What Makes Academic Freedom Tick: A Reply to John K. Wilson

Steve Balch

John K. Wilson has posted a lengthy rebuttal to the article Ashley Thorne and I published on our website December 15th about the decision of Penn State’s Faculty Senate to revise its statement on academic freedom, removing provisions that tracked the language of the founding document of the AAUP, the 1915 Declaration of Principles.

Wilson arraigns us on an array of counts in a piece that exudes dudgeon from beginning to end.  In his view we “reject academic freedom at Penn State,” take a “coward’s approach to academic freedom” and seek, it’s implied, to establish a “repressive realm of disciplinary hearings.” (Oh for the days when one’s opinions would simply be termed “wrong”)! One the other hand, Wilson’s wounded that we used the term “groupie” to characterize his solidarity with Cary Nelson (and presumably the AAUP) on the wisdom of the repeal, a position we thought had very little, analytically speaking, to recommend it. We’re pleased to be informed by him that his misreading (from our perspective) of the significance of what happened at Penn State was not based on mere collegial avidity, but reflected views independently derived, long nurtured, and entirely his own. Our apologies, then, for a choice of words that clouded this fact. We admit – much more on this to follow – that exactitude is important.  

But let’s get to what really matters, our differences about the fundamental assumptions underlying academic freedom and academic freedom’s institutional application.

Here’s where Thorne and I stand.

A claim by employees that they should have, in their professional capacities, a right to freedom from supervision by those in authority over them, would generally be thought an extraordinary one . This would be true if they were working for a typical business. And it would be equally true if they were working for a public institution – that is to say, for the citizenry and their elected fiduciaries. In the latter case, the principle of representative government definitely requires that public employees be held responsible to the public at large.

Academic freedom involves professors making this extraordinary claim with respect to the views they express in the classroom and their scholarship. (The First Amendment protects them, as it does all other Americans, when they speak outside the classroom.) So what could possibly justify such an extraordinary request and why should the public and its representatives accede to it?

Only one thing, which, in our opinion, the 1915 Declaration of Principles got absolutely right – the rigorous and expert quality of their thinking, (needless to say, it was only these aspects of the 1915 Declaration that we were addressing in our posting about Penn State). While the founders of the AAUP included humanists as well as scientists, they saw in the scientific spirit, and the intellectual tough-mindedness that accompanies it, the extraordinary reason why the laity should defer to academic freedom’s otherwise extraordinary claims. In other words, because science demonstrates such enormous power in promoting human knowledge and welfare, professors – as its custodians – should be free to advance it. Obviously, not all academics can literarily be scientists, but they can try to adhere as closely as possible to the rules of evidence and logic and, in the discharge of their professional duties, stay within their fields of recognized expertise.

This is a persuasive argument, the persuasive argument, in our view, that makes academic freedom credible. It doesn’t free university professors from, at public institutions, their responsibility to the public, or at private ones from their responsibility to governing boards, but it does tend to redefine this responsibility. They are no longer responsible for the specifics of their expert opinions, or for how they teach their fields, but they are responsible for staying within the bounds of their disciplines and reaching whatever conclusions they hold in an intellectually rigorous manner.

The 1915 Declaration also acknowledged that in many fields the existing state of expert knowledge leaves many questions unsettled. And here, also in the scientific spirit, it urged professors to communicate the existence of these uncertainties, without hiding their own views, to their students. Science isn’t dogma, and making the distinction clear is another part of fidelity to its nature.

The struck-out language of Penn State’s Policy HR64: Academic Freedom rested on these assumptions and made the resulting caveats transparent. At a time when many academics have ceased to be mindful of them, preferring postmodern notions of subjectivity, and activist notions of political engagement, and when leaders of the AAUP themselves urge that disciplinary consensus, rather than the spirit of science,  govern academic discourse, we believe Penn State’s retreat from its laudable adherence to the AAUP’s classic pronouncement to be a very bad move – our consideration not being as John Wilson imagines it, “originalism,” but simply lack of wisdom. Explicit affirmations of professional self-restraint have never been more needed.   

The 1915 Declaration, and indeed, subsequent AAUP pronouncements on academic freedom, including the one most invoked, the 1940 Statement, are primarily admonitions to the faculty. They are intended, first and foremost, to remind faculty of the nature of their intellectual obligations under the assumption that the best means of their enforcement, and certainly their first and foremost line of defense, lies in professorial self-knowledge and self-discipline – as the charming diction of 1915 puts it, “the temper of the scientific inquirer.”  

But, that said, total immunity from oversight is never healthy. Professors are as human as anyone else, and human nature is always tempted to bend ideals to its own interests. John Wilson apparently believes that administrative correction of erring faculty members should be ruled out across the board as inherently too dangerous. We think it should be used sparingly but that it remains a healthy potential restraint. Surely administrators are capable of recognizing flagrant abuses of academic authority and less prone to being drawn into the kinds of reciprocal understandings about looking the other way that can afflict departmental colleagues. A doctrine of checks and balances strikes us as superior to one that proclaims sovereign immunity. 

Upholding academic freedom has, in any event, long ago been recognized as an institutional as well as an individual obligation. The 1940 Statement, which though terser than the 1915 Declaration, continues to note that academic freedom carries “duties correlative with rights,” was, after all, a joint formulation of the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges.  

No one could confuse David Horowitz’s persona with that of the NAS, but while Wilson views Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” as something akin to an inquisitor’s manual, we find in it valuable statements of academic freedom’s corollary obligations, the need for institutions and their fiduciaries to take them seriously, and an awareness of the ways students can suffer educationally as a result of their neglect. For that Horowitz deserves real credit. As for screening Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” in an English department writing class, it certainly smacks of abuse to us – a sentiment we bet would be concurred in by a large majority of working academics. There would be nothing wrong with administrators at least asking some questions about it. 

Scholars tend to have a high level of self-regard – and they should. But it can easily descend into a belief that nothing would be better than their being wholly left to themselves. John Wilson, Cary Nelson, and the AAUP seem to subscribe to this comforting conceit. By contrast, we believe that though academic freedom affords scholars very wide latitude to do their work and reach, in their respective fields, what conclusions they will, it operates most effectively within a framework of clearly defined obligations and reasonably shared oversight. Academic freedom, to repeat, is an institutional as well as an individual possession. We should never lose sight of that.           

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