Monday, February 13, 2006

Some points in response to LTEC's latest arguments about academic freedom:

1) I'm glad LTEC agrees that "to the extent that all 'time' is well-defined as being either company time or private time, politicking should be done on private time." But he goes on to say he opposes applying that standard to universities by cracking down on gratuitous politicking in the classroom. His reason? That there are things that can't be said openly in industry--he uses the example of workers in the IT industry making statements about women in IT--and universities should be places where people are able to say them.

As a worker in the IT industry, I find that argument hugely ironic. After all, I'm not the one blogging under a pseudonym. In fact, I feel quite comfortable saying lots of controversial things on my blog, including controversial things about the IT industry. It's true that I'm quite careful about what I say about my own employer--but I'm generally happy to talk freely about other people's employers, as they no doubt are to talk freely about mine. And the IT industry in general is, as far as I'm concerned completely fair game. (I imagine that if I felt the slightest bit uncomfortable saying the kinds of things LTEC has said on my blog about women in IT, then I would probably feel roughly as uncomfortable lending LTEC my blog for the purpose of saying those same things.)

Many of my co-workers know about my blog, some of them even read it, and I've never felt anything like the pressure that LTEC claims to feel in his academic environment to conform to a "party line" on broad topics like "women in IT". If that's the crying need that "academic freedom" is supposed to fill, then we really don't have any need for it.

2) LTEC went to great lengths to insist that he's not advocating "affirmative action" for views he thinks deserve more representation on campus, and that he merely wants everyone to be free to express their opinions. But he never answered my question: if every hiring committee should have a non-feminist "whistleblower", then why not an non-elvis-is-dead whistleblower, a parapsychology-is-real whistleblower, a Holocaust-denial whistleblower, and so on? Which opinions get whistleblowers, and which do not? By what standard do we choose them?

3) LTEC's analogy between academia and journalism is flawed in two ways. First of all, journalism, unlike academia, has a natural, useful point of reference against which to assess bias: the audience. If a journalist's audience suspects the journalist of bias, then they stop trusting that journalist, and start paying attention to somebody else. That's the sense (and, as I've repeatedly argued, the only sense) in which many of North America's major journalistic institutions exhibit political biases.

What, though, is the comparable basis (apart from LTEC's personal judgment) for assessing biases in academic institutions? After all, academics are supposed to be judged by their peers, not by students, politicians or the public at large. We thus arrive at the problem I identified above, of distinguishing opinions worthy of protection against "bias" from those that aren't. Is the low number of, say, academic Elvis-sighters, compared to their numbers in the public at large, a sign of pervasive bias that should be remedied? Do more of them therefore need to be hired into faculty positions? Do we need "whistleblowers" in hiring committees to identify bias against them?

Second, to the extent that the availability of diverse views has improved journalism lately, it has been--by LTEC's own admission--a result of external competition, not internal measures such as his proposed "whistleblower" program. It has yet to be seen whether any press organ has actually lessened its degree of bias in any direction in response to a "whistleblower on the hiring committee" rule, or any other such internal mechanism--even if the desired effect of diversifying viewpoints in the press at large has been achieved. I'm similarly skeptical about any such mechanisms working in academia.

On the other hand, if there are good, capable researchers and university-level teachers who are being denied an opportunity to enter academia because of political bias, then the obvious solution is for some enterprising university administrator to begin courting and recruiting them, thus building up a faculty far better than he or she would be able to attract by conforming to the prevailing academic prejudices. As long as universities have the power to do that--that is, as long as "academic freedom" as it was originally intended exists--good academics will be sure to find a receptive haven in which to work.

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