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Is Academic Freedom In Trouble?

The president of the University of Chicago, Robert J. Zimmer, spoke at Columbia University on October 21st on the topic, “What Is Academic Freedom For?”
Minding the Campus invited several academics and other observers of the campus scene to post brief reactions to President Zimmer’s remarks. The comments are from Peter Sacks, Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black, Adam Kissel, John K. Wilson and Candace de Russy.

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Stanley Fish And The Storm In Ottawa: Seven Professors Say What They Think

Denis Rancourt, a professor of physics at Ottawa University, an anarchist and a backer of Critical Pedagogy, may be the most dramatic example of a politicized teacher yet seen in North America. He believes that college instruction is an instrument of oppression and that his proper job is to combat this oppression by ignoring what he is supposed to be teaching—physics and the environment—and instead promoting radical political action in his class. Over the weekend, Stanley Fish posted a blog on Rancourt at the New York Times website that attracted a good deal of attention. So we asked several professors to write brief reactions to Rancourt and Fish.
– John Leo
Peter Berkowitz
In Save the World on Your Own Time, his 2008 polemic about higher education, Stanley Fish harshly criticized professors who use the classroom to advance political agendas. Professors, he insisted, have a contractual duty to pursue academic purposes in their teaching, to transmit knowledge and refine students’ intellectual abilities. Academic freedom was well-defined and narrow: it protected a professor’s right to discharge his academic duties without political interference. For professors to use academic freedom as a cover to inculcate in students moral and political doctrines was, in Fish’s eyes, a gross abuse.
Or it was in the summer of 2008, when his book came out. Unfortunately, in his exploration of the case of University of Ottawa physics professor Denis Rancourt, Fish indicates that in the winter 2009 the meaning of academic freedom in his judgment is not a matter of right, duty, and the proper understanding of academic life and the university’s mission, but rather reflects a clash between narrower and broader views of academic freedom.
To be sure, Fish’s relativizing conclusion is in tension with his unflattering portrayal of Professor Rancourt. On the one hand, he concedes that Professor Rancourt’s granting an “A+” to each of his students, his refusal to teach courses he has been assigned by his department and for which students sign up, and in the courses he chooses to teach his urging students to engage in political activism represent instances of how “some academics contrive to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom.” On the other hand, Fish treats Rancourt’s conception of academic freedom—“the ideal under which professors and students are autonomous and design their own development and interactions”—which Rancourt invokes to justify enlisting students in the quest to transform society and save the world, as a legitimate, if broader, conception of academic freedom that can only be defeated by “an essentially political decision.”
Underlying Rancourt’s pedagogy, Fish notes, is the “belief that higher education as we know it is simply a delivery system for a regime of oppressors and exploiters.” But this moral judgment does not change the parameters of academic freedom. And it is no more a defense against Rancourt’s being fired by the university for failing to do the job for which he was hired than it would be for an executive at Exxon Mobil to hold that because oil is polluting the planet, he is entitled to collect his salary while feeding false information to his superiors and encouraging his subordinates to subvert the company from within.
Nor is Rancourt’s appeal to Socrates a convincing support for his freedom, against university requirements, to refuse to give students grades. What Rancourt overlooks and Fish fails to point out is that Socrates was not a university professor, did not take money to teach, and taught the obligation to respect, not to subvert, custom and law.
Although there are alternative conceptions of freedom, there is only one conception of academic freedom that is well-grounded in the principles of liberal education and the historic mission of the university. It is the conception forcefully defended by Stanley Fish in Save the World on Your Own Time. Regrettably, by suggesting that Denis Rancourt’s rank politicization of the classroom reflects an alternative conception of academic freedom, as opposed to a perversion of academic freedom, Fish lends dignity to a fraudulent claim.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His writings are posted at
Jonathan Imber
Cases about academic freedom are bellwethers for larger social and cultural unrest. They always have been, all the way back to the First World War with the founding of the AAUP. When Arthur O. Lovejoy was dismissed from his position at Stanford University for simply defending a colleague’s right to criticize the university, he joined with others in making the case that universities have a special responsibility to allow as full and open debate about all things as possible. Of course, Lovejoy and his colleagues would never have confused lack of collegiality or failure to teach one’s subject as defensible in terms of academic
The problem with Stanley Fish’s assessment is that it has very little to do with the everyday indignities that beset colleges and universities as the result of colleagues who do not do their jobs and thus make everything more difficult. Instead, Fish is taken in by the exotic cases to make otherwise ordinary points. The ordinary points are quite clear: the oversight of faculty at most colleges and universities takes for granted a great deal of good will on both the part of faculty and administrators (most of whom have been faculty). When that good will is tested, it is usually about decisions made by administrators, not about anarchist physics professors. It is impressive in its own way that so much time was given to a person who clearly understood that being paid for his insubordination was likely to be challenged at some point. I suppose Fish’s point is that there will always be some case where somebody tries to defy gravity.
But the real lesson is how much our institutions of higher learning depend on a basic trust given in particular to those of us fortunate enough to have what others see as “job security.” We owe the public an explanation of what we do and why we do it. Most of us cede this responsibility to our presidents and deans, but in the end, it is the faculty who have the power and responsibility to determine this. We should not become a conspiracy against the laity, especially in times like these.

