academic freedom

In my usual style, here is a very belated comment on two once-“hot” news stories: Larry Summers and Ward Churchill. For all their differences, these men are both university employees who got into trouble for their public speech. In both cases, “academic freedom” has been cited as a defense.

In my opinion, “academic freedom” is not an individual civil right that academics can wield in conflicts with their employers. Academics, like everyone else, have First Amendment rights, but those are rights against the state. The First Amendment does not require a university to pay us to say anything we like, nor must it grant us academic credit or preferment for our speech. Universities carefully and intensively regulate the speech of their students, professors, and administrators. You can’t receive credit or a degree for your writing unless it fulfills a professor’s assignment and meets all kinds of canonical standards of relevance and rigor. You can’t get tenure unless your work is acceptable to the mainstream discipline in which you work. Even once you have tenure, you can’t win grants, promotions, or opportunities to publish without subjecting your “speech” to peer review for content. Thus if academic freedom were a right of individuals, it would be a myth.

Academic freedom is not an individual civil right, but rather an institutional prerogative. When we support academic freedom, we mean that colleges and universities, scholarly associations, journals, and presses should be free to set their own standards for expression without (much) state interference. In other words, the ideal is autonomy for certain professional associations, not rights for their employees as individuals.

Tenure causes confusion: it makes us think that the central commitment of a university is to the individual autonomy of professors. But tenure only applies to senior faculty (not to students, junior faculty, or administrators). Moreover, it is part of a larger system. It is aimed against one problem–invidious political pressure on professors not to teach or publish unpopular ideas. That is a real threat, but universities also worry about “free speech” that is incompetent, undisciplined, or irrelevant. To address that problem, they put academics through a lengthy and grueling socialization process before they grant tenure. And even after tenure, they apply all kinds of pressure to make faculty express themselves in particular ways.

Which brings me to the two cases of recent weeks. I haven’t made a study of Ward Churchill’s writing, nor do I have time to do so. But there are tenured professors–possibly including Dr. Churchill–who are radical blowhards: offensive and totally lacking in rigor and discipline. Such people are one price we pay for the tenure system. (Some other costs are the burnouts and timeservers on our faculties.) If tenure makes sense, it’s because the advantage of protecting trenchant, insighful radicals outweighs the cost of all those blowhards and timeservers. I don’t know for sure that this price is worth paying–it probably is. In any case, we should evaluate tenure overall, and not let particular cases dominate our thinking. Thus Churchill may have to be allowed to speak offensively and foolishly in order to uphold an institutional rule that is valuable, overall.

As for Larry Summers: some have said that he “modeled” free speech by making a politically incorrect statement about women in science. I would reply that he modeled free speech but without rigor or discipline. Moreover, he is an administrator, and as such his primary duty is to shape and implement policies. Harvard ostensibly has a policy of attracting more female scientists. Summers’ comment undermined Harvard’s policy. As such, it was damaging. He was like a corporate executive who criticizes his company’s product, or a U.S. ambassador who attacks American foreign policy in public. The First Amendment covers his speech, but that only means that he can’t be prosecuted for it. He has no right to be paid for it. If Harvard chooses to retain him, which seems very likely, it will be because Summers’ talents outweigh his mistakes. But his comment about women was a mistake, and “academic freedom” is no excuse.

[Added Feb. 17: It can be courageous and honorable for an employee to attack the policies of his or her organization, if the criticism is valid. However, such a critic must also be prepared to face the consequences. For instance, a US diplomat who criticizes American foreign policy may deserve public praise but ought to submit his or her resignation letter along with the critique. The same applies to a university president who undermines the institution’s policies. But see Andrew Canter’s challenging response in the comments.]

By the way, I don’t have tenure and have never been on a tenure track. I’m fairly grateful not to have gone through the socialization process that tenure would have entailed.

4 thoughts on “academic freedom

  1. Andrew

    I would disagree with your assessment of Summers and academic freedom: Larry Summers is not an individual who got into trouble for public speech. He is a tenured faculty member and Nobel prize-winning Economist who, in speaking as an Economist at an Economics conference, presented controversial and unpopular ideas. Can we think of a better time to invoke and celebrate tenure?

    We need to separate out Summers as a person, a President, and a Professor. Personally, he can be callous, disagreeable, and insensitive. And as President, he faces questions about inflated endowment manager salaries, new construction in the nearby Allston community, and yes, tenure policies.

    But as a Professor? He’s doing his job. Quite frankly, I want Professor Summers presenting challenging ideas and using economic models to address social concerns. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for competence, discipline, and relevance.

    And what if he’s competent, but wrong? I would expect that the academic community would respond with well-argued refutations of his ideas, showing Summers and the public why his hypothesis is incorrect. Instead, the public received a flurry of knee-jerk responses that clamp down on open debate of controversial issues.

    Students especially have missed out on a very educational discussion of potential innate gender differences; instead learning how to keep one’s mouth shut so as to avoid public shame or risk losing one’s job. Unfortunately, I expect that Harvard students enrolled in Summers’ globalization course will hear a watered-down version of his ideas, so he doesn’t risk offending anyone in class.

    Aside from academic freedom issues and basic educational concerns, the Summers controversy is also a reminder of the value of strong leadership. Maybe he is callous, but it’s refreshing to see educational leaders talk about more than just a lack of funding or the importance of contributing to one?s alma mater. Former Harvard President Derek Bok has noted that outspoken Presidents are frequently wrong, but I would rather have a thoughtful, challenging leader than the bland, corporate-style managers we have now. (Those of you reading in College Park will understand exactly what I’m talking about.)

    If the Harvard faculty are to vote no-confidence in Summers on Monday (a very possible outcome), they should do so for his Presidential behavior, including concerns about the curricular review process, Allston development, student aid/success, and other relevant policy decisions, including fair tenure processes. But we should leave his academic remarks as a tenured Economist, speaking about economic models and research, out of the equation.

  2. Peter Levine

    The Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, where I’ve worked for 11 years, is a “soft-money” center. We raise grants to cover our salaries, just like an independent nonprofit organization, although we’re grateful for a state subsidy. We pool our money so that individuals don’t have to take a pay cut if they fail to raise funds in a given year. There are other such centers across the country. But they are rare, and they probably must remain rare given the limited amount of foundation money available for research.

  3. Andrew

    CORRECTION: I incorrectly stated that Larry Summers won a Nobel Prize in Economics (which is not really a Nobel in the first place). While there is some speculation that he is a contender, he has not won a Nobel. In 1993 he won the John Bates Clark Medal, given every two years to the most outstanding economist under 40.

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