Yesterday, Robin Marie posted a provocative argument against academic freedom. That’s not quite how she framed it, of course. It was more explicitly an argument to “think critically about academic freedom.” But in fact, her piece was fundamentally hostile to the conventional idea of academic freedom. As Robin Marie wrote in the comments to her post: “I would never advocate using state power to say, lock up white supremacists, but I don’t believe that individual citizens and institutions need treat all acts of breaking orthodoxy the same. That makes me deeply illiberal, I know, but that’s why I’m a leftist.”
Reading this, I felt moved to respond, because I totally disagree with it. First, because I believe that academic freedom as it is usually understood is central to the mission of colleges and universities. Secondly, because I believe that academic freedom precisely demands that institutions need to treat almost all acts of breaking orthodoxy (by faculty in their extramural utterances) the same. And finally, because I do not believe that one needs to be illiberal (in the sense that Robin Marie says she is) to be on the left. This is not to say that one cannot be illiberal and be on the left. There’s a long and strong tradition of illiberalism on the left (as there is across the political spectrum). And I’m all in favor of giving it its due in conversations on and off campus. However, it seems to me that the left – perhaps especially the illiberal left — can ill afford to be illiberal about academic freedom if it expects to continue to have a voice on our nation’s campuses.
Let’s begin by getting straight what academic freedom is. Although the idea of academic freedom has a long and complicated history, the standard description of academic freedom in the United States is usually said to be the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which was initially issued in 1940 and to which explanatory footnotes were added in 1970. While I don’t think we need to treat the Statement as the last word on academic freedom, it is a necessary starting point. Here’s the Statement’s paragraph on academic freedom in extramural utterances (which is what the Salaita case involved):
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
The AAUP elaborated on this relatively brief paragraph in a much longer 1970 footnote. I want to quote it in full, in part to remind ourselves that even the question of extramural speech – which is only one aspect of academic freedom – is quite complicated and deeply intertwined with other aspects of academic freedom:
This paragraph is the subject of an interpretation adopted by the sponsors of the 1940 “Statement” immediately following its endorsement:
“If the administration of a college or university feels that a teacher has not observed the admonitions of paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom and believes that the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure. In pressing such charges, the administration should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens. In such cases the administration must assume full responsibility, and the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges are free to make an investigation.”
Paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom in the 1940 “Statement” should also be interpreted in keeping with the 1964 “Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances,” Policy Documents and Reports, 31, which states inter alia: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”
Paragraph 5 of the “Statement on Professional Ethics,” Policy Documents and Reports, 146, also addresses the nature of the “special obligations” of the teacher:
“As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution. When they speak or act as private persons, they avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university. As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.”
Both the protection of academic freedom and the requirements of academic responsibility apply not only to the full-time probationary and the tenured teacher, but also to all others, such as part- time faculty and teaching assistants, who exercise teaching responsibilities.
A few things should be noted about these excerpts from the Statement of Principles. First, according to the AAUP, academic freedom for extramural utterances is content neutral. It neither favors nor opposes speech that promotes social justice or speech that opposes social justice. If favors neither the privileged nor the oppressed, either in those it protects or in the statements it covers. Second, it is not absolute, nor does it pretend to be. While there are no ideological limits on academic freedom, the AAUP is quite explicit that faculty should not claim to be speaking for their institutions when they are speaking only for themselves. The original paragraph also seems to gesture in the direction of limiting the tone of extramural faculty speech. Faculty “should exercise appropriate restraint” and “should show respect for the opinions of others.” But especially in light of the 1970 footnote, these admonitions seem more like suggestions than limitations on the ideal scope of academic freedom. But there is one other limitation that’s worth noting. The AAUP reserves for institutions the right to fire faculty whose statements “raise grave doubts concerning” their “fitness” for their position, though the AAUP also urges restraint in the application of this principle. Finally, these principles apply to faculty members (including part time and adjuncts), but not to candidates for positions.