Jonathan Imber is Professor in Ethics and Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College

Daphne Patai
It’s hard to see why Stanley Fish is hot and bothered by the Rancourt case at the University of Ottawa. After all, it’s merely an extreme example of a routine event – a professor’s political grandstanding and exhibitionism of his impeccable leftist credentials. What’s unusual is only that Rancourt did suffer the consequences of his professional irresponsibililty. The real story here, however, is that so many professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, routinely and with far less drama than Rancourt contrive to treat their classrooms as staging grounds for their political commitments. In many cases they announce this without embarrassment – look at the mission statements and job ads for various identity programs, in which activism (of a certain type only, of course) is routinely promoted as an academic goal. This is so much the norm these days that only truly egregious cases, such as Rancourt’s, or Ward Churchill’s, evoke strong reactions and censure. It’s very rare for a professor to be charged with incompetence. There’s almost no such thing in higher education these days, least of all over manifesting political biases.
To the contrary, the real threat to education these days is far more likely to come from the shutting down of free speech by means of university policies aimed at inhibiting “harassment” (sexual or racial primarily), which has many professors watching their every word. Look at Brandeis University, which last year found Professor Donald Hindley guilty of “racial harassment” and placed a monitor in his classroom! His offense? To discuss the word “wetback” as a racial slur in his Latin American Politics course! FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, keeps track of the sorry state of free speech on America’s campuses, and has had to go to bat for many of the accused (see its website at Where political correctness rather than genuine education has become a norm in American universities, why be surprised that professors feel free to indulge their biases? Most of them, of course, are a bit less blatant about their agenda than Rancourt obviously was.
As for the guaranteed grades of A+ — that too is noteworthy only because it takes to an extreme a pervasive problem in education: grade inflation. The only surprise is that a university administration actually acted in the Rancourt case. Competence seems rarely to be questioned and all kinds of partisan distortions of education are promoted and even celebrated. So we should thank Rancourt for having taken standard professorial actions to an extreme and thus calling attention to a persistent reality that is rarely addressed.
Daphne Patai is Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Amitai Etzioni
Stan Fish does here what he does so well: he takes one odd case and builds a general theory on its peculiar facts. I wish he would be more of a sociologist. Look at the thousands of tenured professors (a declining number by the way). See how often they are under attack for being too liberal, too anti-Israel, even too conservative. Realize that although most people in society do not have their kind of protection—it serves a free society well to have several thousands who are so privileged, just as it is served by having some judges who have tenure.
True, some abuse their tenure (typically not by outlier behavior but by doing little work). Such abuses are largely handled through informal social pressures which Fish confuses with coercion. And when things get really bad, some of the abusers have their tenure revoked. Given that the world around us is collapsing and we are at war, maybe Professor Fish can use his privileged position to worry about even greater threats to our freedoms, well-being, indeed sanity.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University

