Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Academic Freedom
Amongst supporters of academic freedom, there have been many criticisms of David Horowitz' "Academic Bill of Rights" and, more recently, the academic freedom campaigns (here, here, here). (I'm ignoring criticisms that are thinly disguised efforts by enemies of academic freedom to stop people from interfering with the status quo.) Here is what I think is going on.

Firstly, I am talking about academic freedom within an institution, not of an institution. So, for example, if the government penalizes a university because that university denies academic freedom to its members (this has happened to Bob Jones and Harvard Universities), then this is certainly interfering (whether rightly or wrongly) with the academic freedom of that university.

Within the University, the most important thing that Academic Freedom means is that no member or job applicant is discriminated against because of his views, unless those views interfere with his work. (One additional meaning has something to do with the "freedom" to choose research topics. This is confusing, and it makes no sense unless one first has the academic freedom discussed here.) By "interfering with his work", I do not include the fact that people who don't like his views choose not to work with him. Good examples are: someone who doesn't believe in evolution might be a good mathematician, but he would make a poor evolutionary biologist; someone who is against feminism can be a good biologist, but shouldn't teach a course (or even pass a course) in Women's Studies. (An argument can be made that a field that is as purely political as Women's Studies shouldn't exist in a university, but that is a separate issue.)

I believe that in most major North American universities there is very little academic freedom, and in most (but certainly not all) cases the victims are anyone who openly opposes the views of the extreme left. Much of this has been documented by FIRE. There are many examples I know of in my own university; for example the administration tried to fire a computer scientist for expressing anti-feminist views in a public forum outside of class; for example, a student newspaper was shut down for blaming Native American cultures for the problems of Native Americans.

Of course, it is very hard to get statistics about this. My favorite way would be as follows. Ask University Presidents the question, "In your university (outside of Women's Studies), do anti-feminists and feminists have the same right to speak and the same right to offend?" I think very few presidents would answer at all, and almost none of them would answer, "yes". (Lawrence Summers would probably die on the spot.) There are other questions about women, Islam, or homosexuality that would work as well.

Unlike a number of supporters of academic freedom, I do not think there is anything subtle or unconscious or accidental about the lack of academic freedom in universities. If a department goes out of its way to try to fire someone for expressing a particular view, are we supposed to believe that their unwillingness to hire a person with the same views is unconscious? Should we even need examples of such non-hires before we suspect this department of discrimination in hiring? One evidence that is often given of political discrimination in hiring/firing is the high proportion of Democrats versus Republicans on university faculties. Although these statistics suggest improper discrimination, there are other possible interpretations. A few well-posed questions to university administrators would, however, remove all doubt.

Let us assume that there are many more liberal than conservative faculty at a particular university. (Or more accurately, assume there are a large number of extreme-left faculty and very few faculty who express opinions contrary to the extreme left.) Let us ignore the reason this situation came about. (Maybe it's unrelated to the constant repression that takes place; maybe it's because Republicans are religiously obsessed morons, as has often been
suggested.) Is this imbalance bad? After denying that the imbalance exists, and then seeing statistical evidence to the contrary, the typical response of the supporter of this situation is to say that it's not because of discrimination but because "conservatives" are stupid, and then to say that in any case it doesn't matter, because left-wing professors are generally extremely fair in the classroom.

It is the issue of fairness in the classroom that especially concerns Horowitz and It is their lack of good proof that concerns their (reasonable) critics. Unfairness can involve unfair grading, not allowing students to voice their opinions, lack of presentation of alternative views, and gratuitous imposition of political opinions. Since grading is subjective, and since the topic of the class and the academic freedom of the professor mean that under many circumstances professors will and must say things that offend some students, it is very hard to accumulate the proper statistics here.

But what do we expect from a professor who wants to fire a faculty member or shut down a student newspaper because they express views he doesn't like. Do we expect him to be a paragon of fairness in his own classroom? This is not merely unlikely; it is virtually out of the question. If we suspect a professor of abuse, a few well-chosen questions of him (see above) would settle the matter quickly. Often these professors brag about how they view it as their mission, no matter what the class is, to enlighten their conservative students with the truth. For example, one professor interviewed here is especially horrible. This should be contrasted with a brag I once heard from a (conservative) professor. He said that after a semester in which controversial issues were discussed at length, the students said that they couldn't figure out what his own opinions were. This may not always be possible or desirable, but this is an example of a professor who doesn't want to abuse his power. They're usually pretty easy to tell apart from the ones that do.

I see a hint of how bad the abuse is in the non-sciences, by looking at my own science department. I don't attend many courses but I do go to many talks. It is surprising how often I hear nasty, gratuitous political remarks by the speaker or his host. One well-known scientist began his talk with a completely irrelevant joke, the point of which was that anyone who voted for Bush over Kerry is a moron. Do we seriously think this person is careful not to similarly impose his political views on his students (in Princeton)?

So what should be done about this classroom misbehavior by professors? Horowitz wants some constraints imposed by the University, or failing that, the State. Although I like the idea of general principles of proper classroom behavior being enunciated, I think that attempting to enforce these principles -- except in very special cases -- will cause more problems with academic freedom than they will solve.

It has also been suggested that the situation would improve if there were less of an imbalance in the faculty, but there is uniform dislike (or at least stated dislike) for having affirmative action for the anti-extreme-left. Here is my concrete suggestion. In my university, a rule says that there has to be at least one woman on every hiring committee, even if there have been no accusations of discrimination against women in that department. Since there is proof positive of repression of the anti-extreme-left in my university and my department, I propose that the State should insist that every hiring committee have at least one anti-extreme-left person on it. One version of this idea that I especially like is replacing the "at least one woman" rule with a "at least one anti-feminist" rule in my (science) department. The goal is not that we should discriminate on the basis of feminist views, but rather that we should not.

But how would the classroom situation improve if the faculty were more balanced? The typical answer is that students would now see -- perhaps have imposed upon them? -- alternative views. There is some truth in this, but I see things very differently. I ask myself why the Princeton prof mentioned above made his nasty joke. Was he trying to be controversial? Was he trying to insult some members of his audience? I don't think so. I think he wanted to inject some humor into his talk and he was interested in politics, so why not make a political joke? Surely the audience would enjoy it. He never met (or so he probably believes) anyone at Princeton who wouldn't enjoy the joke, and he couldn't imagine there would be anyone in the audience in my university who wouldn't. This is the problem with imbalance. The professor who has successfully repressed all contrary speech will now use the lack of contrary speech as proof that everyone agrees with him and that he must therefore be right.

Imagine what would happen if the university were more like the real world, with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time. Every professor would expect most of his opinions to be controversial, and he would have a good idea of which ones would be considered most extreme. There would be no point in making a joke which half the audience found funny only because it insulted the other half. Rather he might (if he wished to take up class time) respectfully explain why he thought Kerry was a better choice than Bush, fully expecting this to lead to an actual discussion.

I feel that newspapers would similarly benefit if there were more balance on the news staff. The result would not, I believe, be two kinds of stupid, extreme articles. Rather, I think, the result would be more intelligent, less extreme articles from everyone.

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