Academic Freedom Entails Both Individual and Social Responsibility

Periodically, professors drop their commitment to objective truth to pursue political agendas. When this occurs, they become prisoners of their own ideologies. In a publication by Professors Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan, the authors reveal that some scholars within critical studies deliberately mislead readers by utilizing deepfake methodology.

The authors refer to this deceptive practice as a technique, one employed to produce meaning “disconnected” from an author’s intent or his original texts. To bolster their claim that Western social science is racist, critical theorists deliberately sidestep relevant evidence, use quotations out of context, and forward fallacious arguments. Wæver and Buzan warn that the debasing of academic values will steer any discipline of study into a “post-truth direction antithetical to its epistemological integrity and social purpose.” According to the authors, those who subscribe to such shoddy practices are guilty of “serious academic misconduct.”

Scholars who engage in deepfake methodology may believe that academic freedom gives them the right to champion a noble cause at all costs, even at the expense of ethics and convention. They could not be more wrong.

This raises the question: Is academic freedom absolute? In a word, no. As author John Semley notes in The Walrus, professors cannot hide behind “some reductive notion of freedom as an unchecked intellectual id.” Put simply, scholars cannot disregard verifiable proof in favor of their own personal biases. Semley maintains that academic arguments are “subject to strict standards of inquiry.” Although not exhaustive, these include credible theoretical analyses, calculations of usefulness, and accepted authorities. Thus, academic freedom begins with an individual responsibility to respect these standards.

The second component of academic freedom involves social responsibility. Shannon Dea, dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina, reminds us that those who are entitled to academic freedom also have “corresponding duties.” Besides exploring their own individual interests, professors must also “pursue the truth and advance knowledge for the good of society.” Research has the potential to shape culture, as well as to frame public policy and law, so the onus is on the professor to get it right, so to speak. Perfectionism, in the sense of expanding truth, knowledge, and understanding to the fullest degree possible, is the burden professors must bear. Dea insists it is “the price of academic freedom.”

That said, educators act unprofessionally whenever they disseminate discredited theories and then hide behind academic freedom as a shield to protect themselves from consequences. Holocaust denial would be the most extreme example, but others exist that are, in fact, prejudicial in nature. Linking intelligence to race would be irresponsible. Advocating for conversion therapy of homosexuals qualifies as gross incompetence. And blaming all of society’s ills on one identifiable group—Muslims or Jews, blacks or whites, men or women—is an exercise in ideological, not critical, thinking.

Academic freedom always balances independence with obligation. Certainly, professors can explore various avenues of research and discuss any contentious topics they wish. But once findings are made public, they must be subject to judgement. Verified as accurate and trustworthy, new insights can lead to a more enlightened citizenry and improve the common good.

What does this imply for rogue individuals who say or publish the “wrong” ideas? All that is required of the university is to provide a forum for an open, adversarial review of competing truth claims. Once criticism is leveled, the statements of so-called radicals will not be dismissed because they are shocking; they will be rejected because the necessary evidentiary standards are poor or non-existent.

Academic freedom is a privilege because it assumes that professors have performed their due diligence in presenting relevant facts and interpretations. Yet, if faculty members adopt rigid ideological positions or argue in bad faith, they risk being exposed as dishonest deliberators—the kind who employ deepfake methodology to reinforce either a prejudice or a preferred worldview.

Scholars undermine the nature of academic freedom whenever their assumptions are found wanting. Worse still, using a university platform to promote discrimination, enmity, or dogma—and then citing academic freedom as a defense—is the stuff of charlatans, not professors.


Image: Dom Fou, Public Domain

Stuart Chambers

Stuart Chambers

Stuart Chambers, PhD, teaches in the School of Sociological and Anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. Contact: schamber@uottawa.ca ; Twitter: @StuartChambers9

8 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Entails Both Individual and Social Responsibility

  1. By consequences, I mean being exposed as a fraud, nothing more–not censorship or loss of a job. As the article states, “All that is required of the university is to provide a forum for an open, adversarial review of competing truth claims.”

    1. There is nothing in Academic Freedom itself that precludes others from challenging what one professes to be truth. In fact, Academic Freedom exists to defend this practice — and for a good example of this, look at cold fusion circa 1989.

      But I was at UMass Amherst where a lot of the tumultuous academia of today came from. I saw professors physically assaulted for having advocated civility, students chant “F*ck the First Amendment”, and once while standing at a podium, I heard the police officer behind me radio in an “officer in trouble” call.

