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.

With all due respect, I’m glad I wasn’t in the audience. I would have expected more from a University of Chicago president on the subject of academic freedom. I would have expected him to actually say something, to embody the very academic freedom that he claims to hold so dearly instead of reciting the tired and abstract argument that academic freedom is a good thing that must be preserved. Why must university presidents wish to preserve a freedom that they’re afraid to exercise?
Apparently, academic freedom is what presidents of great universities put in a box and keep it on a shelf in the college’s dimly lit wood-paneled library with all the other ancient manuscripts gathering dust.
Apart from Chicago’s fifth president, the outspoken Robert Maynard Hutchins, whom Zimmer describes as “a powerful defender of academic freedom,” Zimmer suggests that, as a modern university president, he must refrain from speaking out on controversial subjects. Exercising academic freedom, he argues in all earnestness, would actually harm the cause of academic freedom.
We should be clear about what academic freedom really means at great modern universities. Academic freedom has been transformed from an idea about individual freedom to speak one’s mind into a business strategy of endowment-maximizing universities. And presidents of great universities exercise this sort of “academic freedom” with abandon.
Universities hide behind academic freedom as a constitutionally protected entitlement — to which the U.S. Supreme Court has invariably deferred — which has allowed universities to pick and chose the kinds of students whom the university claims best represents the cultural values of the institution.
Thus we get constitutionally protected admissions systems at elite universities that are namely all about merit, but have virtually nothing to do with genuine merit. Rather, our great modern universities use admission criteria that sort for certain kinds of individuals, typically affluent students from nice neighborhoods and well-educated families who’ve been endowed with the right tribal lineage.
That’s what academic freedom really means at the modern university, and university presidents, who depend on alumni parents to help build their endowments, will fight to the death to keep it.
But that’s not the kind of academic freedom that presidents of great universities like to give speeches about. For his part, Zimmer describes the University of Chicago as a model of academic freedom for all great universities, an institution “where education and research are embedded in this culture of inquiry, where intellectual freedom is viewed as essential to open inquiry, and where we are open to all people and all perspectives that can stand the scrutiny of argument.”
These highfalutin words made me feel like I was re-reading Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi and its grandiose descriptions of the timeless and perfect Glass Bead Game. All young scholars of a certain class aspired to become the Master of the Game, ascending to Castalian society’s pinnacle of knowledge, power and prestige.
Reading Zimmer’s own grandiose descriptions of academic freedom, I must say, “Congratulations, Dr. Zimmer. You’ve arrived. You are Master of the Game!”
But we know the path that Hesse’s Joseph Knecht, ultimately chose. For Knecht, being the Magister Ludi wasn’t what all that it was cracked up to be. So he quit his prestigious position as the head of the Castalian order, despite his lifelong pursuit, and decided to go out into the messy and imperfect world. Beyond Castalia, he genuinely confronted the notion of freedom — a freedom that was not merely academic.
Peter Sacks is a writer and economist. He is the author of “Generation X Goes to College” and “Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education”.
. Erin O’Connor & Maurice Black: DUTIES, NOT JUST RIGHTS
In “What Is Academic Freedom For?,” University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer says some things that need to be said—but is also silent some things that should not have been ignored. Zimmer is right that academic freedom is poorly understood. He’s right that to safeguard academic freedom, the university should take no political stance. (That should not be a controversial point, but when faculties are pushing to take consequential positions on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iraq, it becomes one.) He’s right that sometimes, academics threaten academic freedom. ACTA and FIRE draw critical attention to academia’s problems with speech codes, biased hiring and promotion practices, and doctrinaire teaching.
But Zimmer’s explanation is incomplete.
First: the gap between Zimmer’s idealized University of Chicago and the real one. Chicago has a history of principled statements defending free inquiry, but it also enjoys FIRE’s “red light rating: for speech codes. In recent years, Chicago has investigated a student for posting a cartoon and has compelled another to delete a Facebook page.) Just last month, Zimmer was doing campus-wide damage control after hecklers nearly prevented former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert from completing an invited speech. Zimmer talks the talk—but Chicago needs to walk the walk.
Second: Zimmer defines academic freedom as faculty members’ freedom from political pressure. But that’s a partial and skewed definition. Academic freedom is, in fact, a form of professionalism grounded in what the AAUP calls “duties correlative with rights.” Chief among those duties is to be a self-policing profession with peer review practices that justify considerable autonomy. Behaving ethically is a prerequisite for the rights associated with academic freedom—including professors’ right to be free from political pressure when pursuing the truth. Today’s professoriate is not meeting its ethical obligations—a fact Zimmer ignores.
Writing about academia’s “crisis of ethic proportion,” University of St. Thomas professor Neil Hamilton notes that today’s academics see academic freedom as a set of inalienable rights, and lack a sense of concurrent responsibility. Professorial misconduct is common; accountability is rare. Graduate education should include professional ethics, but does not. As a concept, “academic freedom” has lost the responsibilities that justify it: professional self-regulation and a commitment to serve first not oneself, not one’s institution, but the public good. “The academic profession’s defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security,” Hamilton observes; this “anemic defense,” combined with institutions’ failure to “undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members’ work,” does more harm than good.
Academic freedom cannot be justified—or sensibly defended—without two explicit recognitions: 1) academic freedom requires professors to ensure their ethical behavior; and 2) academics are not living up to that responsibility. In sidestepping these truths, Zimmer’s talk might best be understood as another “anemic defense,” one that misses a real opportunity to build public trust.
Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black are research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Erin O’Connor blogs at Critical Mass.
As President Zimmer explains it, the university seldom takes “positions” on “issues” but strives to remain neutral institutionally so that professors and students may fully exercise their individual academic freedom, and so that knowledge may increase and human life thus be enriched. But does the University of Chicago really remain neutral on issues where it has a choice? Not at all.
For instance: “The University of Chicago is committed to fostering an environment free from racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia. The University has a number of policies and statements that reinforce the campus community’s commitment to diversity, civility, and equity. In addition to the University policies, other areas of campus (e.g., ORCSA, libraries, Housing) also have specific policies.”
Not only does the university declare that “every member” of the university “makes a commitment” to the vaguely defined values of “diversity, civility, and equity,” but the university further chills individual academic freedom by promising that moral failures in such vaguely defined areas as “treat[ing] others with dignity and respect” and “act[ing] as a responsible citizen” may be punished.
