Academic Freedom Is on the Ropes

This article is adapted from a new Chronicle collection, “Academic Freedom Now: Why Colleges Should Be Worried,” which explores how to navigate these fractious times. The collection is available in the Chronicle Store.

Many scholars and observers of higher education, even those who may agree on little else, agree on this: Academic freedom is on the ropes.

“Academic freedom is in the worst position of my career, and perhaps the worst condition it has been in decades — perhaps since the Red Scare,” says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit committed to the rights of free speech on college campuses.

Academics are caught in a pincer grip from the political right and left.

From the right, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Iowa are among states meddling in colleges’ curricula and speech policies. When a Georgia lawmaker asked the state university system to explain how it teaches “oppression” and “privilege,” the system’s leaders felt compelled to pull together a 102-page report. Boise State suspended 52 sections of a diversity and ethics course amid Republican attacks on the university’s efforts to teach students about racism.

From the left, some students declare views with which they disagree to be a form of violence, shouting down voices they don’t want to hear.

Less visible but more injurious to academic freedom, experts say, is the general societal devaluation of higher education, state budget cuts aggravated by the Covid-19 recession, and the continued erosion of tenure.

“My sense is that there has never been as great a threat to academic freedom in the past century as we are now experiencing,” William G. Tierney, a professor emeritus of higher ed and founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, writes in his new book, Get Real: 49 Challenges Confronting Higher Education (State University of New York Press, 2020).

Faculty members aren’t being hauled before legislative committees, as they were during the Red Scare, says Hans-Joerg Tiede, director of research at the American Association of University Professors. But there is a crisis nonetheless, he says, because the AAUP “has held for 100 years that you can’t have academic freedom without tenure,” and tenure is declining sharply.

To be clear, not everyone sees academic freedom as in such dire straits. And among those who do, the nature of the threat is under contention — not least by scholars, on both the right and the left, who have felt the direct heat of excoriation.

Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been lambasted for her views on the superiority of Western culture and accused of racism, says the state of academic freedom is “abysmal,” with “conservatives largely muzzled.” She calls college campuses “a one-party state, with unscrupulous social-justice warriors ready to shame, ostracize, name-call, and pounce on anyone who dares to question the received wisdom, and administrators refusing to call them out and sometimes egging them on.”

Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of sociology, director of the women’s-, gender-, and sexuality-studies program at Northeastern University, and editor of the gender-studies journal Signs. She was blasted in 2018 for an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post titled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” She recently said that “a large chunk of the U.S. population is committed to white supremacy, and believes and promulgates racist, sexist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories,” shifting what now seems acceptable to say and teach.

Some academic-freedom controversies involve fundamental ideological differences. But others seem to flare up out of nowhere and stem from arguably willful misunderstanding. To cite one, Jason J. Kilborn, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as FIRE summarized it, included on a civil-procedures exam a question that “described a hypothetical employment-discrimination scenario, which referenced a racial slur and what the exam described as a ‘profane expression for women.’ Kilborn avoided using the full words, transcribing them instead as “‘n____’ and ‘b____’.”

The university opened an investigation, and even Above the Law, a publication that has regularly chided law professors for needlessly using the N-word in their teaching, considered this a different sort of case. “No one wants to be in a place where discussing the way racism shapes the legal system is off limits,” wrote Kathryn Rubino, a senior editor. “Turn on the news and it’s very clear that white supremacy is far from behind us and continues to impact the law. Legal education needs to have these admittedly difficult discussions, but finding the right balance is essential.”

Such cases leave Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University and a historian, bewildered at what administrators were thinking. He has clashed with some colleagues and students alike over charged issues. His disagreement with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel has been one such area, as was his support for Wesleyan’s declaring itself, during the Trump administration, a “sanctuary campus” for faculty, students, and staff regardless of their citizenship status. But overall, he doesn’t see an emerging existential threat to academic freedom.

“Freedom to teach a range of subject areas,” he says, “is much greater than it was when I was a student or a young faculty member” in the early 1980s. “It’s a much broader range of human experience and disciplinary approaches.”

“If people are afraid to defend Shakespeare or Aristotle” because of culture-war antagonisms, he says, “they ought to get some courage up.” But a “woke” campus culture, he says, is a natural reflection of “how we teach given the fact that whom we teach has changed” — more women and more underrepresented minorities.

If sensitivity to that changing student population entails a certain level of faculty self-censorship, that’s not necessarily bad, either, Roth says. “Of course people self-censor. That’s what people do in polite society” to keep conversation going in a productive fashion. “I had to clean up my language when I became an administrator, even when I became a professor,” he says.

Nor does such civility mean knuckling under to unreasonable student views, whims, or demands. If students are derailing discussions, you don’t “give them the airtime,” Roth says, but instead explain how their comments aren’t pertinent, at least at that moment, and treat the student “with personal respect but with intellectual criticism.”

