Academic Freedom Under Assault? We Think Not.

Are academic freedom and free inquiry “under many assaults” as a report at Inside Higher Ed alleges today? We think not. At a conference at the New School in New York City (“Free Inquiry at Risk”) historian Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University cited three examples of violated freedoms that seemed to remind her of Joseph McCarthy’s heyday: the cancellation of a speech by education professor and retired terrorist William Ayers at the University of Nebraska, the dismissal of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado and the denial of tenure for Normal Finkelstein at DePaul University.

Once a speaker is invited to a campus, we believe the speech should not be canceled out of animosity, political prudence or security fears, a newly popular excuse. So we think Ayers should have been allowed to talk. But cancelling an outsider’s speech has nothing to do with academic freedom. No line of academic inquiry was imperiled by the lack of Ayers’s presence on campus.

Ward Churchill, alas, is probably destined to be the poster boy for illegitimate interference in academe. Political pressure was indeed applied in the Churchill case, but a long and meticulous inquiry into his work clearly established a pattern of plagiarism and fraud, including writing evidence-free academic papers, publishing those papers under a false name, then citing them as proof of his own theories. The violations of academic freedom in this case were his.

In the Finkelstein case, Schrecker is on more solid ground. Finkelstein is an unusually obnoxious man and to some scholars, much of his work seems dubious. But his department voted 9-3 for tenure and another review backed him 5-0. Voting 4-3 against him, the performance and tenure board took up the issue of his scholarship but dropped it, favoring the withholding of tenure for being “deliberately hurtful” and inflammatory. The president of the university sounded the same theme, so Finkelstein lost out for a lack of collegiality. As Anthony Paletta wrote here, the university justified its decision in terms of a lack of respect for colleagues. He just wasn’t nice enough.

But one heavily publicized violation does not establish a national McCarthyite threat to scholarship. The conference title, “Free Inquiry at Risk” and its subhead “Universities in Dangerous Times” seem to assume that a major campaign against academic freedom is under way. Why some professors think so is a mystery. It just isn’t so.

John Leo

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

One thought on “Academic Freedom Under Assault? We Think Not.”

  1. The mistake Leo makes here is imagining a very narrow version of academic freedom. Traditionally, academic freedom has always included the right to be a citizen and enjoy free speech on campus regardless of one’s political views.
    In addition, of course, Ayers was coming to campus to speak about an academic issue (education), so that line of inquiry is certainly affected. But even if Ayers had been planning to speak about his personal views on politics, academic freedom would still be at stake because this is a university where free discourse is a fundamental academic value.

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