Academic Freedom Seen as Imperiled on College Campuses Today

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Henry Reichman, History Professor Emeritus, CSU East Bay

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 Scott, Professor Emerita, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ

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


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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31 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Seen as Imperiled on College Campuses Today”

  1. Ron Oertel

    Just wondering if it’s “academic freedom” for a son or daughter of law-enforcement personnel to possibly be in a position in which they must take a class from someone advocating for the killing of police, in order to complete their degree.

    Is “academic freedom” primarily intended for the benefit of students, or faculty? And, if professors are freely and openly demonstrating and imparting their biases (whatever they may be), does that in fact have a “chilling effect” on academic freedom for students who are being graded by those same professors?

  2. Edgar Wai

    Was there a discussion that followed? What did people ask?

    What I understood from this active is that academic freedom protects faculty from being fired by their university employer to avoid those in power erasing a certain political viewpoint from public university.

    Outside employment by the university, academic freedom offers no other protection.

    Re: Ron

    I doubt the professor associates a student’s grade to their believes. A student could understand a subject without subscribing to it.

    Questions I wonder:

    1. When does an expression stop being a political statement but a threat or an attempt to cause harm? Is a group that urges people to kill each other just a “political group”? As long as they only talk about it?

    2. Is there a better way to handle academic freedom?

    3. Are there ways to discuss varying viewpoint but still maintain a level of civility and conduct? The people could protect the content of a viewpoint, but not necessarily the manner in which the viewpoint is delivered.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Edgar:  “I doubt the professor associates a student’s grade to their believes.”

      Again, I’d ask if this leads to a situation in which students are (at the least) not comfortable in sharing their own beliefs and values (e.g., for more subjective topics).

      Seems to me that there’s a difference between advocating for something, vs. presenting it.

  3. Ron Oertel

    Edgar: “What I understood from this active is that academic freedom protects faculty from being fired by their university employer to avoid those in power erasing a certain political viewpoint from public university.”

    If a prospective professor has views that are different from “the norm”, might they perceive a hostile work environment if others are primarily and openly espousing “the norm”? Ultimately leading to the very situation that you described?

    Regardless, I’m still wondering why “academic freedom” seems to be primarily focused on protecting professors, vs. students. Who are universities supposed to be serving?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Part of the problem is that once you introduce subjective standards, like “outside the norm” you end up making judgment calls and so you could end up with a situation where a faculty member gets fired for disagreeing with the chancellor on land use policy – for example. That’s why they put protections into place that probably adhere to constitutional protections as well, that faculty can’t be terminated for statements outside work.

      1. Ron Oertel

        It’s not necessarily a question of defining “the norm”.  It’s more of a question of “freedom” to espouse whatever opinion one might have, and its impact on others (including students, other professors, etc.).

        Perhaps a reason that this freedom is curtailed (if not outright prohibited) at other workplaces. Sometimes even if such statements are made during non-working hours.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          It’s defining a standard by which you can terminate or sanction someone for saying something that the an individual leader or the institution doesn’t like.

        2. Ron Oertel

          David:  Yes, it can ultimately lead to that.  But, that’s what (can) occur in just about every other employment venue that I can think of.

          In a practical sense, most working folks are not completely free to enjoy all of the protections offered by the constitution.

      2. Rik Keller

        David Greenwald said “A faculty member… disagreeing with the chancellor on land use policy…”

        Wherever could you have come up with that example?

        In other words, “That’s some nice academic freedom you have. It would be a shame if anything happened to it…”

    2. Edgar Wai

      My question to you is this:

      Suppose the people funds university through tax, and the people can directly remove a professor from such university by a majority vote, is there any problem? The reason of removal (by each individual voter) could be irrelevant.

      In my understanding, professor Clover teaches English. His political views should be a non-issue unless he brings it up in an English class and robs class time from actually teaching English.

      I think if there is a way for the voters to directly fire any government paid position we could solve a lot of problems. But we need a wait list so that there is a replacement ready to take the position.

      In this age, I don’t think we really need the university to flagship freedom of expression. We have the internet. People are free to say what they want in their own ways.

      1. Ron Oertel

        “We have the internet. People are free to say what they want in their own ways.”

