Academic Freedom is Not an Academic License

Academic freedom is constantly referred to by faculty and administration. It is often used as a proxy for free speech, and a free speech absolutism where “anything goes.” It serves as an academic totem; as an indulgence, that faculty seem to consider beyond any boundaries of definition or responsibility. Limiting academic freedom would delimit faculty expression, and such restraint is thought to infringe on the intellectual idealism of the academic realm.

In some respects, I can appreciate this idealism, especially when it pertains to genuine intellectual and behavioral pluralism. However, it’s disheartening to see how it can sometimes devolve into the imposition of coercive ideological preferences, essentially turning academic freedom into a tool for promoting specific ideologies

Ideology often subtly infiltrates knowledge, casting a shadow over what should be pure inquiry. In this way, ideologies and biases can morph into doctrines, becoming almost dogmatic. When dogma becomes an active yet unnoticed part of discourse, correctness of opinion can take precedence over coherence and independent thought.

This issue is particularly prevalent in law, a subject intertwined with fundamental disciplines like economics, history, and management science. Law remains especially susceptible to ideological influence, as the culture within law schools often reinforces ideologies through special interest rules presented as expressions of justice.

Our Western notions of freedom generally refer to liberty of action to the extent that it doesn’t meaningfully interfere with someone else’s liberties. This is an old concept in philosophy, and it generally underpins neoclassical economics. But can such freedom also refer to one’s freedom of thought?[1]

That is, if someone else has a strong belief system that is pressed on others, does this constitute an infringement on someone’s self-confidence to think differently? That’s probably a moot question in most social arrangements because no coercion is involved—unless the belief is tied to reward, employment, movement, association, bodily integrity, or other structural rights.

In the university setting, however, a tacit coercion is always present throughout the student’s residency: the reward of grades, scholarships, graduation, recommendations, and employment. That is why, for example, the so-called “Chicago Principles” of free speech are actually tied to a contract (“Article 21”) that holds out escalating punishments if students are found to be in violation of behaviors related to expressions that are interpreted by the University, in its sole discretion, as unacceptable. Those “punishments” are all threats against academic standing (this was also the basis for all universities seeking to enforce biosecurity measures even if those measures created harm), including reports, suspension, loss of scholarship, expulsion, or even ex post degree rescission.

So going back to academic freedom, one might ask whether the construction and dissemination of certain ideas that are tied to student rewards, actually change the nature of academic freedom into one of license tied to authority; and if freedom is considered to be license, then license must stem from an authority or law that is somehow deemed credible, defensible and durable. What credible license does a professor have? I would argue none, unless that is tied to something else. That something else is a professional duty, but more, it is centered on ethical intuitionism.[2]

With such professional freedom comes professional responsibility. What does responsibility mean in an academic setting? The concept of in loco parentis is now discredited; on the other hand, perhaps it has been translated into another form of authority that adults in the academy create and influence minors in college. If that is the case, the academy has a profound set of higher responsibilities related to maintaining ideological neutrality. However, asking what a great teacher is also exposes the problem: it is not instruction, it is the promotion of self-discovery.

This means that academic freedom is also a prima facia responsibility. What does this mean as far as student enculturation goes? What professors do not say or engage in is equally important. Moreover, their judgment must be subject to mature self-control.[3]

In the modern university, academic freedom has become a kind of faculty property, with students admitted as visitors, by an implied contract.  But academic freedom is not faculty private property with ownership rights—it is more public property.  Academic freedom is as much a student claim as it is a faculty one: it flows in all directions.  A good analogy would be aviation airspace that is open to shared use under basic operating rules, and that respects open access, joint use, right of way, and especially, separation standards to avoid a collision.  Some call this free flight, and that may best capture what academic freedom really is: an open, self-directed realm of learning, without centralized authority—air traffic control—which is always a risk when freedoms become institutionally characterized.


[1]Consider a 2010 U.S. government national security science paper, “Research Directions in Remote Detection of Covert Tactical Adversarial Intent of Individuals in Asymmetric Operations” which is a fanciful way of announcing electronic “brain surveillance” to discern thoughts and intentions. The then OIRA (Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) became somewhat notorious for asserting a right to public “cognitive infiltration.” On December 13, 2016, Congress and White House enacted “National Neurological Conditions Surveillance System” laws. (130 STAT. 1076 1079).

