On Thursday, the UC Davis Faculty Association hosted a public talk on academic freedom – a timely topic at UC Davis, given calls by the some legislators and community members to fire a tenured faculty member for statements made several years ago over Twitter.
The talk featured Henry Reichman, a History Professor Emeritus, at CSU East Bay, and Joan Wallach Scott, Professor Emerita, School of Social Science, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Reading from the preface of his book, Professor Reichman explained, “Academic Freedom is not just a job perk, it’s the philosophical key to the whole enterprise of higher education.”
Academic freedom, he explained, “encompasses three fundamental freedoms to which college and university faculty members should be entitled: freedom in research and in the publication of results; freedom in the classroom and in discussion of their subjects; and freedom to speak or write freely as ‘citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution’ on matters of public or institutional concerns.”
He explained that tenure which is “dismissal only for cause” derives “from the need to protect academic freedom.”
Professor Reichman said that following the 2016 election, “Academic freedom has come under a renewed assault” and, as a result, ‘There is growing interest… in understanding the challenges of the current environment.”
In his book, he provided three examples, of which he highlighted two in his talk.
On September 7, 2016, Nathaniel Bork, a part-time philosophy professor at the community college in Aurora, near Denver, drafted a letter expressing concern about a new curricula imposed on the faculty “which he believed was watered down and not appropriate for a college course.”
Six days later, on September 13, “he was summarily dismissed from his position.”
The claim by the college: “A routine, coincidentally timed, classroom observation revealed structural deficiencies so severe that they necessitated Bork’s immediate removal.”
AAUP (American Association of University Professors) investigated the incident and concluded that the official explanation “strains credulity.” Instead, they found that Mr. Bork “had received numerous stellar evaluations from peers and students alike.”
However, because he was a part-time adjunct and thus off the tenure track, he had no access to a grievance procedure at all. The AAUP investigation found “a total lack of due process” for the school’s part-time adjuncts – which constitutes about 80 percent of its faculty.
The second example occurred in September 2017, when Johnny Williams, a tenured professor at Trinity College in Hartford, posted an online response to a police shooting.
He said, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to what people who believe themselves to be white will not do, put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”
He also included a hashtag: “that some believe advocated violence.”
The post was quickly picked up by “Campus Reform” – “a right wing website that monitors faculty expression.” From there it was spread to other outlets.
Within hours of this post, Professor Williams and his family had received multiple death threats. Trinity administers closed the campus for half a day, and two Republican legislators called on the college to “immediately and permanently remove Mr. Williams from the ranks of the school’s facilities.”
He was placed on involuntary leave, “failing even to speak to him in advance.” Only after pressure from AAUP did the school acknowledge “that a faculty member’s expression as a citizen is protected by academic freedom.”
While they acknowledged that he had the right to say this, “for his own protection, they had him teach the rest of the quarter online.”
Professor Reichman noted that while there has been much attention, especially in conservative circles, to the fact that conservative students are isolated and vulnerable members of the campus community, he argued this is “highly exaggerated at best.”
He said what is not mentioned in these narratives is the threats to hundreds of faculty members across the country who have their lectures recorded by students, posted on social media, and deemed by people on the right to being inappropriate and objectionable.
Many of these attacks are on vulnerable populations: minorities, women, and LGBTQ people.
He said, “It is not just the danger to them and the misery that has been brought to their lives, but the chilling effect on all other faculty at the university.”
Joan Wallach Scott read from the introduction to her book, “Academic Freedom is an ideal, an aspiration.”
She noted it was “a startling paradox” because “reference to it is usually motivated by its absence.”
She said, “Academic freedom… rarely names or refers to an existing state of things, rather it is always a normative ideal called up precisely at moments when it is lacking or appears to be under threat.
“Yet the ideal of academic freedom is crucial to our conceptions of the university,” she explained.
The notion is “inherently problematic,” “because it is traversed by contradiction. Free inquiry is essential to its definition but it is inquiry controlled and legitimated by disciplinary authority.”
Professor Scott says that “this is not a democratic process because it rests on the expertise of researchers and teachers.” Likewise, “The university is not a marketplace of ideas, in the sense that any opinion is worth hearing, it’s rather a place in which one voluntarily subjects one’s own speech to the rules of some sort of truth procedure.”
Academic freedom she calls “a negative concept that causes truth seeking by credentialed scholars free of interference from external powers,” but at the same time “it’s also a positive concept.”
Like Professor Reichman, she noted that teachers have the right to express political views outside the classroom. But that right has come repeatedly under threat. She noted that during the McCarthy era, hundreds of teachers were interrogated about their political beliefs and summarily fired.
“In the 1990s, political correctness was the term used by conservative critics in the university to attack the results of affirmative action and subsequent increased diversity of students, faculty curriculum,” she explained. “Academic freedom has come to the fore in the 21st century, as right wing groups have intensified their assaults on the university as a place of critical inquiry.”
She noted, “These attacks have been underwritten by a well-oiled propaganda machine funded by right wing individuals and foundations.”
She said, “They’re determined to undermine the critical thinking and intense debate long associated with university education and replace it with an exclusive emphasis on civility, conservative pedagogy, and vocational training.”
Professor Scott said, “The election of Donald Trump invigorated these groups and with his anti-elitist, anti-intellectual and white supremacist bias, gave political backing to them in the form of administrative orders and cabinet appointments.”
In his conclusion, Professor Reichman quoted another professor in stating, “Higher education is one of the great counterbalances to government in a free society. But that balance only works through the free and frequent exercise of the muscle of our vision.
“We are the stewards of democracy’s brain, the guarantors of informed citizen voices.”
He added, “Lilliputian bureaucracies will certainly always try to tie down our free sails, as we venture into uncharted waters – whether condemning a speaker, or forbidding a play, or investigating a scholar. Our stewardship… all stewards of higher institutions must do its work, uninhibited, and unintimidated. Our stewardship requires us to swing mighty axes against the restraints that compromise our ability to conduct research freely and publicly whatever we choose, teach as we must, and speak openly without fear.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting