U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Academic Freedom Is Important and It’s Not About Your Political Struggle (At Least Not Directly)

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.

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, thanks for this thoughtful reply. I have to start, however, with the response that if you took me to say that I am opposed to academic freedom as it is currently practiced *almost* all the time – as the AAUP describes it – you are mistaken.

    You are mistaken because I don’t think we need to dilute this understanding at all – it serves all its purposes you’ve outlined here well, and meanwhile, the process I am describing is independent of whether or not there is a good, strong practice for academic freedom.

    Because – and this was at the heart of my post – my argument was that the surrounding values and power arrangements of the broader society determine where those “extreme cases” lie. A holocaust denier is an obvious example, but too easy – that can be reduced down to matter of ignoring clear, empirical fact. However, in cases where we’re working with the same set of numbers, so to speak, but values intervene to produce a certain result or argument, then we have a conundrum.

    Now, it’s usually not so clear-cut in real life; that’s why it’s rare, as it should be, for professors to be fired over this stuff. But that doesn’t mean the political struggle on the ground is not still determining how these issues are responded to – and that still doesn’t mean that the same analysis (of say, over sensitive students) can be applied, without understanding the specifics, to every case. I know you acknowledge that, but I want to emphasize that I am not saying that I think each case *should* have a different *result* – ie, one gets fired and another doesn’t – I am alright with it if they have the *outcome,* in terms of firing decisions. But, we can’t lazily clump them as the same *phenomenon* in our response to them, as, in my opinion, people have been hastily doing over the Kipnis incident. Kipnis shouldn’t have been dealing with a Title IX complaint, and she certainly could never be justly fired over the article. However, that doesn’t mean her story, and the dynamics going into it, are the same as Salaita’s. And they are not the same because of what they said, and who they said it about, and the relative history of power relations in concern to that.

    “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.” That was actually part of my point! I wrote in my post: “If the supporters of Salaita had organized primarily under the call to defend Palestinians’ rights – rather than academics’ rights – they would not have had such success.” The academic freedom issue allowed people who were not going to support his politics to still oppose his firing, because they are queasy about that, understandably. Because they saw their own freedom threatened, understandably, although they ought to note that it is not threatened across the board to different people equally, depending on what orthodoxy they are challenging. But by the same token, if Salaita’s cause was widely considered very bad, he would have had many less people supporting him on his politics than he did – and, likewise, if it was a more consensus issue, such as race relations in the US, many more would have supported him on the politics alone. So again, my point is that whatever the AAUP’s Statement declares, it doesn’t mean politics isn’t negotiating the struggle over how academic freedom is interpreted. Laws can say anything – hell the Declaration of Independence declared men were created equal for 100 years of slavery – but it’s people, and their prejudices, in the end that implement them.

    So, this is the *reality,* which is all I was describing in my post. As for my comment you pulled from, however, that’s a somewhat separate manner. Look – if I had all the power in the world right now, I would not start firing conservative or reactionary professors left and right. I think it is indicative of how I am touching indeed, a liberal *orthodoxy* that because I expressed my feeling that academic freedom should never be *the* ultimate value, that suddenly means I am an enemy to any concept of it at all. Not so.

    However, I will grant you that I’m more uncomfortable with certain cases than you might be, and I own that. No, I don’t think it would be appropriate for an overtly racist professor to teach students, even just in Chemistry where they never discussed race. As long as she was at a public university that welcomed all races, I would consider that a breach of the promise made to non-white students that the university could be a community where they are welcome, a part of, and respected. To have black students taught by a person who, say, believed they should still be slaves would be, in my opinion, to take the concept of academic freedom and use it to erase the hope for the kind of world professors, when they speak of academic freedom, believe they are fighting for. The only kind of society that never employs shame or exclusion to communicate and reinforce it’s values is a nihilist one, and such a position – advocating racism – crosses over the line, to me, of what any moral society would tolerate in any of its public institutions or communities.

    And the fact that I do have a vision of that larger world, and believe that all professors, left or right, are usually using their skills to work towards it, is why I’m skeptical about how unthinkable it seems to be to acknowledge that academic freedom does, and should, have limits. My limits are slightly – although not as drastic as you would imagine, I think – not as charitable as yours. But this is related to an overall critique of liberalism which, minus all the stuff about how the solution is resubordinating women to men and restoring heteronormativity, is basically the same as Christopher Shannon’s. The slight – *slight,* mind you – overemphasis liberalism places on plurality and individualism that, in practice, will always still be subject to political struggles, leaves us without a language to make moral claims on each other, and build communities that reflect those values of solidarity. I think this is part of why Americans have such a hard time rejecting capitalism, and I think it plays a role in the kind of next-to-nihilism that characterizes what passes for a sorry public and private culture. Unless you want to argue all that out, I have to leave you with that. I just hope you give me the benefit of the doubt that this does not make me the equivalent of a foam-breathing Jacobin, ready to put all my ideological enemies to the guillotine. There is something in-between the notions of freedom of speech as articulated by liberalism and, say, Soviet Russia. It is not an either/or.

    (And a real quick note here: I know not all leftists are “illiberal” in this way, although, I didn’t think you were exactly saying that, but, just to clear that up.)

    • Edit: “I am alright with it if they have the same *outcome,* in terms of firing decisions.

