Day By Day

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Academic Freedom in Pennsylvania -- part two

The Inquirer reports:

Shaking the core of academic speech

Conservatives and the largely liberal academic establishment don't agree on much, but members of both sides say an academic-freedom crisis threatens Pennsylvania's campuses this summer, as the state becomes a flash point in a growing national debate over the role of politics at universities.

At the center of the scrum is a new state legislative committee that will begin a first-of-its-kind investigation of intellectual diversity and free speech at public higher education institutions after the school year begins.

Lawmakers said the House committee would hear from students who think that their academic rights have been infringed upon and give faculty and administrators a chance to respond.

Campus conservatives see the hearings as redress for what they feel is a stiflingly leftist atmosphere of college classrooms, where intellectual dissent can earn a Republican ridicule or an unduly poor grade.

Many professors, however, consider the probe to be a far greater threat to academic freedom, likening it to 1950s loyalty oaths and McCarthyism.

"The committee brings up a real issue, but it exaggerates the extent of the problem," said Perry A. Zirkel, a Lehigh University professor who studies academic-freedom issues. Campus conservatives may have legitimate complaints, he said, but the investigation had potential to "chill" academic expression.

It's a pretty good article. Read the whole thing here.

I've taught in Pennsylvania Universities for many years and agree, there really is a legitimate issue here. The, McCarthyism remarks are completely out of line. But like Prof. Zirkel I am also worried about the effects of political interference in academic affairs. The fact that this sort of thing is happening is an entirely predictable result of the unwillingness of professional associations and academic institutions to insist on responsible speech and behavior from academicians.

I would recommend that anyone interested in the issue read Louis Menand's The Future of Academic Freedom -- especially the essay by Thomas L. Haskell on "Justifying the Rights of Academic Freedom in the Era of 'Power/Knowledge'"

As Prof. Haskell makes quite clear, Academic Freedom, as originally conceived, referred not to an individual's right to say what he or she thought, but to an individual's responsibility to participate effectively in a collective dialogue carried on within and bounded by a "community of competence." Individuals were expected to exhibit responsible behavior and speech which was to be policed by professional associations and academic institutions. Those policing mechanisms have long since broken down and instead we have reconceived academic freedom as an individual's freedom of speech. When individuals, like Ward Churchill, act or speak in an irresponsible way there is no way of calling them to account short of political action. It is not surprising, then, that politicians should feel the need to get involved.

We brought this on ourselves.

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