Why is this sort of academic freedom so important? Without it, the door is open for institutions to cherrypick statements by faculty that they judge uncivil, immoral, or otherwise vicious. And if institutions are empowered to do that, extramural statements by faculty (especially those who disagree with their institutions in one way or another and especially the untenured) will be chilled. Among other things, this would make it much less likely that faculty would participate in movements for social justice beyond the narrow confines of their fields of specialty.
What is Robin Marie’s case against this sort of academic freedom? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Robin Marie correctly notes that all controversial speech is not equally politically valuable or socially just. The same sort of statement made by or about one group may be much more inappropriate when made by or about another. I agree with her about the incoherence of the “reverse racism” argument. But since content-neutral academic freedom for extramural speech is not at all dependent on the proposition that all speech is equally politically valuable, I’m not sure how this constitutes a problem with the idea of content-neutral academic freedom.
She also argues that what were once controversial issues can often become settled ones over time:
For half a century ago, a professor could have, in fact, made public statements greatly offending either Southern whites or African Americans and be defended by her colleagues as simply engaging the public in “difficult issues.” But the civil rights movement succeeded in settling the question against Jim Crow, and consequentially describing Southern prejudice as bigotry is accepted as responsible scholarship, and racist flirtations are likewise no longer neutrally described as “controversial” but are condemned as shameful and unacceptable.
As an observation about liberal hypocrisy, in practice, about content neutrality Robin Marie has an argument here: “Liberals like to … [fall] back on rhetoric about open debate and allowing dissent; yet this obscures the reality that a condition of endlessly tolerated open debate only exists when questions of what is just or unjust still remain unsettled.” But while this is a cogent critique of a certain kind of liberal hypocrisy, it has little to do with the AAUP’s standard of academic freedom, which says nothing about controversies or questions of the just and unjust.
Speech can be “shameful and unacceptable” but still protected. The AAUP’s Statement of Principles does not propose an anti-shamefulness or acceptability standard. Nor should it. Except in the extremely rare cases in which speech suggests one is unfit for one’s job, extramural speech – even shameful and socially unacceptable speech — is protected. (It is worth noting that the Statement of Principles has a much more restrictive vision of what speech is acceptable in the classroom. This is a good thing, in my opinion. But that’s a separate conversation.)
If a 20th-century European historian writes a Holocaust denying op-ed for an off-campus newspaper, it is probably safe to say that he or she is unfit for his or her job. But if a Professor of Engineering writes the same op-ed, it says little if anything about his or her fitness for his or her work. Of course there are serious gray areas: what if a professor expresses views that seem prejudicial to another race but that are not relevant to his or her professional expertise? My reading of the AAUP’s guidelines would be that one needs to proceed with extreme caution in such a case.
One of the expressed concerns about Salaita, incidentally, was just this: that given his passionate views on Palestine, he might be prejudiced against students who had opposing views in a way that made him unable to teach them fairly. In fact, Salaita had a long track record in the classroom and no evidence was ever presented that he had any such prejudice in his classroom practice.
So if a theoretical physicist writes an article for a Neo-Confederate political newsletter defending Jim Crow, would that raise concerns about his professional fitness? Maybe. But if there’s no evidence of any racial discrimination in his classes or his advising, I think his speech, while despicable, should be protected.
Would certain liberals be less likely to defend the speech rights of our Neo-Confederate theoretical physicist than those of someone with whom they agree or even those of someone with whom they disagree but whose statements concern a subject that is still “controversial”? Undoubtedly. But that’s an indictment of those liberals, not of content-neutral standards of academic freedom for extramural speech.
Needless to say, opposing Salaita’s firing on grounds of content-neutral academic freedom in no way prevents one from expressing one’s political support for Salaita … or for any other academic with whom one feels solidarity whose academic freedom also happens to have been violated. To a certain extent, Robin Marie’s post is asking us to make a choice that we don’t have to make. There is no contradiction between supporting Salaita’s right to tweet his political opinions, whatever they are, and also supporting the particular political opinions in his tweets. But there is also no necessary connection between the two things.