It is quite easy for administrators to abuse their discretion in enforcing values like “civility.” Last year, for instance, a University of Chicago student was required to take down innocent photographs and censor the title of his Facebook photo album because a dean of students declared his album “disrespectful.”
The university also maintains speech codes that would be unconstitutional at a public university. Indeed a court, recognizing that the university’s advertised commitments to free expression are contractually binding, may well find a contract violation in these codes.
Perhaps worst of all is the university’s “Bias Response Team,” which springs into action 24/7 when, for instance, someone reports language subjectively “perceived as derogatory.” In addition, posters may be removed if they are “deemed to be offensive to a particular group or individual.”
Zimmer’s speech sets up the university with its Kalven Report as an admirable example of institutional neutrality, but in practice the university accepts so many exceptions that they swallow the rule. I do not even include here the variety of politicized academic programs which include a center whose mission in part is to “help build a feminist public sphere.” I have written before on the university’s selective enforcement of the Kalven Report.
The Kalven Report is invoked most often to tell students that the university won’t do what they want. It rarely or never is invoked to say that the administration may not proceed with its own politicized initiatives. Among the most notable of these is the university’s commitment to sustainability, which “encompasses projects in a wide range of areas”—including academic programs and research. Where is academic freedom here? Where is the Kalven Report when the university even has an institutional “commitment to sustainable dining” but won’t divest from Sudan?
Adam Kissel is Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The opinions in this article, however, are his own.
Robert Zimmer quotes an admirable 1899 statement on academic freedom by professor Albion Small. But there’s a problem: Small made the statement to defend his role in firing instructor Edward Bemis. The historical record makes clear that Small was lying, and Bemis was fired for his liberal views criticizing the railroad industry. Zimmer also praises president William Rainey Harper without mentioning how Harper wrote to Bemis: “Your speech . . . has caused me a great deal of annoyance. It is hardly safe for me to venture into any of the Chicago clubs.” Harper proposed “that during the remainder of your connection with the University you exercise very great care in public utterance about questions that are agitating the minds of the people.”
There’s a similar disconnect between theory and reality in the 1967 Kalven Report. The report was a failed attempt to bring peace on campus by trying to declare politics off limits. Of course, the report didn’t stop repression of left-wing opinion at all. Historian Jesse Lemisch had been fired in 1966 for being too radical.
Because of his left-wing activism, sociology professor Richard Flacks was permanently disabled and almost murdered in his office in May 1969. Radical professor Marlene Dixon was fired in 1969, prompting student protests that led to the biggest mass expulsions of any college in the 1960s. The University regularly employs lobbyists to advocate funding from the government for itself. This happens even though many conservative University of Chicago economists (and myself) can be lined up to oppose this public policy. The University would never follow the Kalven Report when it impedes its revenue stream. The Kalven Report is simply wielded against liberal activists, to excuse the refusal to divest from South Africa or Sudan. In the late 1990s, when I was a student there, activists tried to convince the University of Chicago administration to join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which monitors labor practices to help ensure that workers making campus apparel were treated fairly. The administration claimed that the Kalven Report prohibited them from joining, because the WRC advocated a stand on public policy by opposing sweatshops.
Some aspects of the report are intellectually shoddy. Take, for example, this bizarre notion that an individual’s academic freedom is violated if the institution takes a public policy stand. Nonsense. One of the university’s greatest presidents, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was legendary for speaking out on public policy. Sadly, the presidents of our era, such as Zimmer, are scared to speak out lest it offend powerful donors and use the Kalven Report to defend their timidity.
The real danger to academic freedom comes from presidents who seek to silence speech about public affairs. It was the quietly conservative presidents who damaged academic freedom and academic quality at the University of Chicago, not the outspoken liberals like Hutchins.The Kalven Report may make it safer for President Zimmer to venture into the clubs where rich people give him money, but it hasn’t made academic freedom safer.
John K. Wilson is the founder of, the author of “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies” and the author of “Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest”.
. Candace de Russy: LET’S BE BLUNT
University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer’s presentation on the great purpose, value and history of academic freedom, and the latter’s long and fruitful connection with universities, is, to be sure, lofty.
Yet this nation urgently needs university presidents (and trustees) to do more than declaim on the academy’s erstwhile high-mindedness. It is long overdue for them, to be blunt, to get down into the muck and grapple with higher education’s current debasement.
At his most forthright, President Zimmer laments the existence of “internal forces on faculty or students [without naming them] intended to stifle expression of individual views or perspectives that some deem objectionable.” But, otherwise, he treads even more lightly – so lightly, in fact, as not to be heard. Thus he ventures vaguely to criticize, not universities, but “a world” that simplifies and promotes uniformity of political and other opinion, and he observes non-judgmentally that campuses vary widely in how they permit “other considerations” to trump academic freedom.
On one point, though, President Zimmer is precise and indeed adamant: it is “problematic practically” for university presidents to be “politically active,” he says, and, unlike an earlier University of Chicago president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, they should refrain from airing their political views for fear of having a “chilling effect.” I object. Society can benefit when knowledgeable presidents and faculty exercise their personal civic freedom of speech, provided they make it clear that they do not speak for their individual institution. In addition, is it too cynical to propose that some presidents may avoid expressing their political opinions for fear of inviting attack by vocal faculty who disagree?
But more on point here, President Zimmer’s stand against such political engagement serves further to obscure the momentous crisis in the academy that he essentially fails to address.
Surely he and his peers are well aware of the depths of the betrayal of academic first principles on campuses – the smothering of academic freedom and free expression by a regime of politicization given to impugning American values and institutions, coercive speech codes and similar student life programs, and the use of racial, sexual or other ideological norms instead of merit in hiring faculty and recruiting students (and these on top of the lowering of academic standards and displacing of core curricula by unscholarly curricular novelties and absurdities).
Campus presidents and boards, especially those at prestigious universities, have a special duty to articulate and confront these insidious trends. They should lead the way for those in their ranks who submissively placate, and cede their solemn responsibilities to, politically driven, aggressive faculty and similar forces.
Presidents and trustees should begin by reminding themselves, and their campuses and the public, of their role as institutional helmsmen. They must stand up to factions intent upon imposing ideological conformity and contemptuous of academic rigor.
A former member of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), Dr. de Russy writes on educational and cultural issues. She also serves on the boards of several distinguished organizations dedicated to higher education and other institutional reform.