      (“same” missing originally)

  2. Ben–
    Thanks for this piece. I debated whether I should respond to Robin Marie’s post yesterday, but you’ve said it much better, I think, than I might.

    Robin Marie–
    Your response to Ben avoids addressing, I think, what would be for you his most important point–that for pragmatic and strategic purposes, those who are in the minority and in a position of relative powerlessness are better served by committing to a content-neutral defense of free speech. I’m wondering if this is because your critique of liberalism insists that liberalism is blind to its own ideological commitments, and that therefore its embrace of value neutrality is a way to avoid looking at the content of its ideology. For some varieties of liberalism, just as for ideologies on the left and the right, this is undoubtedly true. But I think it’s unfair and inaccurate to characterize all of liberalism in these terms. That is, liberalism is often painfully self-conscious and aware of its own limitations and the ironies of its commitments to principles such as incertitude. And it is precisely because of this self-reflective quality of some forms of liberalism that its advocates look to a pragmatic and consequentialist approach to problems rather than a dogmatic or “principled” approach. Asserting a universalist content-neutral principle of speech is not simply an affirmation that pure reason and merit will win the day for the best ideas, but a consequence of an awareness that universalism will, in the end, be more likely to protect the weak, the unpopular, the minority, the powerless, than accepting the principle of proscribing substantive limits. The Left is itself better off under a regime that protects all speech, not for sentimental reasons or for reasons that avoid looking at issues of power, but for very hard-headed and practical reasons that are attentive to the dimensions of power. When you say that you’re not opposed to the vision of academic freedom put forward here, but that you would like to circumscribe and delimit acceptable speech (e.g. the racist chemistry professor), I think it’s reasonable to ask why you think you and like-minded people would have the opportunity to shape those rules and limitations. That is, what traction, what consequences for a large and diverse audience of people who don’t share your politics, do you think your arguments will have? My sense from what you say is that you find liberalism to be naive and innocent, but I can’t imagine a position more naive than one that rests on the fundamental rightness and justice of your cause, as if rightness and justice were not subject to fundamentally different interpretations. Perhaps I am missing your point–it wouldn’t be the first time!

  3. Well Dan, I don’t know so much as you’ve misunderstood me, but here we go.

    “that for pragmatic and strategic purposes, those who are in the minority and in a position of relative powerlessness are better served by committing to a content-neutral defense of free speech.” For the time being, that is true. That is why I originally wrote in the post – did y’all read every paragraph in there? –that as a pragmatic move, focusing on academic freedom is hard to criticize. However, much like focusing on colorblindness was, for a while, pragmatically the best move, in the long run, it had limits. I think avoiding battling it out over politics by appealing solely to a principle of academic freedom/free speech that (supposedly) rises above all this also has its limits, in the long run.

    “And it is precisely because of this self-reflective quality of some forms of liberalism that its advocates look to a pragmatic and consequentialist approach to problems rather than a dogmatic or ‘principled’ approach.” Let’s grant you (ie imagine) that there is a form of liberalism driven purely by pragmatism or consequentialism, which, as far as I can tell, is what you think (correct me if I’m wrong.) Does that mean these certain strands of liberalism are the only political philosophies that can do this? Is there no such thing as a pragmatic leftist?, or are we all so obsessed with “principle” that it’s impossible? This avoids, of course, the historical irony that the people who make pragmatic liberal solutions possible when they were not before were the leftists who were insisting on something better. Michael Kazin has written about this recently.

    “that universalism will, in the end, be more likely to protect the weak, the unpopular, the minority, the powerless, than accepting the principle of proscribing substantive limits.” So not hiring, or firing someone because they advocate white supremacy would be the application of universalist principles? Really? What effect would that have on the ground, in reality, for minorities, right now? Let’s think about what really advocates a universalist principle, or what simply allows power structures to continue on as they are. Dude, I’m not asking much here. I’m saying let’s not condone or give educational (and thus cultural) clout to extreme racism, sexism, or homophobia. If we can’t at least act on the basis of these values, promoting universalism loses all meaning. Am I really like, that crazy left to you? Is *that* asking so much? Man, you need to hang out with some of my friends; I would look like a bloody moderate!

    “The Left is itself better off under a regime that protects all speech, not for sentimental reasons or for reasons that avoid looking at issues of power, but for very hard-headed and practical reasons that are attentive to the dimensions of power.” Yes, whoever is less in power in the moment benefits. Right now, that’s the Left. But actually, the Right benefits as well too, even right now, since it means that even in the places where they are not very welcome, there is not much else other than social pressure that can be applied. But even if you think it’s primarily the Left that benefits, then is that a pragmatic argument built simply on defending the Left? If the Right benefitted more, would you still advocate the same version of academic freedom, or not?

    As for who would decide, and how that would work, the idea that only I would be in that position was a thought experiment – however it would work, it would have to be a democratic process involving everyone in the relevant community. If it helps you feel better, I think a just society would make sure no one was, as a consequence, unable to support themselves or their family. They should be provided for by the state or society, in fact, should they be unable to recover; they just wouldn’t be given a place of respect in public institutions.