Mark Bauerlein
Stanley Fish’s ruminations on academic freedom are always stimulating, but in this case his example is a no-brainer. A physics professor whose classroom posture aims to undo the institution and invalidate his own grades doesn’t pose difficult questions about duty and freedom. No arguments about oppression and exploitation can turn his dereliction into an academic outlook. The very distance between his expertise, physics, and his subversive role-playing makes the case too easy.
What about fields, though, that close the distance, for instance, the composition instructor who believes that student writing will improve only when students question authority, including the authority of teachers and schools to evaluate them? What about education schools that explicitly profess to convert students into “change agents”?
In other words, academic freedom gets fuzzy when adversarial, radical, revolution, and other ideological goals are admitted as legitimate aspects of disciplines themselves. In these cases, we look not to the conduct of wayward instructors hijacking classrooms–a rare enough happening. No, we look to entire fields and subfields and departments that have made political agendas a normal functioning of research, hiring, peer review, graduate training, and undergraduate instruction. And that condition, unfortunately, isn’t as rare as it ought to be.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University

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Why I Am Running For Harvard’s Board Of Overseers

By Robert L. Freedman A.B. ’62

I am running as a petition candidate for Harvard’s Board of Overseers to help Harvard College improve itself.

I have been interested in higher education – and in particular in what is taught and how it is taught – since graduating from the College in 1962. I have the time, the interest and the energy to try to make a difference.

There is ferment in the world of higher education. When a former Harvard College Dean publishes a book about Harvard subtitled How a Great University Forgot Education, and when a former Harvard President publishes a book about colleges subtitled A Candid Look At How Much Students Learn And Why They Should Be Learning More, you know it’s time to get involved.

College is when people are most open to learning. Afterwards their intellectual horizons narrow. It is a major loss if part of those key four years is wasted in a class with a poor teacher or in a subject of only ephemeral importance.

Harvard has two governing boards. The Harvard Corporation (officially the President and Fellows of Harvard College) is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation with seven members. Vacancies are filled by the remaining members. So it is a self-perpetuating board – as are most non-profit boards.

The second governing board is the Overseers (officially the Board of Overseers of Harvard College). Despite their official name, their writ covers the entire University. They have been elected by all the alums since 1921. In April of each year Harvard mails ballots to all one-third of a million Harvard degree holders (except faculty members). Five alums are elected every year for 6 year terms, for a total of 30 Overseers.

The alumni association annually solicits names of possible candidates from the alums, and then nominates eight candidates for the five positions. The eight candidates generally are diverse in terms of occupation, geographical location, gender, ethnicity and race.
These elections are usually non-events. Typically ninety percent of the alums do not bother to vote, perhaps because they believe who is elected makes no difference.

But every once in a while something different happens, because any alum can become a petition candidate upon obtaining the signatures of about 250 alums on official Harvard ballots (that is what I did). Nineteen years ago, when divestiture of South African securities from the endowment was a hot issue, Barack Obama ran as a petition candidate. He lost. The handful of petition candidates over the years believed, like Obama, that certain important issues were not being properly addressed by the powers-that-be. In my case those issues are educational: teaching methods, the curriculum, the quality of student life and the high costs of college.

Harvard is aware of these issues and has made some important progress. But the Overseers have not been in the forefront of pushing for changes. I am running as a petition candidate because, as former Harvard President Derek Bok – in a most careful and thoughtful critique of colleges – recently wrote, reform is too difficult to accomplish solely from within. A push from outside is needed. And a push from a friend is much better than waiting until a crisis develops and an unfriendly heavy hand intrudes.

A more active Board of Overseers should make it its business to understand students’ views. As our college experience recedes into the past, most of us lose touch with exactly how we felt and what we thought then. A good sign is that recently, apparently for the first time in living memory, a group of Overseers actually met with a group of students. That modest and long overdue first step could be the beginning of a process to acquaint the Overseers with the college’s “customers”.

