Monday, June 14, 2021

The Future of Academic Freedom - by Henry Reichman

I found out about this book when I signed up for a Zoom event with the author (Henry Reichman) through the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Round Table

In the book’s foreword Joan Wallach Scott says Reichman "embraces the idea that education exists to advance the common good, measured not in economic terms but as an enhancement of the human spirit; and he is adamant about the importance of protecting the political rights of students and faculty alike to protest inequality and injustice on campus and in the larger society." 

Protests are of course an expression of free speech, as are counter protests. Likewise questioning authority, confronting invited speakers, and challenging those with opposing viewpoints are all legitimate forms of free speech. Exercising one's first amendment right does not prevent others from doing the same.

We are indeed living in interesting times. As librarians are debating the removal of Dr. Seuss books from the shelves, we hear terms like “cancel culture” as well as questions about whether people are even allowed to protest anything anymore. Trigger warnings are expected on syllabi and in presentations. 

Do all University students have the right to feel comfortable at all times? Has social media and political correctness taken away our ability to speak freely in academic settings? Do faculty even have academic freedom anymore? 

What exactly is academic freedom? 

The American Association of University Professors' 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure included three basic elements: freedom in the classroom; freedom in research; and freedom in extramural utterance. Reichman discussed all three elements in the book and in his Zoom talk.

The focus in any discussion of academic freedom ultimately seems to be on students. As Reichman points out:
Colleges and universities have traditionally been places make people uncomfortable. Education can and should be joyful, but it should also be challenging, difficult, and sometimes unsettling. Yet increasingly we hear that the faculty's right to academic freedom must be limited by the "right" of students not to be "offended" or unduly disturbed by material or ideas they encounter in and out of class.
The Association of University Professionals’ (AAUP) statement On Trigger Warnings rejects the idea that people have the right to not be offended. "The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” 

I would also argue that Administration often acts in a way to infantilize faculty and other university employees as well. Reichman quotes Greg Lukianoff to drive the point home.
Campus administrators have been successful in convincing students that the primary goal of the university is to make students feel comfortable. Unfortunately, comfortable minds are often not thinking ones.
Furthermore, ensuring that all students are “comfortable” is an impossible standard. White Supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists cannot both expect that they can speak about their views “comfortably” in the same space. In fact, no one participating either actively or passively in such a space can expect to feel comfortable. That is no reason not to have the discussion.

It is worthwhile to note that students don’t necessarily want a sheltered learning environment either. A Gallup poll on free speech in 2016 found that 78 percent of students favored an "open learning environment" as opposed to a "positive learning environment" that "opposed free speech". 

Free Speech

I liked the idea set forth by Historian L.D. Burnett, who considers her classroom a "rehearsal space" where students can "work through ideas" without worrying that they will "unwillingly be part of someone's snarky narrative". Students and faculty should be able to explore difficult topics in class, and expect to feel uncomfortable doing so, without worrying that they will become the next victims of targeted online harassment campaigns which may threaten their jobs, families, and lives”. 

I find it ironic that social media, which gives us all a platform to express our views, is simultaneously making it more difficult to speak freely. Any mistake, misstep, misinterpretation, or misunderstanding in the classroom (or in research) can be recorded and posted online and literally create life-threating situations for those involved. However, it is equally important to note that the offended students do have the right to express their grievances. "Toleration does not imply acceptance or agreement. The freedom to speak does not give one the right not to be condemned and despised for one's speech." 

Students also have the right to protest speakers they don't like, so long as they don't interfere with the ability of those who do wish to hear them and are free to invite speakers whom they would prefer to hear to campus. They are also free to enter into discourse with any speaker with whom they disagree. It is important to note, however, that there is no requirement that each speaker be "balanced" with one of the opposing viewpoint. 

Should free speech ever be curtailed on campus? 