    “but I can’t imagine a position more naive than one that rests on the fundamental rightness and justice of your cause, as if rightness and justice were not subject to fundamentally different interpretations.” I’m not surprised – believing in the fundamental justice of say, ending Jim Crow, is hard if you think convictions of the fundamental rightness of anything naïve. However, we depended on people believing in the fundamental rightness and justice of racial equality to ever end it, so I’m not so averse. Indeed, very little of what we commonly call “progress” would have been possible without exactly the kind of belief you seem to regard as inevitably dangerous.

    In any case to me the most naïve position is to assume you don’t think this of yourself as well; that *everyone* doesn’t think it. For if we didn’t think what we thought was right, we wouldn’t think it – and this *includes you,* no matter how much you think yours is the non-ideology, and it is to make no point at all to criticize someone’s conviction with your counter-conviction that they are wrong about having that particular conviction. Tough thing, it’s one of those boomerang arguments.

    Finally Dan, I don’t think you appreciate how many times in my life I have changed my mind. For most of my life, I considered myself a social liberal and an economic conservative. Then I became a liberal. Then I became a leftist. Even more recently, for a while I was into the atheist movement; I figured out how racist and sexist that was eventually, and decided I was also wrong about how important religion is, anyway. (Important, but not as important as atheists tend to think it is). You might think at the moment I’ve landed somewhere wrong and before we know it, folks like me will be getting rid of everyone’s tenure and leading the Leninst-Jacobin-Castro inspired purge, but guess what – having convictions has never stopped me from changing them. However, even if I am in error, the study of history has taught me this one thing: I’d rather error to the Left than error to Right, or the Middle. And I certainly won’t shy away from fighting the injustices we see around us just so I can lay claim to an intellectual or philosophical humility. There’s too much bullshit going on in the world right now, and little reason to think hedging our bets about fighting for justice is going to make it better. You may think otherwise, but that’s your business – and don’t worry, me and my comrades aren’t going to come knocking at your door with our pitchforks any time soon.

  4. Robin Marie, I think it’s the very recognition that people do change their minds, and sometimes come to see the rightness or wrongness of various ideas and positions differently, that informs a liberal caution about imposing strictures of orthodoxy (political, social, religious, or otherwise) as a condition of academic employment, or putting together tribunals, as you suggest above (I assume that was not tongue-in-cheek), to decide who should be dismissed from academic employment (or all employment?) on the basis of his/her expressed beliefs.

    I think your mention of the atheist movement is a particularly helpful example here, because movement atheism makes normative epistemic claims, ruling out certain epistemologies as not merely illegitimate or ignorant but menacingly pernicious — damaging to the social order, perpetuating injustice, etc. If you and your fellow hypothetical tribunal members know that atheism is right, and that those who don’t share it, or who actively argue against it, are not just wrong but actually contributing to a system that perpetuates injustice, oppression, etc., then the thing to do is fire all the theists (broadly construed), or the most pernicious theists, from the professoriate (whose business is, after all, epistemic).

    So I guess it’s a good thing that there was still academic freedom when you were in your atheist phase, and that the tribunals weren’t in place? I mean, when you change your mind, or come to see things differently, what would you say to the people who got canned because they didn’t conform to what you used to regard as a necessary orthodoxy? Sorry, my bad?

    You want the freedom to come to see your own deepest convictions differently, to be able to change your mind about nontrivial matters — indeed, you want to be credited for your open-mindedness in that regard. Yet you are arguing for a system (ideal or theoretical, but still, a model how things ought to work) that could impose career-ending penalties (and, apparently, public shaming) on those who do not see those nontrivial matters as you and your fellow arbiters do at some particular moment.

    This seems erring, but I don’t think it’s erring to the Left.

    • LD —

      I’m a little at a loss as to how to reply to this, because I feel like the characterization of my views it represents has reached the level of parody. There is this assumption that I either don’t understand what this narrow vision of academic freedom is about, or, if I do, rejecting it makes me something akin to a McCarthyite. I think it’s telling that people find it very difficult to listen to someone first, pouting out that effectively these “tribunals” — and isn’t that an incredibly loaded word — already exist, and that maybe, if we acknowledge that, we should focus on fighting the political battles that inform what we select when we deal with competing values.

      What I’m trying to do here is keep us grounded to the current reality of power on the ground, in this moment. Woe the day our society changes its mind about racism not being ok — but imagining it, are we really stipulating that prioritizing the collected history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration is a slippery slope to the end of all independent thought? That not only sounds extremely paranoid, but it also sounds like priorities are organized in a way I don’t understand.

      Look everyone, I value academic freedom and freedom of speech. It’s been stated here, over and over again, that somehow I’m “against” it, that I’m “attacking” it, but I’m not — I’m just pushing us to acknowledge that what it encompasses is always subject to political struggles. I am saying, however, that it will not always be my top priority — I would not understand a decision to place the cause of racial justice under the right of a professor to advocate slavery. I’m sorry, but that’s where I’m at. If there is only one version of appreciating academic freedom — where it is white supremacists in positions of public status and power, or BUST!, now we’re throwing people into poverty because they don’t believe in God — then I think at heart that this points to a deep skepticism and lack of faith in democratic politics. Can’t trust the masses with this sort of thing; sure today, it’s racial injustice, but tomorrow who knows.