I agree with both Robin Marie and Corey Robin that a thorough understanding of the Salaita case absolutely entails grappling with the particular politics of Israel / Palestine and the attempts by many, inside and outside academia, to marginalize a particular set of political views about these issues. All of these things are absolutely vital to understanding why Salaita was fired. But they are irrelevant to the case that his academic freedom was violated. I am less in agreement with Salaita’s politics than Robin Marie or Corey Robin. And I have absolutely no opinion on his scholarship, which I haven’t read. But neither of these things matter to the – airtight in my opinion – view that his firing was a fundamental violation of academic freedom.
Salaita’s scholarship had been vetted by the department that hired him, UIUC’s tenure committee, and whatever outside reviewers they asked to judge it. In each of these stages, I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that those judging Salaita may well have asked the sort of political questions that Robin Marie raises in her post. Nothing about academic freedom requires that the hiring process be morally and politically neutral.
Universities, as Robin Marie correctly notes, are morally policed spaces. Like Robin Marie, I disagree with those liberals (and conservatives) who deny or bemoan this fact. But content-neutral academic freedom is not about denying that universities are spaces in which moral policing takes place, let alone trying to turn them into morality-free or politics-free spaces. Instead, it’s about carving out limits to that moral policing. One does not need to be an anarchist to oppose the creation of a police state, even a moral one.
In fact one of the main reasons why I am committed to bracketing out my opinions about the justness of Salaita’s cause and the quality of his work is that his colleagues’ views of these matters – principally in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois, but secondarily on his college and campus tenure committees and among his colleagues in Native American studies at other institutions – are so important. If we start substituting my views or Robin Marie’s views for the views of specialists in his field and those who actually hired him, what case is there to be made for not instead substituting the views of Chancellor Wise or those donors upset at his tweets? Given the balances of power in our society and on our campuses, vindicating the rights of faculty self-governance is a far more secure way to fight for social justice in cases like these than is asking everyone to weigh in and hoping that those on the side of the right and the good somehow win.
Moreover, there is a sizable group of faculty who actually are not convinced of the justness of Salaita’s political cause, but who nevertheless defend to the death his right not to be fired for his extramural tweets … however much Robin Marie might wish to wave away this sort of statement as a liberal shibboleth. If the fight over Salaita’s firing were only about the justness of Salaita’s political cause, there would be significantly fewer people in Salaita’s corner.
Now I should say that much of my support for content-neutral academic freedom flows from the fact that I am less sure that I know what is right, morally and politically, than Robin Marie seems to be. I am, unlike Robin Marie, rather suspicious of orthodoxies per se, not simply orthodoxies that I perceive as hostile to social justice. Of course this does not mean that I am free of orthodoxies to which I am morally and politically devoted. There are probably readers of this post who are champing at the bit to point out that my devotion to academic freedom is just such an orthodoxy. Fair enough. I would only say in my (semi-) defense that it is for just that reason that I think it is vital that the academic foes of academic freedom, from Chancellor Phyllis Wise at the University of Illinois to Robin Marie on this blog, be given the right to argue vigorously for their views, however wrongheaded and potentially dangerous I may think they are.
And I do think they’re dangerous. Particularly to the left. As I said at the start of this post, I don’t think there’s anything inherently anti-leftist about illiberalism. But I do think that the illiberal left has a political problem when it tries to apply its illiberalism to key institutions in a capitalist system.
Academic freedom is currently under attack around the country. And though certain journalists and cultural critics like Jonathan Chait continue to focus on instances of illiberalism on the left, it is illiberalisms of the right – from conservative enemies of higher education as well as some neoliberal would-be friends – that is a far greater threat. Recent events in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona, Kansas, and a number of other states remind us of the scope and fury of the current attack on public higher education. And though finances often form the ostensible focus of these attacks, direct attacks on the content of academic inquiry and the job security and academic freedom of faculty are never far behind. While I am serious about lumping Phyllis Wise and Robin Marie together as opponents of academic freedom, I only fear one of them.
So here’s the problem for the illiberal left. Even if, in an ideal world, you would put a political test on the ability of academics to speak their minds, you need to deal with the fact that this is not an ideal world. Under neoliberalism, late capitalism, or however else you want to describe our current socioeconomic system, if we are going to have thought police on our nation’s campuses, the people appointing them will be the Phyllis Wises not the Robin Maries. And, unfortunately for all of us, this process is already underway.