John P. Forren chairs the department of justice and community studies at Miami University, in Ohio, where he is also executive director of the Menard Family Center for Democracy. “I feel like my institution does a very good job of protecting academic freedom,” he says, “if it’s defined as the ability of colleagues to decide what they are pursuing in their research, what they are teaching, what counts as legitimate knowledge in the disciplines.”

And that’s good, says Forren, because given red-hot political tensions, “it’s more important than ever that we provide multiple legitimate perspectives” and demonstrate how to talk in a civilized way across ideological lines.

Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and veteran administrator, and a visiting professor of law at Yeshiva University, in New York City, thinks that most if not all academic-freedom controversies are simply unnecessary. His argument boils down to academic freedom as “the freedom to do the academic job” — no more, no less. Off-topic speech, speech outside scholars’ expertise or students’ educations? Those are not matters of academic freedom, says Fish, author of The First: How to Think about Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake-News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump (Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2019). Stick to what you know, stick to your job, “and all of the problems associated with academic freedom disappear.”

Is that too narrow a definition? The AAUP thinks so, says Tiede, because beyond freedom in teaching and research, that framing doesn’t explicitly include, as it should, freedom of political and other expression in public forums like Twitter, and freedom to participate in shared college governance. Both are areas in which faculty members have come under fire, as at Collin College, in Texas, which has drawn scrutiny for several faculty terminations. Those followed clashes between professors and the administration over one professor’s political tweet and others’ criticisms of the college’s Covid-19 policies.

The assumption antagonists make, says Tiede, is that if a professor expresses a view in a public forum, she or he must be indoctrinating students. But to take punitive action, he says, a college should have to prove that there is inappropriate indoctrination in the pedagogical setting.

Tierney, in his book, wrestles with the ambiguous areas beyond a faculty member’s formal expertise. “I am not particularly concerned with flamboyant speakers who espouse values that run counter to my core beliefs,” he writes. “Rather, what troubles me greatly are those who engage in the extreme version of what has come to be called fake news. … Academic freedom, at its core, is about the search for truth.”

Fish urges his colleagues not to conflate speech issues with matters of academic freedom. If, as at Berkeley a few years ago, students want to invite a provocateur to speak on campus, incurring huge security costs even as jobs and budgets are slashed? Say No. Would the event in question “conform to or further the academic mission?” Can the institution afford it? If the answer to either question is No, Fish says, then that’s that, even at a public institution.

“All my answers are designed to de-escalate the question,” Fish says, and if students or faculty see such a decision as curbing their rightful campus freedoms, they misunderstand those freedoms. “Colleges and universities,” he says, “aren’t in the free-speech business but the education business.”

Whether free-speech cases and curbs on academic freedom are so easy to distinguish from each other, however, is a key question. FIRE has reported that it received a record 1,001 case submissions in 2020 about perceived free-speech violations of students and faculty members — compared with 731 in 2019 and 652 in 2018. The 2016 and 2020 elections, the polarizing Trump administration, the rise of social media, the pandemic, and higher education’s financial crisis have all aggravated academic tensions.

It’s natural to ask, then: Who has faced more academic oppression — liberals or conservatives?

“Conservatives by far,” says Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group that says it “fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.”

In contrast, Laurie Essig, director and professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Middlebury College, says, “the biggest threat to academic freedom is coming from the far right — which now passes as the mainstream right. I was particularly concerned when at the end of the Trump administration the phrase ‘white privilege’ was deemed ‘divisive’ and ‘un-American.’ That is extremely dangerous when those in power tell us we cannot analyze how power operates in the world.”

Mark Bauerlein, a contributing editor of the magazine First Things and a professor emeritus of English at Emory University, says it is the students who most terrify conservative, centrist, and even mainstream-liberal professors and administrators.

“There was a sharp difference in the students who started arriving on campus in 2013,” says FIRE’s Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a 2015 essay in The Atlantic that he co-authored with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, grew into a 2018 book. It explores what Lukianoff describes as a cohort of “true believers and conformists” with — in the words of the book’s subtitle — “good intentions and bad ideas.” A focus on microaggressions and trigger warnings, the authors argue, has a chilling effect on scholarship, but also hurts students themselves by narrowing their rhetorical and ideological realms with a “vindictive protectiveness.” That increases their anxiety and limits their ability to develop coping skills, the authors say.

Heather Mac Donald is a writer who has defended police stop-and-frisk and zero-tolerance policies, criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement for its emphasis on shootings by police over the toll of criminal violence, and says systemic racism among police officers is a myth. Her speaking engagement at Claremont McKenna College in 2017 sparked a protest. Mac Donald says that the tacit equation on American campuses is that “nonconforming speech equals hate speech” and “hate speech equals behavior, which may be censored. … That formula is now gaining hold in the world at large, as was eminently predictable.”

