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Institutional Academic Freedom

Yesterday’s Washington Post contained an interesting guest column by Richard De George (author of Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues). While the entire essay is worth a read, I was particularly pleased to see that De George emphasized that academic freedom is not enjoyed exclusively by professors:

Much of the confusion over academic freedom stems from a failure to understand that it is a three-part concept, aimed at promoting knowledge for the benefit of society at large. The first part relates to the university’s freedom to run its own academic affairs, determine appropriate curricula and hire competent faculty without being subject to the dictates of legislatures or governors, religious leaders, alumni or donors, or governmental agencies. Those within the institution hold their positions because of their competence in their academic areas and so are best equipped to decide what needs to be taught, what needs to be researched, and how to do both.

This in turn leads to the academic freedom of individual faculty members, who are at liberty to decide how to structure their courses and what research to pursue. Finally, the academic freedom of students consists of their right to learn and to be protected against indoctrination or demands about what they must believe or say.

As we survey a landscape of ideological uniformity and censorship, it is important to realize that administrations have the academic freedom—and thus the responsibility—to change the academy. In other words, it is not inconsistent with academic freedom (indeed, it is an expression of academic freedom) for universities to determine that academic departments will be intellectually diverse and that students will learn in an atmosphere that welcomes dissent and debate. Defenders of the status quo consistently argue that any attempt to alter the stifling ideological conformity of modern faculties will inevitably conflict the academic freedom of faculty members to teach and govern themselves according to their own scholarly interests. This is simply untrue. As FIRE wrote to Columbia University in the midst of a controversy caused by allegations that members of the university’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department (MEALAC) had abused pro-Israel Jewish students:

In its letter, the NYCLU warns Columbia against insisting on “ideological balance” within the MEALAC Department, calling such an idea “seductive but ultimately flawed.” We would formulate the issue differently. As a private university, Columbia has the constitutional right to self-consciously advance its own mission and message. FIRE has been consistent on this message since its founding. While we have often battled private universities, we do so only when an institution represents itself as valuing free speech, due process, individual rights, or intellectual diversity and then fails to keep its own promises. There is no value in allowing a university to promise free speech but deliver selective repression, or to promise due process but deliver arbitrary justice.

Likewise, Columbia has the right to hire a faculty that advances the mission it has decided upon. For example, sectarian schools often hire only those faculty candidates who agree with the school’s profession of faith and monitor faculty expression to ensure that professors continue to teach the faith according to the school’s mandate. While comparatively few students choose to attend such schools, they have the unquestioned freedom to exist and to operate according to their chosen faith and ideology. This is a crucial aspect of institutional academic freedom—the freedom to which the university as an institution is legally and morally entitled.

Similarly, if Columbia chose to create the nation’s foremost “anti-Zionist” MEALAC department, it would have the right to do so. If it chose to create such a department, however, it should also be as open and honest about its mission and purpose as sectarian schools are about their missions and purposes. Full disclosure is required, both as a contractual obligation to its students and donors and as a moral requirement of the openness and transparency so crucial in higher education. If, however, Columbia’s goal is for its academic departments to be ideologically and intellectually diverse, it is not inconsistent with academic freedom for Columbia to take steps to ensure such diversity. In fact, because truly ideologically diverse faculty departments create opportunities for a wide variety of scholars, this kind of diversity could enhance – rather than threaten – academic freedom in the broadest sense.

A faculty member’s academic freedom is unquestionably threatened if a school requires an individual professor to teach in a more balanced manner. The situation is different, however, if a university determines that different voices are needed in a department. In my experience, when the modern faculty lobby argues against institutional intervention to create a true marketplace of ideas, the issue is not so much freedom but control. In the late 1960s, careerist administrators—eager to avoid conflict—handed the keys to the institutional car to political activists—activists who came to dominate the ranks of university faculties. Faculty members have since proven that they cannot drive responsibly and are pitching a fit now that “daddy” is asking for his keys. In the battle for institutional control, FIRE will support those individuals who value and defend liberty. An authoritarian administration is certainly no better than an authoritarian faculty, but an administration that values a marketplace of ideas is far better suited to direct an institution than self-interested and ideologically monolithic faculty that values political conformity and institutional authority over education and scholarship.

Just as private academic institutions have the freedom to diversify their faculties, they also have the freedom to create a faculty that self-consciously advances a single point of view. (Public universities, bound by constitutional prohibitions against viewpoint discrimination, do not have the freedom to create an ideologically sectarian environment). As we pointed out to Columbia, conservative Christian universities have done just that—they have created faculties dedicated to advancing Christianity on campus. America’s elite secular universities have done much the same, but in a fundamentally dishonest manner. Rather than publicly stating the ideological agenda, these universities continue publicly to proclaim fidelity to “diversity” and “tolerance.” FIRE’s response is simple: either engage in full and honest disclosure of the real ideological agenda (and suffer through the resulting drop in enrollment and endowment) or use your institutional academic freedom to make the faculty reality match the public rhetoric.

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