It's Not About Free Speech or Academic Freedom

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, a member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while ad
FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, a member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while addressing a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign, at the university in Columbia, Mo. The roots of the protest began decades ago, when the University of Missouri, founded in 1839, enrolled its first black student in 1950. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

In the discussions of the events now taking place on an increasing number of college campuses the phrases "free speech" and "academic freedom" are routinely invoked. Neither is an appropriate rubric for the analysis of what is happening.

In the incidents I have read about, no academic freedom issues are implicated at all. Academic freedom is the freedom of universities and their faculties to engage in their core tasks --the search for truth and the advancement of knowledge -- free of interference from outside forces that wish to make the classroom or the research laboratory the vehicles of some preferred interest or ideology.

Academic freedom is violated when an instructor is told that she cannot assign a text because the ideas in it offend a legislator or a donor, or that she must assign a text because the company funding the course requires it. (Such things actually happen.) Academic freedom is violated when a university accepts a monetary gift on the condition that a particular professor be hired or not hired. Academic freedom is violated when personnel decisions -- decisions to hire or promote -- are made on the basis of a candidate's political views rather than on the basis of his or her pedagogical and scholarly record. In these and related cases, an academic or an academic unit is being told, "You can't do your job in the manner dictated by your professional judgment; instead you must do your job in a manner dictated by the preferences of some external constituency."

Nothing like that is going on at Yale or the University of Missouri or any of the other places written about in the press. So why is the banner of academic freedom being unfurled? For two reasons, I think, both of them specious. First, some student protesters believe that their academic freedom rights are being violated when they are prevented from speaking out or chastised when they do speak out. That one's easy. Students don't have any academic freedom rights because students are engaged in the core academic tasks only as apprentices not as credentialed practitioners. Students are in the process of becoming persons whose views are to be respected by professional peers; they're not there yet, and when the views they express are, in the judgment of an instructor, not to the point, there is no requirement -- of academic freedom or anything else -- that they be given a hearing. Of course it might be pedagogically useful to allow students who are on the wrong path (again, as judged by the instructor) to go down it, but that is the teacher's call and making it impinges on no rights students supposedly have.

The second reason why the notion of academic freedom is being cited in a context where it does not belong is that students (and some professors and almost all commentators) make the mistake of thinking that academic freedom is a subset of free expression. In fact the two are largely distinct categories (although a venn diagram might reveal some small areas of overlap). Freedom of speech is a right citizens have against a government that would censor or silence or exclude their voices; the idea is that in a democracy, as opposed to a dictatorship or a theocracy, all voices have an equal right to be heard and the state should not be in the business of picking and choosing the ones it likes or dislikes. But that is not the case in the academy where the only voices that have a right to be heard are the voices vetted and deemed worthy by professional gatekeepers -- departments, deans, provosts, editors of learned journals etc. Being silenced in the academy means that you haven't made it, not that some freedom of yours has been compromised. So my point holds: academic freedom plays no part in the controversies that have captivated the media.

That leaves us with free speech and here the big mistake (again made by students, some professors, and all commentators) is to think that free speech is what universities are all about; to think that universities are in the business of protecting and encouraging free speech. No, they aren't. Universities are in the business of advancing knowledge about the many subjects taught and researched within their precincts. In relation to that task, freedom of speech is not an absolute and trumping value; it is a tool that may or may not be in the service of the prime value the university stands for and instantiates -- the value of following the evidence to wherever it leads, the value of open academic inquiry.

Notice that I wrote "open academic inquiry," not "open inquiry"; the adjective "academic" acknowledges that some forms of speech engaged in by those in a university setting might frustrate the goal of facilitating the search for truth because they would introduce extraneous (usually political) considerations or because they would have the effect of intimidating teachers and students and thus put obstacles in the way of the learning experience. Forms of speech doing that bad work should not be protected by a constitutional doctrine that forbids state monitoring of citizens' speech; it does not forbid, or even speak to, a university administration's monitoring of the speech that strives to enter, and perhaps take over, its spaces.

The reference to university administrations in the previous sentence allows me to make a final point, implicit in what has already been said. Despite the hyperventilating rhetoric that has accompanied the reporting of the campus protests, there are no big moral or philosophical issues at stake. Rather, the issues are managerial. Faced with students incensed over real and perceived slights or "micro-aggressions," how should a dean or a provost or a president deal with all the sound and fury? The answer to this question can only be a prudential, not a normative, one.

You've got to figure out what courses of action will dissipate collected tensions and what courses of action might exacerbate them. Should I let things play themselves out or should I intervene? If I intervene, what form should intervention take? Should I meet with students or invite students to address the faculty senate? Should I announce a university-wide meeting? (Probably a bad idea because it would be hard to control.) Should I make this a "teachable moment" (a phrase I hate, but one that has its place)? Questions like those are empirical questions; they don't traffic in or even touch on abstract moral/philosophical matters. But that is their virtue; they are questions that actually have answers, and if you're lucky, the answers you hit upon might help you get through this dust up, at least until the next one (inevitably) arrives.