      As for public shaming, everyone does it, all the time — just look at a twitter feed or Facebook statuses. I’m not talking about putting people in pillory folks, I’m talking about the kind of response that everyone participates in every day. Again, the things I’m discussing are already going on, for the most part – which I why I don’t think any re-writing of the academic freedom practices as it currently exists is needed. I’m just trying to get us to think a bit more critically about what goes into these standards — but here I’ve been informed that this is tantamount to “first they came for the white supremacists…” So, what else can I say.

      Finally, if that’s not erring to the Left, does that mean that those who went 10 million times further than I would ever be comfortable with (but I feel like I’m implicitly being compared to), Robespierre or Lenin or whoever, were not Leftists? This makes little sense to me.

      • ” I just hope you give me the benefit of the doubt that this does not make me the equivalent of a foam-breathing Jacobin, ready to put all my ideological enemies to the guillotine. There is something in-between the notions of freedom of speech as articulated by liberalism and, say, Soviet Russia. It is not an either/or.”

        “You may think otherwise, but that’s your business – and don’t worry, me and my comrades aren’t going to come knocking at your door with our pitchforks any time soon.”

        I don’t think that Ben in his post, or anyone commenting on this thread (or the previous thread), was invoking Jacobins, Robespierre, pitchfork-wielding mobs, or guillotines, either explicitly or implicitly. That is imagery you yourself have introduced into the discussion here, trying to flatten substantive and conscientiously-argued disagreements with your position into crude caricatures of your person. I don’t altogether understand the purpose of this gambit — introduce parodic caricatures of yourself and then complain that you are being parodied?

        Anyway, my views on why upholding academic freedom as defined and defended by the AAUP is a better approach than what you’ve suggested in comments here and in your previous post have been pretty clearly stated, and don’t need repeating.

  5. Somewhat off-topic, but perhaps worth saying that a liberal commitment to content-neutral academic freedom and freedom of expression does not necessarily translate, in all cases, into a belief in the superiority of gradual change over ‘revolution’. In other words, it’s not like you’re going through a cafeteria line and there’s one station marked ‘liberalism’ and you have to take the whole meal from that one station.

    Take the case of the end of Jim Crow. The regime of legalized, de jure segregation in the U.S. South lasted roughly 100 years. If, hypothetically, there had been a (violent) social revolution in the South in 1920 that ended Jim Crow, that would have ended it almost 50 years before it actually did end and would have presumably avoided a fair amount of human suffering (hard to quantify) at the cost of some lives lost etc in the course of violent upheaval. Depending on the hypothetical posited details, the tradeoff (widespread violence in return for an earlier end to Jim Crow) might well have been worth making. (Certainly most people today would be likely to say that the 700,000 lives (or whatever the exact figure) lost in the Civil War were ‘worth it’ to end slavery in the U.S. (though it’s not *necessarily* racist to think this specific question might be debatable.))

    A sense of these sorts of tradeoffs is one reason liberals in 2015 don’t write op-eds and blog posts denouncing the French Revolution, even if they would retrospectively much prefer that the Terror (and some of the sequelae of the Revolution such as the Napoleonic wars, e.g.) had never occurred. It’s also perhaps one reason historians still argue, e.g., over the character of the American Revolution: was it ‘radical’ or ‘conservative’? Merely a political rebellion or some kind of social transformation? This disagreement was on display at this blog as recently as the forum on the Raul Coronado book, in which Tamar Herzog said (with much justification, IMO) in the course of her review that the U.S. was not born in a “rupture” like the French Revolution, and Coronado in his reply said (paraphrasing): That’s wrong; the U.S. did emerge from a “rupture.”

    I think a racist should be allowed to teach chemistry, assuming he does not use the classroom as a vehicle to give speeches about how great racism is and does not penalize students in grading etc based on their race. More important, though, is that one wants (or I would want) to ensure that there’s no orthodox line in the classroom on these contested historical/political issues about, e.g., the pace of reform, the justification of revolution, and indeed whether liberalism (however defined) itself has been, on balance, a ‘progressive’ force or not. The ‘liberal’ wager (if I can use that word) is that, in an academic setting where there is a lot of free expression and not much dogmatism and not much inculcation of a ‘correct’ line, students will be able, in some non-trivial sense, to think their own thoughts and arrive at their own conclusions about politics in general and the merits (or lack thereof) of liberalism in particular (not to mention their own conclusions about the weaknesses, flaws, injustices, and strengths of their own society).

  6. I find it interesting that no one who defended academic freedom as their highest priority (all Robin said was that academic freedom is not and should not be our highest priority, but rather social justice) did not make a clear defense of the hypothetical decision not to fire a professor (of any discipline) who is an avowed outspoken racist who would have said things similar in tone to what Salaita said regarding say Native Americans or African Americans. Would it be fair in a public or even private university towards students that face institutional racism and hardships in our society? Would that be in the interest of society’s greater good as a combination of morality and strategy? Even Ben said maybe.
    As many have implied here, academic freedom is not an end in and of itself. It is a protective measure calculated to promote the cause of justice. All Robin is saying is that we realize this, and that actually by realizing this we can make the academia a more powerful beacon for justice. Yes we should have academic freedom as a calculated protective measure, but we should not lose sight of social justice as our highest priority.
    I think that in the end this boils down to a question of strategy and faith in the notion of academic freedom as a promoter of justice. Some people think that we should seek to maintain what we have, others that we need to push for new better higher ground from which to try and make inroads. The latter would point out that we have been slowly losing out to the neoliberals, both on campuses, but even more importantly out of the campus. For that very language lends itself quite well, it turns out, to institutional and coded injustice.

