The obstacle to academic freedom is academics.
Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
Back in 1915, when the American Association of University Professors issued the founding statement of academic freedom in the United States, it singled out three threats to the search for truth. Religious authorities, founders and donors, and public opinion each constrained the free pursuit of knowledge in research and teaching, the Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure stated, and professors who voiced dissident beliefs risked losing their jobs if a bishop in the president's office, a wealthy patron, or a mobilized public didn't like them.
In today's debate over academic freedom, however, while the career dangers look the same, the enemy has consolidated into one: off-campus conservative critics. The National Association of Scholars, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, David Horowitz, the occasional George Will column--they mark a coordinated onslaught of scare tactics and cheap tricks, the thinking goes. They don't occupy positions on the faculty or in the administration or among the trustees, but nonetheless, they have thrown campus denizens into alarm.
One hears of "The Contradictions of Cultural Conservatism in the Assault on American colleges" (an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) and The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (a 1995 book). In a heated 2005 statement in the Chronicle, Columbia professor (and former-provost) Jonathan Cole pinpointed "conservative ideologues in Congress" and "the Bush Administration and its followers on Capitol Hill and in statehouses" for choking scholarly inquiry, and his title summed up the condition: "The New McCarthyism."
The assumption is now customary, and countless exchanges I've witnessed at academic conferences and dinner parties lament the right-wing menace at length--with the participants never imagining that a conservative might sit at the table.
So it is no surprise that this new book by two law professors, For the Common Good, starts by noting that "frequent and fierce debates about the nature of academic freedom have resulted from a systematic and sustained effort to discipline what some regard as an out-of-control liberal professoriat." Authors Matthew Finkin of the University of Illinois and Robert C. Post of Yale admit that outcries of a "liberal professoriat that has subverted and betrayed basic academic values" have been "loudly reiterated throughout the country" in spite of, they add, "the alarming absence of empirical evidence underlying these repeated charges."
But rather than contesting the charges, they have a different aim. Adopting the pose of reasoned observers rising above the fray, they review a century of texts, cases, and principles that make up the "common law" of academic freedom in our nation and that can "guide us through current controversies with intellectual integrity and coherence." The result is a handy and readable survey of theory and practice, with pointed illustrations of faculty renegades and administrator tyrants, along with the AAUP's efforts to arbitrate the delicate balance between intellectual innovation and academic duty, adversarial minds and scholarly guidelines.
Finkin and Post venture prudently through the central cruxes--the status of professors as employees; the services they owe employers, colleagues, students, and the public; teaching vs. indoctrination; the rights of students--and they helpfully recall petty despotisms over the years and the ideals that best oppose them.
For all their calm and impartiality, though, the authors overlook a key element, one that dwarfs the perils set by donors and churchmen. It marks, in fact, a gaping and symptomatic blind spot that contributes to the very dangers Finkin and Post describe. It isn't their failure to take conservative complaints seriously, though that certainly happens. Rather, it is that, in the entire book, Finkin and Post accept the values and protocols of academic disciplines as all-intellectual, all-scholarly. They acknowledge wayward professors who penalize students for not following party lines, but they don't acknowledge how party lines can take root in fields and don the mask of academic doctrine and propriety.