      It’s the mob violence that bothers me — the actual mob violence and the implicit (and explicit) threats thereof, which is what leads to the censorship and job losses. We don’t have an open, adversarial review of competing truth claims — and Academic Freedom has nothing to do with this — it isn’t protecting conservative professors.

      It isn’t even protecting left-of-center professors — look at what happened a few years back at Evergreen State College. Look at what happened at Middleboro College. Etc.

  2. The second component of academic freedom involves social responsibility….those who are entitled to academic freedom also have “corresponding duties.” Besides exploring their own individual interests, professors must also “pursue the truth and advance knowledge for the good of society.”

    Good of society as defined by whom?

    I ask because this is the slippery slope that led to the Holocaust…

      1. Respectfully, that’s what Hitler thought he was doing when he eliminated academic freedom and required that all instruction be consistent with German racial theories. And he was drawing upon the American Eugenics Movement, American intellectuals including Woodrow Wilson who was the President of Princeton University (as well as of the USA — not at the same time, of course).

        Margaret Sanger’s recorded public statements are breathtaking in their racism, she literally spoke of using abortion to “exterminate” what she considered to be “inferior races.” And by no stretch of the imagination was she the only one who believed stuff like that would benefit humanity.

        That’s why I ask who will make the decision as to what will “improve the quality of life of as many individuals as possible.”

  3. Prof. Chambers, from your article:
    “Put simply, scholars cannot disregard verifiable proof in favor of their own personal biases. Semley maintains that academic arguments are “subject to strict standards of inquiry.” Although not exhaustive, these include credible theoretical analyses, calculations of usefulness, and accepted authorities. Thus, academic freedom begins with an individual responsibility to respect these standards….”

    “That said, educators act unprofessionally whenever they disseminate discredited theories and then hide behind academic freedom as a shield to protect themselves from consequences. Holocaust denial would be the most extreme example, but others exist that are, in fact, prejudicial in nature. Linking intelligence to race would be irresponsible. Advocating for conversion therapy of homosexuals qualifies as gross incompetence. And blaming all of society’s ills on one identifiable group—Muslims or Jews, blacks or whites, men or women—is an exercise in ideological, not critical, thinking.”

    This is simply a list of taboos, with one supporting citation – from The Guardian? Any other “credible theoretical analyses, calculations of usefulness, and accepted authorities”?

    1. Maybe I am reading more into this than I should, but I find the phrase “…then hide behind academic freedom as a shield to protect themselves from consequences” to be deeply disturbing.

      The concept of academic freedom arose a century ago when a Stanford Professor of Economics was fired for saying that Leland Stanford had exploited Chinese laborers in building his railroad. (He hadn’t?!?)

      But the better example is that of Galileo Galilei and his belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun. At the time the converse was the approved truth, with the Roman Inquisition stating that Galileo’s beliefs were “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” He was subsequently found to be a heretic, forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Had he not been a personal friend of the Pope, he’d likely been executed.

      Should Galileo have been executed for disseminating a discredited theory?

      In a world where “consequences” increasingly means physical violence to one’s person and property, I don’t consider this an unreasonable question…

      And I like to think that Milton got the answer right centuries ago when he stated that truth, being stronger than falsehood, will prevail in a free and open encounter. Someone wants to deny the Holocaust — fine, we’ve got pictures and the testimony of survivors. Go for it — it’s an excuse for us to show these pictures to a generation that (unfortunately) otherwise might never see them. And the end result is going to be what, people believing it didn’t happen — or a whole bunch of people who’d never heard of it knowing that it did…

      I’m convinced that it did happen, and that my truth is strong enough to prevail over any falsehood. In a free and open encounter…

      Now academic freedom is not an absolute license — the Prussian concept of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) was balanced against the concept of Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn). That’s what’s often missing — the student’s right of academic freedom. Nor is academic freedom a license to incite riots or otherwise commit crimes (as defined by the criminal codes) — and I’ve seen professors do that.

      But the concept of “consequences” for stating a heretical view should terrify us all….

      1. Who makes the decision “to improve the quality of life of others?” We start with credible authorities having conversations. These include scientists, ethicists, sociologists, economists, politicians, philosophers, engineers, etc. No matter what the discipline, we must always keep in mind that we live by epistemic constraints. It’s not an “anything goes” mentality where all claims have equal value. In conversation with others, higher truths or nuggets of wisdom are found, but every truth claim is judged on is merits. Hitler and his ilk were fascists and authoritarians, so conversation was not in their makeup. Donald Trump was an aspirational fascist, so he was interested in loyalty, not objectivity. These types do not care about individual or social responsibility. For anyone serious about discovering higher truths, these can only be worked out in dialogue with others.

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