  7. Robin Marie–
    Thanks for the response. So much to disagree with!

    First, I don’t think I expressed anywhere a fear of you and your like-minded friends coming with pitchforks to purge the academy of all wrong-thinking people. You’ve attributed a host of arguments to me that I simply didn’t make, implying that this is what lies behind my position, and how wrong-headed it is. My response, I thought, was based purely on challenging your view of how and why liberalism might wish to defend a content-neutral version of academic freedom, and your failure to respond to Ben’s argument that the Left is more likely to lose under a regime of marking some forms of speech as unacceptable.

    “That is why I originally wrote in the post – did y’all read every paragraph in there? –that as a pragmatic move, focusing on academic freedom is hard to criticize. ” I did read this in the original post, but it struck me that it was a throw away line that was undercut by the force of the rest of your argument–that you didn’t take it seriously as a philosophically and intellectually coherent argument, since the rest of your argument was dedicated to showing the limits of such an approach.

    “Dude, I’m not asking much here. I’m saying let’s not condone or give educational (and thus cultural) clout to extreme racism, sexism, or homophobia. If we can’t at least act on the basis of these values, promoting universalism loses all meaning.” No one (least me) is saying that you can’t or shouldn’t act on those values. There are myriad ways to act that don’t involve restricting speech, and refusing to fire somebody for their speech is not “condoning” it. Make all the arguments and hold all the protests you want, continue to seek to make racist, sexists, homophobic positions culturally marginal or unacceptable. My argument is just that openness and lack of restriction of speech aids those arguments better than arguing for restricting speech.

    “Let’s grant you (ie imagine) that there is a form of liberalism driven purely by pragmatism or consequentialism, which, as far as I can tell, is what you think (correct me if I’m wrong.) Does that mean these certain strands of liberalism are the only political philosophies that can do this? Is there no such thing as a pragmatic leftist?”

    I didn’t say this. In fact, I agree with Ben that you can be committed to a variety of political and ideological positions that take consequentialist or pragmatic positions as part of their outlook. I was arguing against your characterization of liberalism, not arguing that liberalism had some special claim on pragmatic thinking that couldn’t be shared by other ideologies.

    “If the Right benefitted more, would you still advocate the same version of academic freedom, or not?”
    Although I think this question is supposed to be a “gotcha,” I don’t think it is. “Yes” is the simple answer, since I believe minority points of view need protection for a variety of reasons, and “the Right” and “the Left” have been pretty capacious and fluid categories.

    ” believing in the fundamental justice of say, ending Jim Crow, is hard if you think convictions of the fundamental rightness of anything naïve. However, we depended on people believing in the fundamental rightness and justice of racial equality to ever end it, so I’m not so averse. Indeed, very little of what we commonly call “progress” would have been possible without exactly the kind of belief you seem to regard as inevitably dangerous.”

    I didn’t say believing in fundamental rightness of anything is naive. I said that believing that your rightness will produce the correct outcomes strikes me as naive. My argument is about why the Left is better advised to supporting a content-neutral notion of academic freedom. I think you’re right–without the absolutist moral commitments of, say, immediatist abolitionists, the argument about slavery would never have achieved the kind of public saliency that moved the political culture to a position that eventually produced an end to slavery. So, I’m not arguing that holding positions that are firm commitments to social justice of various kinds is in any way a problem rather than a good. What I am saying is that it is naive to believe that the rightness of your position will produce the rightness of outcome without the protection of a content-neutral position on speech. And I made this argument, I think, because you sought to characterize all of liberalism as naive in a particular way.

    “For if we didn’t think what we thought was right, we wouldn’t think it – and this *includes you,* no matter how much you think yours is the non-ideology, and it is to make no point at all to criticize someone’s conviction with your counter-conviction that they are wrong about having that particular conviction.”

    Is this “you” me in particular, or some general other person? If it’s me, I can assure you that I don’t think my beliefs are a non-ideology. What else could they be? I think a commitment to pragmatism and consequentialism is ideological–it configures the world in a particular way that excludes other possibilities. One of the features of my ideology is a belief that my views might be wrong and subject to revision–it’s hard for me to imagine giving up that belief, but it’s possible. But you keep attributing to me some stereotyped view of “liberalism” as a value-neutral form of false consciousness that simply isn’t what I believe. I don’t claim some greater ontological authority for my ideological outlook, but I also can’t go around believing nothing. I do think that the question of consequences is relevant to the problem that you raise, precisely because you are interested in the consequences for social justice of taking particular stances.

    • “First, I don’t think I expressed anywhere a fear of you and your like-minded friends coming with pitchforks to purge the academy of all wrong-thinking people.” Yes, apologies, this was nowhere explicitly stated. But it is relevant to the overall discussion going on here, not only on this thread, but the broader academic community. Kipnis’s piece was illustrated with pitchforks and called an *inquisition* — I think that’s very problematic, and moreover, it has been clearly implied that if I’m not on board with the conventional understanding of academic freedom, that means I’m not on board with any understanding of it. It is all or nothing. Which is odd, since people have also pointed out (as if I disagreed) that you can select from a variety of values/political positions without being either/or. I’m not sure where I disagreed with such a position.

