Occupying Academic Freedom

What's the difference between a fire hose and a can of pepper spray? About 50 years. YouTube. Two generations of complacency about civil and human rights. And a radical decline in that essential element of a true university, freedom --- freedom of assembly, of expression, of thought itself.

My first reaction to the images of police dousing students with orange pepper spray at the University of California at Davis was that another protest must have broken out in Athens or Cairo.

Disgust became horror when I realized that the image was domestic, and not in Zuccotti Park but on a university campus. The riot-geared police were university employees, people paid to protect students in order to advance the educational mission of the university. They wielded those pepper spray cans with the confidence of pest control workers applying Raid to roaches.

Too many baby boomers today forget our heritage in the counterculture. Boomers proudly headed south in the early 1960s to lock arms for civil rights in Birmingham and Montgomery, risking the fire hoses of police hell-bent on stomping out the rising tide of protests. Later in that tumultuous decade, boomers waged sit-ins (the original "occupy" demonstrations) in their college presidents' offices to demand justice for the poor and oppressed. We inhaled tear gas while marching by the hundreds of thousands on Pennsylvania Avenue to demand an end to the Vietnam War.

Ironically, some of us boomers soon got a piece of what we demanded back then: the keys to those very presidents' offices we so righteously occupied with our then-certain beliefs that if we only had the power, we could achieve justice for all people.

We should have been more careful about what we wished for.

The generations between 1963 and 2011 reaped many benefits of the '60s protest movements: an end to the draft, widespread access to educational and economic opportunities, an astonishing increase in wealth and the toys of innovation. Rising levels of personal satisfaction led to the cooling of the justice and peace movements, soon relegated to scrapbook status or fringe ideologues. Why sit out in the cold, risking tear gas or pepper spray, when you can simply blog whatever outrage you have on your iPad while betting on the winner of the BCS or DWS on your big screen TV?

Gen X and the millennials made a point of putting as much distance between themselves and the once-outrageous behaviors of their boomer elders as possible. I recall a moment in my early years as Trinity's president, as the first Gulf War broke out, when a student politely knocked on my door to inquire if she might set up a table on the main college corridor to collect signatures on a petition to end the war. I looked at her in astonishment, and said, "You should not ask my permission to do that, you should simply seize the moment and do it." She replied, with a tone of anger, "We want to do this the right way. We're not hippies like your generation."

The pepper spray incident at UC Davis might well be remembered as the nadir of the long post-counterculture reaction and decline into self-centered ennui on college campuses. Far from repressing a new generation of campus protesters, that orange spray might ignite a new free speech movement --- and not a moment too soon!

Higher education is in serious trouble right now --- and it's not just because of the scandal at Penn State or the tuition price spiral or athletics gone wild.

The real trouble that higher education is in goes to the very soul of our existence as institutions supposedly dedicated to the free search for truth.

Freedom is the very oxygen of university life, without which an institution simply cannot be a true university. A university is not a lower school where rote learning and socialization to civic norms is customary. A university that is true to its essential nature will challenge the conventional wisdom to force the student to think more critically, more expansively and less parochially. A university must be the one place where a person can be free to say what she thinks, ask whatever questions are on his mind without fear of reprisal.

A university must be the one place where someone can sit down in peaceful protest without fear of bodily harm at the hands of university personnel.

Academic freedom is seriously endangered in today's hyper-regulatory, legally-fraught environment for academic institutions. The consequences of excessive regulation, even those ostensibly designed to be helpful to student consumers, are a dumbing-down of the university's very purpose.

The modern dumbing-down of the university seeks to turn the campus into a job-training center, to standardize curricula to ensure "assessable outcomes" satisfactory to produce workers for corporate life, rather than stimulating outrageous new thinking that defies the old standards.

Increasingly, pundits and politicians want the value of a college degree measured in dollars and cents, the starting salary of the graduate rather than the breadth and depth of learning, expansive curiosity and restlessness with the status quo that should be the hallmark of real learning. Conformity, not innovation, is the ultimate result of the growing labyrinth of federal and state regulations for higher education. That labyrinth becomes even more arabesque and stultifying with each new tale of a college that does not have its house in order; more regulation is the inevitable response to every incident.

University presidents today must do more to defend the freedom of higher education, including preventing the kind of malfeasance or sheer stupidity that invites more regulation. We presidents must be vigorous advocates for the essential role of academic freedom in our democracy, for the independence of our institutions from the long arm of political control that comes in the guise of regulation.

Protecting the freedom of the academy does not mean indulging harm, quite the opposite. Ensuring the welfare of everyone on campus is our #1 job, no doubt about that. The failure to protect every individual's safety and dignity on the campus (see: Penn State) opens the university wide to governmental infringements on freedom in the name of safety and security.

To preserve the essential freedom of higher education, we must know how to protect the people on our campuses --- in the right ways. Failing to call the police when faced with evidence of child abuse is unfathomable. Allowing the police to pepper spray legitimate nonviolent protesters is unjust and unwarranted. Knowing the difference and taking appropriate actions in each case is a basic expectation of the college presidency.

We boomers who occupy college presidents' offices today would do well to remember our more activist college days. We should sit down with the protesters and stand up for justice. Making common cause with the occupiers ensures the vitality of academic freedom on our campuses.