Bauerlein says the problem isn’t that strident debates are occurring on campus, but rather that “there is no debate any more.”

“While conservatives were battling the culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, he says, “the intelligent left was claiming office space.” In today’s near-unified leftist campus climate, “there is no more discussion.” Trump’s presidency and campaigns elevated liberal indignation to “an extraordinary parade of hysteria,” he says — a “psychopolitical shutdown” so complete that “there’s no chance for people to sit across the table and hash things out on the substance.”

For his part, the AAUP’s Tiede thinks the left leaning of college faculty is an overblown issue. “Increasingly, the right in this country is anti-higher education, is anti-science, is anti-evidence, is anti-truth. It is not really surprising,” he says, “that people who are pro-higher education, pro-science, and pro-evidence increasingly identify themselves not with that political leaning.”

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard who has tussled with critics of his views on violence, gender, infanticide, and IQ, among other topics, says that “growing swaths of intellectual territory are essentially unstudyable because a single orthodoxy is enforced, with dissenting researchers subject to punishment.” As a result, he says, “academia is at best ignorant but more likely deluded about the answers to important questions.”

The primary threat to academic freedom these days, Pinker says, is “the far left, since the social-justice warriors and woke police go after liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals are more common targets because there are few conservatives left on university faculties outside the professional schools, but they are primarily assaulted by administrators and faculty who are further to the left.”

There’s a difference, though, between a left-of-center academic being fired for his or her views and a right-of-center academic feeling uncomfortable and ostracized, the AAUP’s Tiede says. “People on the right, when they talk about this,” he says, “seem to be more talking about being criticized or fearing being ostracized by their colleagues.” The AAUP, he says, has historically focused more on administrative firings. “I would say there is a qualitative difference between the two.”

Social media amplifies academic-freedom controversies, but has it increased them?

“For so many of us,” says Northeastern’s Walters, “social media has been a real double-edged sword … allowing scholars to enter and even shape public discourse in more-robust ways. But also, of course, we can be policed in ever more creative ways … by our employers or potential employers, by colleagues who may jump on a tweet as evidence of perfidy in some way, by trolls who dox and threaten us for unpopular positions.”

Social media “intensified everything,” says FIRE’s Lukianoff, especially after the murder of George Floyd. But even before that, he says, “the lockdown turned us all into our Twitter and Facebook avatars, and those personalities tend to be much more morally absolutist.”

Middlebury’s Essig says that “social media is where a lot of academic speech and ideas get hashed out. … This sort of speech is as weighty and as real as what might happen at a real-life event.” Moreover, she points out, because of the pandemic, “we have had no real-life events for a year now.”

A rare point of agreement among otherwise-disparate scholarly voices is that the shrinking ranks of the tenured should be bolder in sticking up for their untenured colleagues. But Penn’s Amy Wax isn’t holding her breath.

“Despite all the treacly talk about community and mentorship,” Wax says, “I have observed senior academics becoming incredibly selfish and oblivious to the future of the academy and their field.”

Nor is tenure itself a panacea, says Pinker. “It’s doled out and withheld by gatekeepers who might favor the orthodox and blackball independent thinkers.” Even among the tenured, he says, “there are many punishments short of termination that can deter heterodox thinking,” such as “frivolous proceedings for professional misconduct, hecklers’ vetoes in lectures, retractions and memory-holing controversial articles, and crippling libels of racism and other forms of bigotry.”

While colorful culture-war controversies flare and state legislators meddle, some academics and observers say that the most pronounced threat to academic freedom may be the quiet gears of the corporate university. “Universities as institutions have always been concerned with donations and public image, too often excessively so,” says Lukianoff. “Even some cases that seem ideological,” he says, “are often more about a university trying to protect its image.”

Labor costs, says Bauerlein, are as great a factor as the avoidance of controversy when it comes to academic trajectories. “If an argument can be made that reduction of faculty and closure of departments will save a lot of money,” he says, “they’re going to find a way.”

In that context, academic freedom diminishes not so much as a result of oppression but as stable academic jobs simply disappear. To balance their books, colleges are increasingly culling tenure lines and consolidating or eliminating departments. To fill the gap, in remote or hybrid programs, they share courses or even entire academic majors from other institutions.

The declining ranks of the tenured aren’t the result of conspiracy by insidious administrators, Tierney argues in his book. Rather, they result from larger societal devaluation of institutions serving the public good. “Insofar as most public dollars come from the state, rather than the federal government,” he writes, “we find academic institutions fighting over scraps with those who want prenatal care, health care, and better care for the homeless.”

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