Academic freedom, rightly understood, is necessary for the function of a university. As investigators, professors must be able to question claims made by conventional wisdom in order to determine the truths behind those claims. They must be free to ask questions without fear of retaliation.
This academic freedom, however, has been replaced by a freedom to say whatever one wants without consequences. This view has come to weaken the idea of academic freedom, as well as undermine the very nature of academic work.
The controversy surrounding Ward Churchill’s comments is an excellent example of the cheapening of the idea of academic freedom. After writing an essay entitled “Some People Push Back,” in which he calls the victims of the World Trade Center attack “little Eichmanns,” and describes Americans in general as alternately stupid, bloodthirsty and habitual war criminals, Churchill was surprised to find that there were some who did not take that comparison kindly. Due to his comments, public outrage has ensued, and many universities have already dropped him like a bad habit, canceling his speaking engagements and lecture tours.
All this is understandable, given the extreme stupidity of his statements. It is readily apparent that he is a fraud on numerous levels, from his false claims of Indian ancestry to his shoddy scholarship (to put it politely). Under a responsible model of academic freedom, Churchill would have been allowed to have his say, and then have his ideas shredded by his peers.
However, to the academic set, investigation is not a necessary purge of incompetent scholarship, but a dangerous assault on free speech. Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors in Washington was quoted as saying, “we have never been free of the issue of professors coming under intense scrutiny or attack for having written something somebody finds utterly loathsome,” as if questioning professors on what they say and write is entirely inappropriate.
Even the universities who have slammed their doors shut in Churchill’s face find a way to make it appear that they are not doing so to punish Churchill. Both the University of Oregon and University of Washington at Whitewater, which later recanted and allowed Churchill to speak, cited concerns for Churchill’s safety in their decision to cancel his speeches. Even Jack Miller, Chancellor of UW Whitewater, called his own decision to readmit Churchill “repugnant,” but decided to “side with First Amendment principles.”
Robbed of the context of their responsibilities to truth and fact, this devotion on the part of academics to defend free speech might appear noble. But on further examination, this nobility is marred by the rank fumes of hypocrisy. As Harvard President Lawrence Summers discovered, academic freedom does not extend to those who question the prevailing liberal viewpoint.
Summers commented, based on current scholarship, that women might not be as likely as men to succeed at math and science due to innate biological differences. Instead of cheers for his ability to question prevailing attitudes, he was excoriated and forced to renounce his views and apologize three times. Any conservative student who has dared to speak out against a liberal professor can readily sympathize with him.
This desire to stifle ideas which do not square with contemporary academic thinking is anathema to the idea of academic freedom. Yet it is a direct consequence of the corruption of that freedom. By deemphasizing the necessity of intellectual rigor, it makes scholarship a purely partisan affair. The result is intellectual bankruptcy as scholars attempt to justify their harsh treatment of their opponents while protecting from assault their ideological brethren.
The current idea of academic freedom is a one-way street, but it leads to a dead end. Professors are betraying the purpose of the university by simultaneously abdicating their responsibility to critically review their colleagues’ work and by dismissing out of hand dissenting viewpoints. Professors are given ample freedom in this country to explore new ideas and to push back the threshold of human knowledge. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. With the Colorado legislature looking to intervene in the Churchill case, professors may find that if they do not execute more conscientiously their responsibilities, they may find themselves bereft of their freedom before long.
Sean Paroski is a senior applied mathematics major.