[Paleopsych] CHE: The Value and Responsibilities of Academic Freedom

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The Value and Responsibilities of Academic Freedom
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.8


    We are in a time of enormous stress for colleges and universities
    across the country. Today, a notion we hold dear -- academic freedom
    -- is at the center of contentious debates on our campuses.

    Academic freedom goes to the heart of the university, to the rights
    and responsibilities of faculty members and students, to the nature of
    teaching and scholarship. It is a freedom we share in the classroom
    -- it encompasses a student's right to learn and a professor's right
    to teach.

    Some of the current debates over academic freedom concern matters of
    national or global importance. Many are joined -- even incited -- by
    outside forces, from political pressure groups to the mainstream media
    to increasingly strident voices on the World Wide Web. Times like
    these call for a renewed understanding of the principles that support
    academic freedom, and the purposes they serve.

    I believe that there are four principles that should guide us forward.

    First, the health and vigor of universities depend upon our fidelity
    to the unique responsibilities of our profession. x Many people say
    that the primary purpose of a university is to preserve and advance
    our understanding of life, the world, and the universe. They say that
    it is to discover truth, to transmit as much of human understanding as
    we can from one generation to the next and add as much new knowledge
    as we can to the existing store of human knowledge -- a function that
    has unquestionably brought enormous benefits, practical and otherwise,
    to our society and to our world. I certainly do not want to challenge
    that primary function, but I do believe it incomplete. Universities
    are also charged with nurturing a distinctive intellectual character
    -- what I would call the scholarly temperament.

    I have now spent more than three decades of my professional life in
    the university, and of all the qualities of mind valued in the
    academic community, I would say the most valued is that of having the
    imaginative range and the mental courage to explore the full
    complexity of the subject. To set aside one's pre-existing beliefs, to
    hold simultaneously in one's mind multiple angles of seeing things, to
    allow yourself to believe another view as you consider it -- those are
    the kind of intellectual qualities that characterize the very best
    faculty members and students I have known and that suffuse the
    academic atmosphere at its best. The stress is on seeing the
    difficulty of things, of being prepared to live closer than we are
    emotionally inclined to the harsh reality that we live steeped in
    ignorance and mystery, of being willing to undermine even our common
    sense for the possibility of seeing something hidden. To be sure, that
    kind of extreme openness of intellect is exceedingly difficult to
    master and, in a profound sense, we never do. Because it runs counter
    to many of our natural impulses, it requires both daily exercise and a
    community of people dedicated to keeping it alive (which is why, I
    believe, universities as physical places will continue to thrive in a
    world of electronic communication).

    But we all know what I just described from personal experience: the
    extraordinary, unique thrill of thinking about a subject one way until
    you feel there cannot possibly be another valid perspective, and then
    beginning with another line of thought and feeling the same certainty
    settle into our minds, all the while watching in amazement as it
    happens. Sometimes, of course, this yields new "truths," but that is
    not the only purpose for developing this mental capacity.

    Public life poses constant pressures and temptations for the
    university. Within the academy, we always face the impulse to jettison
    the scholarly ethos and adopt a partisan mentality, which can easily
    become infectious, especially in times of great controversy. Every
    faculty member I have known is aware of that impulse and tries to live
    by the scholarly temperament. In the classroom, especially, where we
    perhaps meet our highest calling, the professor knows the need to
    resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an
    ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play
    favorites with the like-minded and to silence the others. To act
    otherwise is to be intellectually self-indulgent.

    That responsibility to resist belongs to every member of every
    faculty, but it poses special challenges for those of us who teach
    subjects of great political controversy. Given the deep emotions that
    people -- students and professors -- bring to highly charged
    discussions, faculty members must show extraordinary sensitivity to
    unlocking the fears and the emotional barriers that can cause a
    discussion to turn needlessly painful and substantively partial.

    Second, given the expectations of a scholarly profession, we must
    determine how to deal with lapses, for surely we must expect them. In
    doing so, we must uphold certain values.

    We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty members above
    every other value.

    We should not accept the argument that our professional norms cannot
    be defined, and that transgressions thus must be accepted without
    consequences. We, as faculty members, properly have enormous autonomy
    in our teaching and our scholarship. Yet it will not do simply to say
    that professional standards are too vague for any enforcement. Life is
    filled with drawing lines about highly elusive and difficult-to-define
    difference, and yet we do so because to shirk the task is to invite
    worse consequences.

    We should not accept the argument that professors are foreclosed from
    expressing their opinions on the subject under discussion in the
    classroom. Nor should we accept the notion that there are no
    boundaries involved whenever viewpoints are expressed. The question is
    not whether a professor advocates a view but whether the overall
    design of the class, and the course, is to explore the full range of
    the complexity of the subject.

    We should not accept the argument that we as teachers can do what we
    want because students are of sufficient good sense to know bias and
    indoctrination when they see it. That ignores the enormous
    differential in power between the professor and the student in a
    classroom setting.

    We should not accept the idea that the remedy for lapses is to add
    more professors with different political points of view, as some would
    have us do. The notion of a "balanced curriculum," in which students
    can, in effect, select and compensate for bias, sacrifices the
    essential norm of what we are supposed to be about in a university. It
    also risks polarization, with "liberal" students taking courses from
    "liberal" professors and "conservatives" taking classes from
    "conservative" professors.

    We should not say that academic freedom means that there is no review
    within the university, no accountability for the content of our
    classes or our scholarship. There is review, it does have
    consequences, and it does consider content. And this happens every
    day, every year, and it is properly lodged in the hands of the faculty
    of the departments and schools of our institutions. In appointment,
    promotion, and tenure discussions, as well as annual reviews, we make
    professional judgments about the scholarly temperament, the
    originality of ideas, the ability to develop students' understanding
    and capacities, the respect shown for students, the tolerance
    displayed, the mastery of the subject, and many other qualities of

    Our third guiding principle should be to respect what I would call the
    separation of university and state.

    Universities do not penalize faculty members or students for comments
    they make as citizens in public debate. A corollary is that, while
    faculty members and students are free to take whatever positions they
    wish on public matters, universities are not. We do not, as
    institutions, generally speaking, take positions on public issues.

    The risk in joining the public sphere is that we jeopardize the
    scholarly ethos. We therefore need to maintain the line between the
    differing roles -- that of the scholar professional and that of the
    citizen. The last thing we want to do is to turn the campus into a
    political convention.

    Fourth and finally: All of us, but universities in particular, must
    stand firm in insisting that, when there are lines to be drawn in the
    academy, we must and will be the ones to do it. Not outside actors.
    Not politicians, not pressure groups, not the media. Ours is and must
    remain a system of self-government.

    To be sure, as we have witnessed throughout recent history, the
    outside world will sometimes find the academy so dangerous and
    threatening that efforts will naturally arise to make decisions for us
    about whom we engage and what we teach. That must not be allowed to
    happen. We must understand, just as we have come to understand with
    freedom of speech generally, that the qualities of mind we need in a
    democracy are precisely what the extraordinary openness of the academy
    is designed to help achieve.

    As I said at the outset, this is a time of high vulnerability and
    anxiety at our universities. Yet I am confident that what I have
    called the scholarly temperament is alive and well in our institutions
    of higher education. I know it is at Columbia University.

    We do not need a new set of principles, tailored to the times. We need
    only to reaffirm the principles that have guided us for the past 100
    years, that have seen our profession through times of great challenge,
    and that have led us toward ever-expanding horizons of human insight
    and the building of democratic societies.

    Lee C. Bollinger is president of Columbia University. This essay is
    adapted from a speech he gave in March to the Association of the Bar
    of the City of New York.

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