      As for strains of liberalism & leftism, those questions were not sarcastic. I was actually asking them. But what seems interesting to me is that you’re attesting to a flexibility of ideological positions which I’m not really experiencing in this thread, or others before it. If I’m focusing on a certain type of characterization of liberalism, that is because I’ve run into it, in experience!, far more than others.

      The question about the Right was also not a gottcha question, but a genuine question. Thank you for answering it.

      “I said that believing that your rightness will produce the correct outcomes strikes me as naive.” I absolutely nowhere said this. Indeed, much of my post was, again, about strategy, and how the left is limited by conditions on the ground that make certain strategies better than others. I was also simply saying though that the usefulness of those strategies is not endless. Not because speaking “truth to power” is the ultimate weapon in the end, but because such strategies make it difficult to push for a more radical vision of social change. You can’t fight colorblind rhetoric with colorblind rhetoric, at the end of the day. That was all I was saying. Whatever you do fight it with, though, strategy will still have to be considered.

      Finally, I’m glad you recognize the ideological nature of your positions – however that still leaves my point unaddressed, which is we all decide to take certain actions based on an assessment we’ve come to that we think, for the moment at least, is right. I get that I could accept an action you would regard as unacceptable – but that doesn’t mean that I disregard the possibility that I could be wrong. However yeah, there are certain things where there are high stakes and being wrong would be a big problem; that’s why I haven’t used as my example for this issue say, whether or not a progressive income tax is better for the economy. I’m talking about basics here – and sure, maybe one day we will wake up to discover we’ve all been wrong about the whole racial equality thing, but I doubt it; and I also doubt that anyone here is any less doubtful than me.

  8. LD –

    I have said multiple times I’m not attacking any and all academic freedom, and repeatedly I was responded to with folks explaining to me what it is and why it is important, as though I did not understand before, or after, their points. I’ve been compared to the equivalent to Wise, in power if not in substance. The specter of “tribunals” was brought up, very loaded language. There is an overall atmosphere and tone right now of painting those on the left, who want to see the university be more responsive to social justice issues, as inquisitors.

    Yes, no one brought up pitchfork etc motifs in this thread explicitly, although in such an atmosphere, it’s hard to prove what is being felt implicitly. There are serval complex ways this conversation could have gone on multiple things I’ve said, but they didn’t; Ben said I am attacking academic freedom, and from that point on the mission seemed to be to prove him right (or explain what it is me again, since it seemed like I didn’t understand).

    So forgive me for feeling a bit besieged, or caricatured, but I was trying to point to another way this conversation could go, that it never went. What would be that third way between pure tolerance and the death of free speech, for example? Does that exist? Can we discuss that? I’m not sure, also, what would have looked to you like not flattening the debate short of deciding I was entirely wrong, even though I already said I largely agree with you. I thought I made some points here but that were not flattening, but those weren’t the ones people wanted to talk about, but ok.

    Anyways, it’s alright — I thought I might be picking a fight, and I got one, so I own that.

  9. Thanks to all the people who’ve contributed to a lively conversation upthread. Let me apologize in advance for the length of this reply. Though there are a lot of interesting issues raised in this conversation, I want to return to the issue I raised in my post: are content-neutral protections for extramural faculty speech good for – or even necessary to the proper functioning of – colleges and universities?

    Obviously one could imagine shaping content-neutral protections in various ways. And if one did not have content-neutral protections, one could presumably have other kinds of protections. Broadly speaking, the question of how to structure academic freedom is, as Robin Marie says upthread, not simply an either / or.

    But the question I posed is an either / or: is a system that protects all extramural speech – except in the narrow cases in which a faculty member wrongly claims to speak for his or her institution or shows him or herself to be incapable of doing his or her job – a good idea? When you cut through all the other issues here, I think it is, Robin Marie thinks it isn’t.

    (Let me deal in passing with Robin Marie’s argument that all rules and laws are the subject of political struggle. I absolutely agree with her on this. In particular, cases in which academic freedom is violated inevitably involve political struggle. But that observation does not invalidate all rules and laws, does not makes this particular rule or law any more or less desirable, and does not makes rules and laws irrelevant to academic freedom on the ground. Rules and laws fundamentally shape political struggles in general. And the rules regarding academic freedom, in particular, shape these political struggles.)

    In the middle of the discussion upthread, Robin Marie focuses on precisely what divides us. As she notes, my example of a Holocaust-denying 20th-century European historian is easy because it involves facts. The disagreement between us is largely over whether people should be fired for having the wrong values and expressing them in an extramural context. (As I note in my post, the AAUP guidelines are – rightly – much more restrictive about what kinds of in-class faculty speech receive protection.) Robin Marie thinks that what to do about the speech of people with terribly wrong values is a “conundrum.” And she provides a case in which she believes someone should be fired for beliefs they have that are not at all related to their academic specialty: a chemistry professor who professes support for racism and slavery. This is indeed where we disagree: I don’t think a university should be able to fire or sanction a chemistry professor who writes racist or even pro-slavery articles outside the university setting for expressing those views outside the university setting. There’s the disagreement. (As I say in my post, I think that a virulently racist chemistry professor who expresses or acts on his racism in the classroom can absolutely be sanctioned or even fired.)

