Complementing Defenses of Academic Freedom with Understanding & Advice

As reported earlier this week, there’s a new organization, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), that aims to defend faculty whose academic freedom is being threatened.

The AFA joins the ranks of other organizations also concerned in defending academic freedom, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), as well as disciplinary organizations that have among their concerns the academic freedom of their members.

Despite disagreement over

  • the extent to which academic freedom is currently threatened
  • who the serious threats to academic freedom are, and
  • some hard cases in which it is unclear whether academic freedom is being invoked to deflect legitimate complaints of unprofessional behavior,

shoring up the defenses of academic freedom with organizations that aim to level the playing field between threatened faculty and their employers is a good idea. Ameliorating the worries (substantiated or not) that some people with unpopular views have about the bad consequences of publicly arguing for them is a good idea.

That said, it seems that something is missing from these efforts. 

[Brett Weston, “Hand and Ear”, 1928]

Challenges to academic freedom often combine the voicing of a substantive moral or political complaint with a call for a procedural remedy (e.g., firing someone, retracting a paper). Defenses of academic freedom are aimed at combatting the remedy. I think there often are also reasons to both explicitly convey an understanding of the substantive complaint and to advise the students on alternatives to their proposed remedy.

It might be useful to work with an example. Suppose some group of students learn that a faculty member has been publishing opinion pieces online, perhaps related to her research, in which she expresses views they take to be disrespectful or demeaning to some types of students (that’s the substantive complaint), and they call for the faculty member to be fired (that’s their remedy). Academic freedom groups get wind of their efforts and launch their campaigns opposing the students. One concern is that the students see this opposition as opposition not just to their procedural remedy but also as opposition to, or at least a failure to take seriously, their substantive complaint. 

If we’re interested in promoting and defending academic freedom, this is not a good result. First, people tend to not react cooperatively to not being taken seriously. If they feel dismissed, that may cause them to redouble their efforts. Provoking a bigger and louder threat to academic freedom, even if ultimately averted, is not a win for academic freedom. (And dismissing student concerns rather than engaging with them is to forgo an educational opportunity.) Second, there is the risk that people will come to identify academic freedom with the substantive views they’re opposing and treat it as the enemy (progressives may see academic freedom as anti-progressive; conservatives may see it as anti-conservative). 

Were the efforts to defend academic freedom combined with a demonstration of an understanding of the students’ substantive complaint, maybe even a sympathetic understanding of it, that might counter their feelings of dismissal or disrespect. It might reduce the extent to which the students take those opposing their remedy to be ideological enemies, or ignorant, and might lower the risk that they come to see academic freedom as the problem. Perhaps a section of a brief an academic freedom organization submits to a university or shares with the press could contain a section which presents in as strong a way possible the substantive complaint of the students. 

Defenders of academic freedom could also to include in their response information for the students about academic-freedom-friendly alternatives for putting forward their substantive concerns, advice on how to pursue those alternatives or on how to engage with their opponents, and perhaps even funding for the pursuit of some of those alternatives. These steps would aid the cause of academic freedom by providing education and support for students and promoting their participation in the “marketplace of ideas”, rather than by trying to shut them down. 

Being able to adequately express understanding of students’ complaints and provide useful advice to them about how to push for their views in a university setting is also credibility-enhancing for an organization claiming to be “viewpoint neutral” and hoping to demonstrate a broad, cross-ideological commitment to academic freedom.

Admittedly, these suggestions may not be relevant to all kinds of threats to academic freedom. There may be cases in which a demonstration of understanding is possible, but those calling for a remedy incompatible with academic freedom are, say, a million people on Twitter to whom no substantive advice could realistically apply. And there may be threats to academic freedom based on complaints that are incomprehensible. But for many cases, the suggestions would be quite practical.

Perhaps, then, the AFA could consider adding an “Understanding & Advice” committee to its organization.

(Cross–posted at Daily Nous)

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