[2] Some prefer an ethical deontology, or set of rules, to guide behavior. The teaching profession is fairly well surrounded with rules, and of course with numerous professional associations that hold out ethical and professional guidelines that are backed to some extent by threat of sanction, but they are not true arms-length regulatory bodies. That is why I point to a so-called intuitionism as a better basis for professional duty, as it must be self-directed. This philosophical difference is represented, for example, by W.D. Ross (intuitionism), in his The Right and the Good, and G.E. Moore (consequentialism), in his Principia Ethica.

[3] This problem is greatly exacerbated via technology use by students, as well as the use of digital delivery by universities. I discuss an aspect of this in the NYT and the WSJ.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image 

Author

  • Matthew G. Andersson

    Matthew G. Andersson is a corporation founder and former CEO, management consultant and author of the upcoming book “Legally Blind,” concerning law education. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Private Equity, the National Academy of Sciences, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize report by the Chicago Tribune. He has been a guest on CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Public Television, and the BBC, and received the Silver Anvil award from the Public Relations Society of America. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, and Connecticut General Assembly concerning higher education. He attended Yale College where he studied Russian language under department chairman Alexander Schenker; the University of Texas at Austin, Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he worked with economist and White House national security advisor W.W. Rostow. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in Barcelona, Spain and the U.S. He is the author of a text on law and economics used at Northwestern University, DePaul University College of Law, and McGill University Faculty of Law. He has lived and worked in Russia and Eastern Europe for a Fortune 100 technology company in strategic joint ventures.

2 thoughts on “Academic Freedom is Not an Academic License

  1. “In the modern university, academic freedom has become a kind of faculty property, with students admitted as visitors, by an implied contract.”

    The biggest problem that higher education has is that it is modeled on the Medieval Monastery where the students are novices, taking the same vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience that everyone else has taken. The Monastery focused inward and was self sustaining — people did not plan to leave and it wasn’t funded by student tuition dollars.

    Faculty had academic freedom only within the context of their vows of obedience. The faculty’s vow of chastity not only meant no family but also no trysts at conferences, and the vow of poverty meant not owning a car, let alone a home, and forget about the vacation home on the beach in Maine.

    I mention this because far too many faculty enjoy the perks of faculty privilege without understanding the underlying costs of the same. To enjoy faculty privilege in a sustainable university*, they have to have taken the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — and I can’t see a referendum to that effect passing any faculty senate, anywhere.

    The problem is that any successful university must be centered around its students. It’s students are its seed corn and the model always was that successful graduates would (a) send (and pay for) their own children to attend the institution a generation later, (b) serve as examples of the success students there enjoy after graduation, and (c) remember the school in class gifts and then their wills.

    Students — prior to 1965 — realized that they had been given an incredible gift, given this education essentially for free, and most spent the rest of their lives attemptint to repay this gift which had benefited them all their lives.

    Fifty years later, in 2015, it was students struggling to pay their bills — and with an education that wasn’t worth a small fraction of what they’d actually paid for it. Society was no longer inherently willing to hire college graduates because of what they purportedly knew, and it was not only cheaper to hire those who had never attended college but they were also better employees because they hadn’t been indoctrinated in all the garbage…

    A decade later, we are faced with an industry struggling to survive. What the students have learned is no where worth the opportunity cost of them having learned it, particularly when you realize they could have been advancing in careers during this time. So forgetting the rest of this, when the psychologists replaced the educators

    Now we are talking about free speech in North Koran POW camps….

    *”Sustainable” as in one that won’t go bankrupt in a few years — one that isn’t eating its seed corn.”

    But academic freedom is not faculty private property with ownership rights—it is more public property. Academic freedom is as much a student claim as it is a faculty one: it flows in all directions. A good analogy would be aviation airspace that is open to shared use under basic operating rules, and that respects open access, joint use, right of way, and especially, separation standards to avoid a collision. Some call this free flight, and that may best capture what academic freedom really is: an open, self-directed realm of learning, without centralized authority—air traffic control—which is always a risk when freedoms become institutionally characterized.

  2. The author has missed a major point on the mis-use of academic freedom. The issue is not faculty claim it is solely their domain but rather they use it to justify virtually anything they say. You teach in the music department. But if you go on a rant against the Republican presidential candidate, and get criticised for it, you cry foul and hide behind the shield of academic freedom. Not obvious what the connection is between music and who is a candidate for president.

    Free speech is one thing. But academic freedom should be restricted to the domain that you got hired into.

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