    Affirming the principle that faculty should enjoy such broad protection from professional sanction for their extramural speech in no way commits us to a more general attitude of toleration toward views that we might find appalling or unjust. Such a principle does not free faculty from criticism or social activism against them — on or off campus – in response to their extramurally expressed views. Obviously, nothing that Robin Marie has said in this discussion would in any way be prohibited. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Robin Marie has never been in a position to fire or sanction faculty members, my guess is that nothing she has ever done would be prohibited by these content-neutral protections for extramural speech.

    One area of concern she raises in the discussion upthread is public shaming. I’m not a big fan of public shaming, but nothing in the AAUP guideline I discussed prohibits public shaming of faculty members for their extramural speech. Our commitment to defending faculty from professional sanction for their external speech regardless of the content of that speech does not in any way force us to think about all instances of faculty sanctioned in violation of these rules the same way. I believe that the First Amendment should have protected Margaret Sanger, Joseph Frederick, and the Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois. But I certainly don’t think these three cases were identical and I have very different feelings about Sanger, Frederick, and the Nazis.

    IF we were to get rid of content-neutral protections, we would have to immediately face the question of what kind of content should result in sanctions. Beyond giving a few examples of speech that she would punish, Robin Marie does not offer a clear answer to this question. She does suggest that she wants to limit speech that violates “basic” (her word) principles of social justice. But of course, everyone does not agree about what issues are basic in this way. A Catholic might believe that opposition to abortion and “artificial” forms of contraception is absolutely basic. Fundamentalist members of a number of religions might believe that opposition to equality for LGTB folks is an essential principle of the social good. Militant atheists might believe that the absolute exclusion of religion is essential.

    Robin Marie does provide a way to adjudicate these inevitable disagreements about which views should be beyond the pale: “however it would work, it would have to be a democratic process involving everyone in the relevant community.”

    Robin Marie adds: “If it helps you feel better, I think a just society would make sure no one was, as a consequence, unable to support themselves or their family. They should be provided for by the state or society, in fact, should they be unable to recover; they just wouldn’t be given a place of respect in public institutions.” This would only make me feel better if you would accept content-neutral protections for extramural speech until we set up such a society. And even if your new and improved illiberal university were put on hold until after the revolution, I’d still be against it.

    The reason is pretty simple: many of the things that people feel are fundamental and basic truths necessary for justice – such as a Catholic’s opposition to reproductive freedom or a conservative Evangelical’s opposition to gay marriage – I feel precisely the reverse about. Needless to say, white supremacists understand their white supremacy in precisely this way.

    Robin Marie’s democratic process raises a lot of questions. Are we talking an election, a jury trial, a consensus process or a version of classical Greek ostracism…or something else? And what is the “relevant community”? I think a very good case can be made that the relevant community to public institutions is the public that sponsors them, i.e. the citizens of Oklahoma in the case of the University of Oklahoma. Whatever democratic process we choose, the people that the citizens of Oklahoma would choose to vote off the island are not the people Robin Marie dreams of firing.

    Of course, all of this is very theoretical. This is not remotely the way universities work. Whether or not universities and colleges should be entirely democratic institutions, they are not. And as Robin Marie repeatedly reminds us in her post and comments, we must attend to the actual political struggles that have and will take place. Those struggles happen in colleges and universities in which decisions about hiring, firing, and sanctioning faculty are not remotely democratic. In the face of all the theoretical examples, it’s telling that the two real-world examples that have come up in this conversation of people sanctioned (I’m using that expression broadly) for their extramural speech – Steven Salaita and Laura Kipnis – are both cases in which both Robin Marie and I think that the universities in question acted unjustly. (Let me add: I am not here drawing any other similarities between these two cases. As Robin Marie notes, they are very different in important ways.)

    As I say in my original post, getting rid of content-neutral protections for extramural speech would, in practice in the real world, be horrible for the left. Robin Marie has never entirely tackled this problem. And unlike a world in which colleges and universities are truly public and democratically governed and everyone is guaranteed state support for themselves and their family, a world in which our undemocratic institutions of higher education effectively rid themselves of a commitment to content-neutral protections for extramural speech is possible, perhaps even likely, in the short run.

    Insisting on a commitment to content neutral protections for extramural speech is not only about the handful of cases in which faculty are sanctioned. It is also about the many, many other cases in which faculty silence themselves lest they open themselves up to firing. Though the AAUP statement deals with all faculty, we all know that, in practice the sort of protection I’ve been discussing applies largely to tenured and tenure-track faculty. This is a serious problem and extending these protections ought to be an object of social struggle. But we should not underestimate the importance of these principles for those that they currently cover.

    Let me give you a personal example. I was one of a small group of historians that founded Historians Against the War at the AHA meeting in January 2003. The US was about to invade Iraq, and a number of us — a small number at first — felt it important to raise our voices as historians against the upcoming war. That academic year, I also happened to be up for tenure at an institution, the University of Oklahoma, that was hardly noted for its anti-war views. Yet I felt – correctly it turns out – that my very public activism would not hurt my case for tenure. Had it not been for the broad acceptance of the AAUP’s standards for extramural speech, I would likely not have felt so secure and might not have stepped forward politically as I did. (Incidentally, I would most definitely have prudently silenced myself if I’d lived in a world in which the citizens of Oklahoma determined the acceptability of my extramural speech.)