There is lots to be done. Change is in the air. As a recent President said, If not now, when? If not us, who? Together we can make a difference. Let’s do so.
Robert L. Freedman is a senior partner of the international law firm, Dechert LLP. He is a 1962 graduate of Harvard College. His campaign site can be found here.

Indoctrinate U. Was It Fair? Round II

[Indoctrinate U, a documentary by Evan Coyne Maloney on the state of intellectual freedom at American universities, premiered at the Kennedy Center in September 2007 and has screened in multiple locations since. Peter Berkowitz, writing in The Wall Street Journal, called Indoctrinate U a “riveting documentary about the war on free speech and individual rights waged by university faculty and administrators…” John K. Wilson, founder of The Institute for College Freedom, doesn’t think the film’s quite fair. He provided us a critique of Indoctrinate U and invited us to solicit Maloney’s response. You can read Wilson’s original review, and Maloney’s response here. Below is their second round of comments. Indoctrinate U is screening at select campuses and theaters in the near future; check the film’s website for more information (and read our original review here.)]

By John K. Wilson

Maloney objects to my claim that liberty on campus is far better protected today than it’s ever been. To disprove this, he writes that FIRE “receives hundreds upon hundreds of reports each year in which those rights have been trampled.” But that doesn’t prove anything. For example, the ACLU didn’t exist until after World War I. The fact that the ACLU publicized violations of civil liberties after 1918 does not show that civil liberties were better protected during World War I, it only shows that we lacked organizations to publicize these violations. For example, virtually all of the speech codes FIRE objects to (and usually with good reason) today were typically far worse in the past, when administrators usually had arbitrary power to punish students without due process, without rules, and without appeal.
As for Ward Churchill, Maloney says that he defended his free speech. He did, but none of that is mentioned in the movie, nor is the fact that Churchill was banned from speaking at some campuses (which is separate from the controversy over his firing). That’s a key point considering how Maloney tries to show in the movie that only conservative views are silenced in academia.

Citing the fact that Ignatiev hasn’t been censored is a rather odd analysis by Maloney, considering that he ignores the counterexample of Churchill. Maloney, after all, doesn’t put on film all of the conservatives who haven’t been censored, nor any of the liberals who have. At some point, if you only discuss liberals who haven’t been censored and conservatives who have been censored, and ignore the counterevidence, you’re twisting the data.

On the Clemens case, Maloney claims that “professors were required to inject into their courses political topics.” Clemens called it an “ideological loyalty oath.” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that faculty on campus said it wasn’t a requirement to inject political topics in class; it was a requirement that faculty proposing a new class had to answer a dumb question on the form about the role of race, class, and gender in the proposed class. After Clemens objected, he was allowed to leave the question blank and had his course approved. He never had his job threatened in any way, so I dismissed this as rather unimportant compared to the far worse penalties suffered by liberals and conservatives in many colleges. (Contrast that with a case this year where a pacifist Quaker professor was fired under a real loyalty oath.)

Continue reading Indoctrinate U. Was It Fair? Round II

Indoctrinate U. Was It Fair? An Exchange

[Indoctrinate U, a documentary by Evan Coyne Maloney on the state of intellectual freedom at American universities, premiered at the Kennedy Center in September 2007 and has screened in multiple locations since. Peter Berkowitz, writing in The Wall Street Journal, called Indoctrinate U a “riveting documentary about the war on free speech and individual rights waged by university faculty and administrators…” John K. Wilson, founder of The Institute for College Freedom, doesn’t think the film’s quite fair. He provided us a critique of Indoctrinate U and invited us to solicit Maloney’s response. Here is Wilson’s review, followed by Maloney’s thoughts. Indoctrinate U is screening at select campuses and theaters in the near future; check the film’s website for more information (and read our original review here.)]


By John K. Wilson
Evan Coyne Maloney’s new movie, Indoctrinate U, is probably the best documentary ever made about higher education. That fact makes the numerous biases, distortions, and omissions of his work all the more disappointing. But these errors aren’t all Maloney’s fault; instead, his documentary reflects the mistakes of right-wing critics who often promote false stories or provide one-sided analysis.