9 thoughts on “Is Academic Freedom In Trouble?

  1. Wasn’t it Leone Levi who was responsible for saying the following – One voice can enter ten ears, but ten voices cannot enter one ear.

  2. In case you didn’t know Paul Klee, Creative Credo, 1920 who said with gusto the quote – Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.

  3. The word ‘educate’ comes from the latin ‘ex’ plus ‘ducere’ (to lead). True leaders have a duty to, as O’Connor and Black note, ‘walk the walk’. True leaders are not tyrants; they lead because they earn respect through impartial authority, devotion to principle and an ability to act consistently and honestly. Freedom is not simply ‘rights’ it is also duty. (To he whom much is given, much is required) In academics leaders should show an unswerving devotion to leading people towards the ever-elusive concept of the truth even at cost to themselves; they should not simply protect what is convenient to their own personal beliefs. If my belief or my research is challenged, then it is my duty as a scholar to honestly review it and to admit, without resentment, if I am wrong. If I am right, it is my duty to explain why. Truth is not owned. To silence dissent is to silence honest research.

  4. James O. Freedman, who was president of Dartmouth, made many good points about the value of a university president, when he is up to the challenge, being engaged in public debate and taking positions on issues of public policy, in this piece ten years ago on “The Bully Lectern: Getting College Presidents Back on the Public Stage”:
    It is unfortunate that people so often conflate the personal opinions of a university president with the official institutional position of the university. This mistake offers an opportunity for correction rather than a reason for university presidents to remain silent regarding matters for which they could be thoughtful intellectual leaders.

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