ACADEMIC* Freedom

I fully support academic freedom in higher education. Even with its double-edged-sword quality, I still defend it. I would like, however, for it to be practiced with a little more thoughtful “academic” and a little less unbridled “freedom”. I am not at all suggesting that there be some sort of curtailing of the freedom of speech on our campuses as that would defeat the purpose of open engagement. But, in my 18 years as a faculty member and 13 years of consulting and training in higher education I have noticed a long-standing confusion between freedom of speech as a basic tenet of U.S. society versus the deeper intention of academic freedom in higher education. Basic freedom of speech is the lifeblood of any democracy. And short of speech that endangers others (“fire” in a theater or hate speech that is readily associated with threats of violence), I do not believe it is healthy for a democratic republic to go down the slippery slope of limiting the freedom of speech.

Higher education, however, is different in that while it exists within the confines of a democratic republic, and thus presumably has the same latitude as everyday citizens regarding speech, it also exists within the shared agreement of “higher” and “education”, meaning that the bar for ideas that are exchanged in a college classroom should be higher than that of two people chatting at Starbucks (actually Starbucks could also use a slightly higher bar of conversation within their organization). By “higher” I mean the ideas proffered in the academy should be held to a higher scrutiny, the words shared on our campuses should have a higher level of consideration regarding their import and impact, and the ways we engage with each other on our campuses should represent our collective reaching toward higher levels of knowledge, skill and capacity. Too often, however, I find the threads on faculty list-serves to represent anything but the above, where full professors to adjuncts (more often full professors due to the security of their positions) put forth ideas that are not indicative of this higher ideal (or that they would actually even share if face to face with their colleagues). The one-degree-removed nature of the faculty list-serve creates a space where harsh, sometimes even abusive, commentary is put forth under the guise of “academic freedom”.

Looking first at the “freedom” portion of academic freedom, its emphasis is all too often taken to extremes and is not only harmful to individuals and corrosive to the overall academic environment, but it is an appalling degradation of the “higher” level of engagement we are told to expect from this nation’s colleges and universities. Of particular concern is the conflation of freedom with entitlement born out of long-standing oppressive systems that results in this “freedom” being inaccessible to some while overly accessed by others. In my campus consulting work I find “academic freedom” frequently used as a tool for the maintenance of power, privilege and access to resources held by dominant group members via its use to shut down marginalized voices, disregard calls for equity, and even portray dominant groups as the new “oppressed minority”. This is not new. Unfortunately, higher education has a long history of periodically backing the wrong horse (scientific racism, gender segregation, eugenics, and more) and has not done enough to repair the harm caused by these historic and current examples. The anything-goes tone of the “freedom” element on many of our campuses does nothing to remedy this history or help them be more just and equitable, and instead often fuels injustice and inequity.

While the “freedom” aspect of academic freedom at times misses the mark, the “academic” portion is often neglected, or worse used in a performative way that makes one’s argument seem like it is rooted in the academy when really it is just the academy being used as cover for various problematic ideas. For example, I absolutely have the right to say that the world is flat (literally flat, not flat in the Thomas L. Friedman sense) as per my freedom of speech in the U.S. And, in point of fact there are folks in this country who do posit that the physical world is flat. To this loosely identified group the insistence of a round world was and still is a scientific ploy to undermine the church, dinosaur fossils were placed there by god as a test of their faith, and the 6,000 year age of the earth is dictated by their reading of the Bible. And, while I emphatically disagree with every aspect of these ideas, I support the right of folks to express them; to a point. Where I draw the line is having “flat earth” ideas positioned as legitimate and debatable content in higher education. To use academic freedom as an excuse for the polluting of higher education with “flat earth” concepts and assert that they are equally valid to round earth evidence serves to make the “academic” portion of academic freedom laughable and the “higher” in higher education all but disappear.

And so let us stop conflating the mere right to free speech with the principle of academic freedom. Let’s debate finer points of already well-honed “astronomical” ideas rather than debate whether the earth is flat or (basically) round. I share this because when it comes to issues of equity on our campuses, I have been repeatedly shocked by what faculty feel entitled to say and then embarrassed that this is what we as academics are modeling as the penultimate arena for advanced thought in the U.S. Suggestions like “Students of color achieve at a lower rate than White students in STEM because they lack ‘grit’, have no interest in such challenging subjects, or do not possess the intellectual capacity to do hard science” should be commentary relegated to 18th and 19th century racist tomes, not coming out of the mouths of presumably well educated people in 2018. Or the belief that women cannot advance in schools of business or economics because they are too weak, overly emotional, unintelligent, and lack drive (as evidenced in a 2017 LA Times report on comments from male faculty in one university’s economics department), while common 60 years ago, should be unthinkable in today’s higher education environments for their complete lack of academic evidence.

And yet the double standard prevails – the work of faculty from historically marginalized communities that shows powerful evidence regarding dynamics of racism or sexism in the United States’ systems and structures (including higher education) is roundly rebuked by some faculty as “unacademic”, biased and a personal grudge while the basis of these dismissive faculty’s arguments is exactly that – unacademic, biased, personal and not at all founded in research, data, or fact. For example, campus climate surveys that indicate an unsafe and unsupportive environment for historically marginalized faculty are often dismissed by faculty from historically dominant social groups with little or no “evidence”. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that we limit the speech of cisgender men, White people, etc. In fact the accusation that I am is such a tired old trope that I’m always embarrassed for those who drag it out for one more go. Instead, I want higher education to be what it claims to be by modeling exchanges of “academic freedom” that are rooted in critical thought, self-reflection, a commitment to learn what we do not know, and a recognition that there is nothing noble in the practice of abusing colleagues that you disagree with or who are challenging your long-held pet ideas. That is not the art of debate and intellectual sparring, it is just bully behavior and should have no place in higher education.

Almost all of this planet let go of the idea that the world is flat centuries ago, perhaps it is time for faculty to let go of the notion that academic freedom means you can say anything you like and that all ideas are equally valid. In this current national climate, it is particularly important for higher education to set an example of thoughtful, analytical and civilized discourse based on fact and meaningful interrogation. What an embarrassing waste of time and energy to debate whether the world is flat. In its place, we should commit to learning, growth, and change in the same ways we ask our students to each day they are with us.

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