Sociologists Examine Academic Freedom

August 16, 2007

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik reported this week that several sessions at the American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting, which took place from August 11-14, focused on infringements upon professors’ academic freedom and their rights to pursue scholarship as they see fit.

Jaschik’s article “Pessimistic Views on Academic Freedom” explains that the ASA hosted a forum on Tuesday in which Harvard sociologist Neil Gross unveiled his finding that “a greater percentage of social scientists today feel that their academic freedom has been threatened than was the case during the McCarthy era.”

Gross’s survey of social science professors revealed that one-third of those questioned felt their academic freedom was in jeopardy, compared to one-fifth of professors who felt similarly in 1955, when questioned by Columbia’s Paul Lazarsfeld. Gross sees academic freedom threats as cyclical and claims that we are presently in an “up cycle.”

Jaschik writes that “Gross, who has done surveys of public opinion on attitudes about academic freedom, said that one cause for the difficulties faced by academics today is the ‘disjuncture’ between public and academic attitudes about academic freedom.” In other words, people outside the academy are more willing to call for crackdowns on professors’ unpopular points of view.

Jaschik’s “Who’s Afraid of Incestuous Gay Monkey Sex?” illustrates this very intrusion into academic scholarship from outside the academy. That article describes how Joanna Kemper, from the Princeton University Center for Health and Wellbeing, led a session called “Erections, Mounting and AIDS: Incestuous Gay Monkey Sex (or seven words you can’t write in your NIH grant),” in which she “shared preliminary results of her study of the impact of having one’s sexuality-related research attacked by politicians. (In fact, the words from her paper title come[] from the way a conservative group described an NIH study.)” Jaschik writes,

Kempner studied 162 researchers who in 2003 either had their research questioned by lawmakers who tried (and almost succeeded in the House of Representatives) to have their projects blocked for support from the NIH or whose work appeared on what became known as “the hit list” of projects for which the Traditional Values Coalition tried to generate opposition. The research projects — all of which had been approved through the peer review process at the NIH— involved such topics as prostitution, gay sex, unsafe sexual acts, and drug use.

While many of those criticized at the session are social conservatives, the speakers were careful to note that the issues they were raising did not fall neatly into a liberal/conservative divide. Kempner noted that some of the same problems of scientists avoiding certain topics have other sources. Two examples she cited were the way many social scientists are hesitant to do work on race and intelligence in the wake of the controversy over The Bell Curve, or the way many scientists avoid work that might make them the targets of animal research activists.

Concerns about academic freedom are very real among sociologists of all stripes, from those who study sexuality to Middle East scholars. The prevalence of a perceived threat to academic freedom has a negative effect on scholarship even in the absence of actual censorship; even if these fears never come to fruition, the fact that professors sense these threats could lead them to police their own speech. Such a chilling effect certainly has a deleterious effect on the body of sociological knowledge these professors shape.