What makes Maloney’s movie so good is the application of Michael Moore’s techniques to the realm of free speech and colleges. Certainly, nobody has ever made such an entertaining documentary about higher education, as Maloney makes effective use of his sarcastic voiceover, fast pacing, and putting himself in front of the camera as he demands answers, in person, from wary administrators who, over and over again, refuse to speak with him.

Maloney even echoes Moore’s autobiographical tilt about Flint, Michigan in Roger and Me with his own story about being the son of activists who protested for campus liberty as part of the Free Speech Movement. Maloney concludes: “Somewhere along the way, the Campus Free Speech Movement got killed by university regulations.” Actually, the Free Speech Movement got started because of university repression, and the fight continues to this day, although many of the battles have been won. Maloney claims, “Academia today isn’t a marketplace at all. It’s a monopoly. But it wasn’t always like this.” All of Maloney’s nostalgia to the contrary (and it’s amusing to see conservatives embrace the campus liberatory movements of the 1960s), liberty on campus is far better protected today than it’s ever been.

Maloney is also guilty of some of Michael Moore’s flaws, such as using selective editing to mock those he disagrees with. He takes Noel Ignatiev’s theories about whiteness and reduces him to a series of two-second edited clips mangled together, trying to make him look foolish. It only makes Maloney look bad, since he seems unwilling to engage intellectually with a theory he doesn’t like and even appears to suggest that thinkers like Ignatiev should be banished from academia since Maloney is annoyed that such ideas are considered “completely legit.”

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Do Rich White Kids Win With Affirmative Action?

Color and Money: How Rich White Kids are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action  by Peter Schmidt

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Exactly how important is a college degree from a prestige school? Many believe that having such a degree is extremely important – a virtual guarantee of success in life. The higher education establishment works hard at propounding the idea that without a college degree, a young person’s life will be one of almost Hobbesian misery and the elite institutions go a step further and portray themselves as the essential training grounds for the nation’s leaders. If you accept those views, the destiny of the nation is largely shaped by who goes to college and where.

Peter Schmidt has swallowed them hook, line, and sinker, which isn’t surprising for a reporter who has been immersed in higher education for many years. In his new book Color and Money he writes, “In modern American society, many of us assume – or at least desperately hope – that the people in leading positions in government, business, and the professions are our best and brightest… How do we decide who deserves such status? Generally, we rely on academic credentials. We entrust the task of identifying and training our best and brightest to our elite higher education institutions…”

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Professors And God: Any Connection?

By Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio

A report by Gary Shapiro in yesterday’s New York Sun carried some surprising information about the religiosity of college professors: though less religious than the general population, the majority believe in God. Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard, was quoted as saying that the new data helps to refute the notion that academics are mostly atheists and agnostics.

But let’s turn on the caution light. The study of 1500 college professors at twenty top institutions that grant bachelors degrees, conducted by Neil Gross (Harvard) and Solon Simmons (George Mason), did indeed find that a slight majority claims to be religious. The numbers, not listed in the Sun, showed that 35.7 percent say “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it,” while 16.9 percent reported “while I have my doubts, I feel I do believe in God.” Atheists and agnostics accounted for 23.4 percent of professors reporting.

The most heavily religious professors in the study teach accounting, followed by professors of elementary education, finance, marketing, art and criminal justice. The least religious professors were in biology, psychology, economics, political science and computer science. Research-oriented professors and faculty at elite institutions are significantly less religious than other academics. Only twenty percent of these academics “have no doubt that God exists.” The implications for the larger culture of these findings are crucial. Professors who are the least religious and most hostile to religion are the ones most likely to be writing textbooks, articles and monographs, and the ones whose opinions are most sought after by the media. It is these ideas of irreligious professors that carry the most prestige among the punditocracy, dominate elite discourse, and filter down to the general public. Liberal arts professors are much less likely than accounting professors to believe in God. The liberal arts and social science professors are the ones who most often express opinions on religion and deal with issues involving religion and morality in the classroom.

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