds illegitimate?

We do need to acknowledge, here, that the AAUP statements do permit religiously-affiliated colleges to have such creedal statements of belief to which all students and faculty must subscribe.  AAUP: “Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.”  Such institutions are declaring a zone within which they do not respect academic freedom.

Given the complex views about “truth” now held in the academy, especially in the humanities and social sciences, I have my doubts that this new claimed limitation on academic freedom is put forward as a truth claim that purports to create a legitimate exception to academic freedom.

So what is the character of this limitation?  It must be a claim that there are other purposes of institutions that rival the importance of truth-seeking in learning and research.  The religious creed exceptions to academic freedom at least rested upon a strong truth-claim. I worry about that — about lifting up any other purpose  in a university to rival truth-seeking.

There are truths that seem so secure that questioning them seems foolish.  Hence I can see how academic freedom can seem to be an overly simple principle.  But I also believe we need to take academic freedom as a bedrock principle of colleges and universities because so often what has seemed certain as to truthfulness seems less so in succeeding decades or centuries.  We need to insist upon the principle of academic freedom to prevent the truth from becoming sclerotic.  We keep the truth fresh and vital by continuing to question.

Universities and colleges are special preserves in society — dedicated to truth-seeking.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Pro Academic Freedom OR Anti-Racism

  1. Pingback: Pro-Academic Freedom OR Anti-Racism (2) | The Observatory

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