Reichman discusses the right of faculty to speak freely about political and social issues outside the classroom.
Faculty members who speak as citizens often speak about topics far from their academic specialty. Physicists or engineers, for example, may express controversial views on political or social issues that have no bearing at all on their fitness to teach or conduct research in physics or engineering. 
He gives the example of two engineering professors (one at Northwestern University and the other at California State University, Long Beach) who "publicly advocated Holocaust denial but retained their positions without challenge so long as they did not inject those views into the classroom". 

If however, they had been history professors and expressed those views in class there is an argument to be made for dismissal. In Reichman's presentation he made the ironic statement that "the less you know about a subject the freer you are to talk about it". 

The Problem with Administration 

It is not uncommon in the ivory tower to hear arguments that a university ‘needs to be run like a business’. This is hogwash. I agree with Reichman who sees University Administration and the “students as customers” model as the biggest threat to academic freedom. 

Administration is more concerned with "institutional image" than with truth seeking, even as Administration has the right to express disapproval of faculty speech. 

Moreover, Administration should not "be trusted with the truth-seeking institutions with which they've been entrusted. They are to promote the college as a place of teaching. But they are not teachers." 

This point is illustrated in the book that treats the topic of adjunct (contingent) faculty who do not have the protection of tenure, and who often are left to "cobble together the semblance of a career from a series of part-time jobs". Relying on these workers is a threat to academic freedom, and paradoxically, "adversely affects graduation rates 'with the largest impact being felt at the public master's level institutions'.
Administration at my own University may wish to take heed. 
Academic capitalism's stress on measuring, assessment, and quantification has yielded what David Graeber colorfully calls 'the bullshitization of academic life: that is, the degree to which those involved in teaching and academic management spend more of their time involved in tasks which they secretly - or not so secretly - believe to be entirely pointless. 
So, what are universities for, anyway? 

Well, it’s not “work force” preparation, but lately that has been hard to deny. 

Reichman points out that "most Americans...recognize that colleges and universities play many roles beyond helping graduates obtain a good job". Furthermore, college graduates are likely to change careers several times during their lives, making preparation for specific, narrowly defined jobs a bad administrative decision. 

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee professor Christine Evans explains the importance of a liberal arts education:
The humanities train critical thinkers and citizens. That may be inconvenient for politicians who see their constituents as merely 'work force' but it is definitely good for our democracy, as well as our economy.
Reichman continues with the University of Wisconsin system as a case study. “The University of Wisconsin - Superior suspended nine majors, fifteen minors, and one graduate program in 2017. Affected programs included theatre, sociology, journalism, and political science. Other programs were placed "on warning" and told to make curricular changes to "meet regional needs" and be more "attractive for students". Students protested with sit-ins and gathered over 5,000 petition signatures to overturn the suspensions”. 

Meanwhile, Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point threatened thirteen majors including several in the humanities. At the same time they proposed sixteen new programs "with high- demand career paths". These included marketing, management, graphic design, fire science and computer science. In response the campus Save Our Majors coalition organized the campus' biggest protest since the Vietnam War.

To counter the point, my own alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), recently published this story in which the student profiled (computer science major Jordon Troutman) specifically expresses the importance of the humanities on his studies.
His computer science and math courses have prepared him for the work; so have courses in the liberal arts and his experiences with campus engagement. 
Elective courses in philosophy “helped me understand broadly how to articulate these non-quantitative concepts,” such as fairness, Troutman says. A particular Honors College course about how the media uses faces and how we internalize what the faces represent stuck with him. 
 Reichman quotes Stefan Collini in his work What are Universities for? in explaining that universities are a public good and that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake.
A society does not educate the next generation in order for them to contribute to the economy. It educates them in order that they should extend and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world acquiring...kinds of knowledge and skill which will be useful in their eventual employment, but which will no more be the sum of their education than that employment will be the sum of their lives.
Also important to note is that public colleges and universities get only a small percentage of their budget from the state governments, even as the state legislatures attempt to exert ever more control over teaching, learning, and research. 

Reichman memorializes the book to Free Speech Movement activist Reginald Zelnik as well as to Judith Krug - founding director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. 

I leave my post with this thought (paraphrased from Louis Brandeis): 

More information is better than less information. More speech is better than less speech.

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