    In the world in which we actually live, protecting our extramural statements, regardless of content, is vital for academic freedom, especially for those of us who care about political activism and especially for the left. There is, indeed, another world on the horizon. But the new world that threatens to dawn is not Robin Marie’s illiberal democracy (which itself does not seem very attractive to me). It is, instead, a world in which the social forces that currently dominate our universities and colleges solidify their dominance, further defund our once public institutions, and chip away at the remaining job protections that (some) faculty still enjoy. This is the new world that is being born in Wisconsin and Kansas and other state university systems around the country.

    I do not think Robin Marie is a Jacobin or Leninist at the gates of our institutions, pitchfork in hand (pardon the mixed metaphor). But if I did, I still wouldn’t be very scared of her. She is not the sort of person who is actually threatening our institutions by chipping away at academic freedom. Defending content-neutral protections for extramural statements is an absolutely necessary weapon in the fight against these real threats. My concern about Robin Marie’s view is that it amounts to a call for unilateral disarmament in the face of these actual threats.

  10. My reading of Robin’s essay—before the “controversy”—aligned with how she put it to Ben:
    “Because – and this was at the heart of my post – my argument was that the surrounding values and power arrangements of the broader society determine where those ‘extreme cases’ lie.”
    I thought this was a cool insight: not all academic freedom controversies are created equal. It’s a provocative angle to take—intended, I thought, less as policy prescription than as generative of critical thought.
    I think Robin is doing two things with this essay. The first is a general point about how debates over academic freedom are informed, often only implicitly, by political ideology and struggle. The controversy over Salaita’s firing suggests that declaring Israel a racist colonial oppressor is somehow in dispute—not taken as fact—in the way that condemning Jim Crow apartheid no longer is. Hence, she says, supporters of Salaita’s firing are annoyed that we do not equate anti-Zionism with bigotry.
    The second point concerns how to respond to speech “we” don’t like. Robins thinks some speech should be called out for being harmful and the speech-maker should be punished through exclusion. She points to our current intolerance for white supremacists as the rationale for this position. (I’m not sure her points about “liberals” and “liberalism” were necessary for making either the first or the second point. Indeed, judging from the responses, they may have detracted the essay’s main provocation, which was to raise the possibility of alternative responses to speech that we think is harmful.)
    The second point is far less developed than the first but has incited the most controversy (as these things tend to go, perhaps). Critics argue that Robin’s view will lead to the censorship of all dissenting views, on the left and the right. Indeed, at the end of her essay, Robin does seem to ask her readers to choose (or at least consider) how they support a professor fired over speech. She at least implies that one way will lead to a more just outcome. Namely, she asks us to support Salaita because we support the cause of Palestinian rights and not (only or simply or at all?) because we support academic freedom.
    That strikes me as a false choice (if I read her correctly) and tactically the weaker of the two options (if the aim is to restore Salaita’s tenured employment and protect dissenting speech). I think we can do both. We can acknowledge the politics of Salaita’s firing—that we still have a long way to go before the majority accepts the righteousness of the Palestinian cause—and support the academic freedom of professors. In the case of the First Amendment, there is a real danger in abandoning freedom of speech as the grounds for mobilization and collective organizing—especially for the Left—because the powerful players, who mete out the punishments, do ultimately get to decide what is and isn’t acceptable speech. Their decisions can have the effect of ending discussion—or at least making it futile in that the space for organizing and activism becomes fatally narrowed.
    That said, I appreciate the provocation to consider more deliberately (and not simply notice) the wider field of political struggle in which controversies over speech unfold—and I took Robin’s essay as striving to do precisely that.

  11. To Ben and Alex, thank your for these clarifying comments.

    Since I think you both laid out the differences here well, I only have one or two things to respond to.

    First, I agree Ben that right now, it is best not to tinker with content-neutral academic freedom. For all the political reasons you laid out, that would be very dangerous. But at the same time, I think it is important to future political possibilities that we our honest with ourselves that, as Eran put it above, academic freedom is not an endless tool or value in itself, but one of many strategies and tools to be applied in a given historical, political context. Our current historical, political context is not a right time to tinker with it; as I said in my original reply to this comment, it is working well at the moment and because neoliberalism is ascendent, it would be very dangerous to dilute it now.

    You are right though that you probably wouldn’t want to live in a future illiberal democracy where something looking slightly different would be functioning — that is ok, I think that gets us to the heart of our differences and as long as they are clearly understood, we’ve made progress!

    And to Alex, I don’t think it is an either/or — you are right, you could support Salaita on either count, and should. What my essay was about, however, is how liberalism sometimes makes it difficult for those who want to focus on the political to focus on the political — and they want to do that so that the battle can be had, rather than pushed to the side. But nonetheless, it’s still going on, even if the spotlight isn’t on it; and I think it valuable to recognize this.

    Again, thanks!

    • Edits: thank you for these clarifying comments — that we are honest with ourselves — and perhaps, per Alex’s suggestion, it would be more constructive to say that the discourse around academic freedom sometimes makes it difficult for those who want to focus on the political to focus on the political, rather than liberalism itself, which is a complex and multiple-versions thing.

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