Academic freedom and ‘controversial speakers’

Great stuff!

Recall: academic freedom is the freedom for university members who participate in scholarly fora to freely inquire, research, teach, learn, collect, curate, speak, and disseminate. This is a special family of freedoms that goes beyond constitutional protections of free expression. It is the university members’ roles in the university’s central mission of pursuing truth and advancing knowledge that affords them this special class of freedoms. Further, the scholars themselves — in virtue of their roles and their qualifications — are the ones who define the particular mission of their university through the process of collegial governance.

Academic freedom is both broader than constitutionally protected freedom of expression, and more focused. It is broader in the sense that it covers not only expression, but also inquiry, methodology, learning, curation, etc. It is more focused in that it is not laissez-faire but purposeful — the purpose is the advancement of knowledge.

A university president who effectively communicates these core ideas of the source and distinctiveness of academic freedom and the attendant notions of collegial governance and institutional autonomy goes a very long way toward helping the public to understand choices about which kinds of outside events to permit on campus.

“We didn’t permit that rental because the associated event flew in the face of our mission of advancing knowledge,” such a president might say. If the public asked “how so?” the president could reply that not only was the planned event unscholarly but that, by fostering a toxic campus environment, it compromised the ability of the university’s scholars — especially its Indigenous and racialized scholars — to flourish, and to play their part in advancing the university’s scholarly mission. And so on.

3 thoughts on “Academic freedom and ‘controversial speakers’

  1. It is interesting; I interact with at least one PhD candidate and two Graduate students that tell me that the role of the university is not to foster free thinking.

    I tend to agree that the university goal is to teach a method of thinking that really goes against the idea that there really pursuing truth at all , but are really pursuing coordinates of a particular method.

    Interesting that there is an actual statement by a university that says that the university is allowed to pursue truth when at least a few people I know that are involved with the University really don’t see what they teach or what they’re learning is having to do with truth at all.

    Seems like there’s a disconnect in the continuum of academic practice.

  2. I am still in favor of untrammeled freedom of speech on university campuses. That doesn’t mean that the campus has to *issue* invitations to people like Richard Spencer, but if a duly constituted student group wants to invite him, I say let it happen. Two reasons: 1) interfering with the students’ will tends to backfire, and turn what should be a conversation about hate and racism into one about the First Amendment and liberal hypocrisy. 2) I do not trust authorities to make the right substantive decisions in cases like this. Pro-Zionist activists are latching on to the “No Hate” rhetoric in order to keep proponents of Palestinian rights and especially proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement from speaking on college campuses, or getting any campus funds. These disfavored groups get called “anti-Semitic” and then everyone piles on. (Outside academia, the pro-Zionists have succeeded in getting over 20 states in the U.S. to pass some form of anti-BDS legislation, such as making it illegal for the state to contract with anyone who honors the boycott of Israel. Vague and unenforceable, yes, but the purpose of the legislation is simply to stifle discussion, and it’s having that effect.

  3. Much as I hate untrammeled freedom of speech on university campuses, I completely agree with Louise Anthony, for the same reasons. “We didn’t permit that rental because the associated event flew in the face of our mission of advancing knowledge, […] by fostering a toxic campus environment, it compromised the ability of the university to advance its scholarly mission.” As someone who has spent the last ten years in litigation with my university defending my right to defend mistreated women faculty and students in my department, I can attest to the fact that my very whistleblowing “fostered a toxic campus environment” since it forced many to defend their own False Consciousness, which “compromised the ability of the university to advance its scholarly mission” since its mission is to stay in business No Matter What (a precondition for having any “scholarly” mission) and so Anything Negative said about the university compromises That mission. It is a mistake to trust authorities to make the right substantive decisions, because their interests are fundamentally not scholarly but merely reputational.
    What universities can do, it seems to me, is require that controversial speakers appear only in debates. And what students (and to a lesser extent, faculty) can and should do, is to refuse to play with non-inclusive institutions.

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