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Best of the Blog: ‘Harvard Crimson’ Column: Time to Get Rid of Academic Freedom

By August 7, 2014

This week on The Torch, FIRE is featuring some of our favorite posts from over the past year: pieces we think are particularly well written or cases we are particularly passionate about. Today, we have Peter Bonilla’s post about the importance of academic freedom, originally published on February 21, 2014. Please enjoy!

‘Harvard Crimson’ Column: Time to Get Rid of Academic Freedom

Harvard University student Sandra Y.L. Korn has a provocative column in The Harvard Crimson that has been making the rounds. The column has a bold thesis: We should get rid of academic freedom as our standard for what ideas should be admitted to the university sphere, and replace it with what she terms “academic justice.” In Korn’s concept of academic justice, “When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

The concept of academic freedom Korn seeks to supplant is long-established and enshrined in, among other statements, the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP’s) 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has been adopted by scores of universities. Academic freedom is not absolute, of course; it exists within the standards of the academic profession. But it can be understood as largely objective in nature, a broad protection for academic research, teaching, publication, and speech designed to be free of political interference and the tyranny of the majority.

“Academic justice,” on the other hand, is necessarily a nebulous concept, subject to the whims of what its self-appointed guardians determine to be right and true. Though she doesn’t wholly flesh it out, Korn gives us a couple of concrete examples of how academic justice should work in practice:

The power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do. Two years ago, when former summer school instructor Subramanian Swamy published hateful commentary about Muslims in India, the Harvard community organized to ensure that he would not return to teach on campus. I consider that sort of organizing both appropriate and commendable. Perhaps it should even be applied more broadly. Does Government Professor Harvey Mansfield have the legal right to publish a book in which he claims that “to resist rape a woman needs … a certain ladylike modesty?” Probably. Do I think he should do that? No, and I would happily organize with other feminists on campus to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position. “Academic freedom” might permit such an offensive view of rape to be published; academic justice would not.

FIRE decried Swamy’s firing, Torch readers may remember, as an attack on free speech and academic freedom that devalued the Harvard name. It should surprise no one reading this blog that FIRE would say that stripping Professor Mansfield’s academic freedom—mandating that, as a Harvard professor, he is allowed to express only certain opinions on gender and other topics—would devalue it far further. Why? Because like the AAUP and countless institutions, FIRE recognizes academic freedom as playing a fundamental role in, among other things, advancing human knowledge. What’s more, the protection academic freedom affords teaching and research has played a substantial role in helping our thinking on matters of race and gender evolve, a point that seems lost on Korn when she asks:

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

This question should answer itself. The function of “bad” ideas is to bring into greater clarity the comparative validity or persuasiveness of “good ideas,” which provides us the information we need to choose the proper course. Rigorous testing of our ideas, and being forced to articulate why we believe them, can only serve to make us better and more informed.

Korn’s case for “academic justice” is quite similar to the cases put forth for establishing “hate speech” laws that curb free expression, as well as many of the defenses of campus speech codes. The argument posits that there are opinions and ideas out there that, if spoken or publicized, harm listeners. Why shouldn’t we be able to censor such expression and punish those responsible for it? Just like the case for hate speech laws, the case for academic justice falls into the same trap.

For one, a regime of academic justice would surely demand fealty to a legion of nebulous concepts over which people disagree wildly—not the least of which is the notion of “justice,” which has been intensely debated for thousands of years, frequently at the cost of tremendous loss of human life. Just as the Supreme Court famously declared in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1972) that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric,” one man’s idea of “justice” may vary significantly from another’s. This does not mean that one is right and one is wrong. Yet it seems safe to say that there is one acceptable concept of justice in Sandra Korn’s framework, and that is Sandra Korn’s. FIRE has seen where this leads before. Columbia University’s Teachers College, for instance, has litmus-tested students in part on how they conformed to Columbia’s concept of “Respect for Diversity and Commitment to Social Justice.” The University of Delaware forced students in its residence halls through a coercive, invasive “treatment” program where they were forced to adopt highly politicized positions on sensitive topics.

Another major obstacle to this kind of value-based system is that such systems nearly always establish hazily-realized ideals as rules and trust their enforcement to those in positions of power. Proponents of such measures tend not to see much problem with this, because it is hard for them to imagine anyone having values different from their own. But values change over time. (See gay marriage, or gun control, or marijuana legalization.) Consensus dissolves. Minority positions become majority positions. And eventually, sea changes in public opinion are reflected in those holding positions of influence, who may hold opinions quite different from yours. To accept the system’s place in regulating speech and thought is to accept the fact that it may one day decide it no longer has any use for your ideas and that it may take away your right to express them. You can protest your disenfranchisement but only at the cost of your credibility—because, after all, this is the system you wanted in the first place.

Hence the danger of Korn’s position that “[o]nly those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand,” when dismissing bipartisan criticisms of the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli institutions. Korn’s argument presumes we have all the answers and can therefore stop asking the questions. It takes the position that “bad” speech should be silenced, rather than challenged with more speech. In that respect, Korn’s “social justice” framework is no different from any other form of censorship.

In short, it “unlearns liberty,” asking us to trade it for a very particular idea of justice. It’s a trade we shouldn’t make.

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