Freedom and Responsibility

Many of the people who bandy about the term “academic freedom” show little understanding of just what it means. Most people seem to think it is just another version of the First Amendment right to free speech. Others, such as David Horowitz, belong to the Humpty-Dumpty school of “academic freedom” definition: it means whatever they want it to mean at the moment. But then, Horowitz (unlike college professors) doesn’t have to take responsibility for his words anyway.

On his blog last Friday, Horowitz had this to say about whether or not a professor can speak his or her mind:

Not as a professor he doesn’t. Who in his right mind would say that a geography professor has the right to espouse the view that the world is flat, or an astronomy professor to say that the moon is made of cheese, or any professor to say that African Americans are apes and pigs and should be destroyed?

Let me try to untangle this a bit.

Horowitz is writing about the case of a professor at the Canadian St. Xavier Francis University who attended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s the Holocaust Denial conference in Iran. Shiraz Dossa, a professor of political science, presented a paper at the conference but claims he is not a holocaust denier. Horowitz feels that, by even attending the conference, Dossa certainly is proclaiming himself a denier, leading to his statement quoted above.

Now, Dossa was rather foolish in attending that conference, but attendance doesn’t equal denial, any more than marching in a parade where NAMBLA also marches equates endorsement of NAMBLA—or attending a lesbian commitment ceremony raises questions about one’s competence to be a federal judge.

Horowitz, of course, knows that. But honesty has never been his strong suit intellectually, so he willingly breezes past it to make his other point—that professors don’t (as he says above) have the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted.

Horowitz also knows that “academic freedom” has different parts that affect different actions in different places. What a professor says or writes within an academic context, for example, is covered in a manner distinct from what she or he writes or says in, say, the political arena. But Horowitz, with his trademark dishonesty, ignores this. In fact, there are three distinct aspects of academic freedom: in research, in the classroom, and in the political realm. They all have different responsibilities that go with the freedoms (as all freedoms have). What Horowitz is doing is conflating these three, and for his own political ends—not for the betterment of our universities.

When Dossa writes an academic paper, it is reviewed. Often, this happens before publication. In other instances, it happens afterwards—but it does get reviewed, and Dossa’s standing within the academic community is affected by it. If he is already a tenured full professor, his job may not be affected, but his reputation certainly will be—and reputation means a lot in academia (just as it does elsewhere, certainly more than in punditry, where people like Horowitz can be caught lying and continue to reap huge speaker and appearance fees).

I don’t know what the paper was that Dossa presented in Tehran was about, but even the fact that he presented there is taken into account in such review (the venue of presentation means quite a lot in terms of promotion and tenure). This doesn’t mean that Dossa can’t hold a particular view or present wherever he wants, only that he has to defend what he has said and where. This is what is happening right now at St. Xavier Francis University, where Dossa is feeling heat from his colleagues.

When Dossa steps into a classroom, a different set of standards apply. Here, he has the responsibility of making sure his own beliefs do not trump those that are the standards of his field. He can even argue that the world is flat, as long as he does not insist that this is an accepted academic position. He can make his own beliefs clear to his students as long as he does not claim primacy for them. This is where people who support such things as Intelligent Design try to shoehorn themselves into the classroom, claiming that all beliefs should be presented equally—but that doesn’t wash. There is a hierarchy of knowledge that has to be accepted (even while someone tries to change it) within academia. Intelligent Design cannot be presented as the equal of evolution for it has no real scientific, research, or academic basis of any sort. That doesn’t mean that an ID supporter cannot mention it up in the biology classroom, only that it cannot then be given that equal status. The teacher may say something like, “I believe that evolution is wrong and ID right, but my personal belief has not yet become accepted by scholars. Therefore, though I want you to understand my belief, I am going to teach the more acceptable system while continuing my own research into this alternative.” Faculties monitor this through peer evaluation and student evaluation overseen by the faculty. This is a complex issue, obviously, and one that has never been explained to anyone’s satisfaction—but it is not (fortunately for this discussion) relevant to Dossa’s participation in the Tehran conference. As far as I know, at least, no one has claimed that Dossa espouses holocaust denial in the classroom.

Within the academy, then, professors do face certain restrictions that arise through the academic-freedom compact between the faculty and the institution. By agreeing to allow the faculty to have academic freedom, the institution demands that the faculty police itself. That is, scholarship and teaching need to be reviewed by peers for promotion, tenure, and even re-appointment. In other words, “academic freedom” on campus is freedom from outside interference, but does not mean complete freedom to espouse any view one wants—and this, of course, is what Horowitz is using to make his point. It is not true, however, that a professor can’t speak his or her own mind.

Just like anyone else, professors may say anything they want (with the same few caveats faced by the rest of us) in the public sphere. In many ways, this third aspect of academic freedom is simply a re-affirmation of general rights to freedom of speech (First Amendment rights in the US—I am not sure what they fall under in Canada, but the rights are basically the same), extending them to job protection for academics who are involved in public debate.

There’s something really peculiar about Horowitz claiming that professors don’t have the right to express their opinions, for his entire campaign against academia these past few years has been based on his claim that professors do have exactly that right, but that a left-wing cabal has been shutting conservative voices up and forcing them out.

In other words, Horowitz is trying to insure that those who agree with his fringe, right-wing views cannot lose academic jobs for what they say and believe—but that others, such as Dossa, can.

Now, there certainly are problems with how academic faculties police themselves. The majority can become too strong, forcing a certain toeing of the line. But one cannot honestly ask the faculties to protect those promoting one type of view while banning those with another, as Horowitz wants.

In fact, Horowitz notwithstanding, Dossa should and does have the right to speak his mind and even to attend conferences foolishly. As do conservative faculty members. Unlike Horowitz, however, Dossa and others on our faculties (even the tenured ones) have to face the consequences of their words—for that, as I have said, is one of the most critical aspects of academic freedom, something not imposed on the general public, and certainly not on David Horowitz.

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