        They are, and there’s often employment consequences when doing so.  Perhaps a reason that some wiser folks no longer comment on here, since the ID policy was changed. 🙂

        Again, I can’t imagine that sons or daughters of law enforcement personnel would be comfortable about having to take a class from someone advocating for the killing of police officers (for example), even if such statements were made privately.

      2. David Greenwald Post author

        You’re missing a very critical point here Edgar. The professor in some hot water made his comments on Twitter. The question has then become should he have to pay the price for those comments. That determination is made by his employer – the university. That puts the university at the forefront of this battle whether you like it or not.

        1. Edgar Wai

          I think my point is the academic setting should provide no further protection than what a private employer provides. The difference is that for a public funded university, the “employer” is technically the people. Therefore, if a private employer could fire someone for their comments made outside or inside work for creating a hostile work environment, the people could do the same.

          In my opinion, (and I don’t know the whole scope of what Professor Clover did), if he only twitted online about killing the police, the content of his twit would inadvertently introduce threat and violence to the workplace because the content of the speech was violence.

          He could have said that, “I want the police to sympathize with black people getting killed due to their tactics, which puts more emphasis on allowing the police to shoot than to prevent shootings. There are ways to get things done without putting the officers or the people in dangerous situations, as a community we need to look into that.”

          Civility is not a belief to use laws to force others to accept whatever is said. Civility is to do things in ways that others would accept, so that people can become closer, so every bit of energy spend is in building the community.

          I am not faulting the university for not firing the professor. To me, it would be okay if people learn what civility means from this episode and concentrate on bettering themselves and building the community instead of finding ways to fire people.

          When one person in a community turns into a bad example that is not removed does the community end up having more bad examples copying that one, or does the community end up having a lot more good examples to counter the bad example? If we just remove the bad example, we lost a training ground to train what it means to be good.

          If you found radioactive material, and you know that your community can contain it, then you step up to contain it, right? You don’t dump it to your neighbor or let others pick it up to make a weapon out of it.

      3. Rik Keller

        Edgar Wai said “Suppose the people funds university through tax, and the people can directly remove a professor from such university by a majority vote, is there any problem?”

        Other then completely undermining tenure and academic freedom, you mean?

        1. Edgar Wai

          As of now I don’t see the point of tenure and academic freedom. It seems like some type of systemic cancer.

          This Rationale section in Wikipedia:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_freedom#Rationale

          “Proponents of academic freedom believe that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy. They argue that academic communities are repeatedly targeted for repression due to their ability to shape and control the flow of information. When scholars attempt to teach or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities, they may find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death. For example, in North Africa, a professor of public health discovered that his country’s infant mortality rate was higher than government figures indicated. He lost his job and was imprisoned.”

          Such situation would happen because a few (University administrators) get to fire the professor for a view that the few (administrators) did not like. What I was suggesting is that if the decision to fire is not in the hands of a few but directly in the hands of the tax player, then there is “middleman” to hurt free speech.

          If there is no middleman, then why is it necessary to have tenure? Even without tenure, a good professor will be keep because they are good (as defined by the people). In a system without a middleman, tenure would only keep a bad professor in position, forcing the tax paying to continual fund a position that is no longer endorsed or supported by the public.

        2. Rik Keller

          Edgar Wai said “I don’t see the point of tenure and academic freedom. It seems like some type of systemic cancer.”

          it sounds like you should have gone to the event.

        3. Edgar Wai

          Tenure exists because there is an unjust middleman (administrator) that could remove the professor from public funding. My premise is that if there is no such administrator, then there is no reason to have tenure. In a democracy, the meaning of justice is variable. If you short-circuit and allow the populace to directly choose who they fund or who they fire, then the people should be able to fire the professor by a vote.

          Freedom of speech should be universal regardless of one’s profession. What makes it so special about someone being a professor? If a person worked in any other government or publicly funded position, but discovers some kind of political wrong doing or inefficiencies, why does that person deserve less protection? Do professors really think that people of other professions are not thinking. Shouldn’t their experience be even more relevant and credible because they are the actual boots on the ground?

          Why does the title of a speaker deserves more protection from their publicly funded employer? The merit of a message should be judged by its content, not its speaker.

        4. Rik Keller

          So, Edgar, you didn’t actually read the parts about tenure and academic freedom being the underpinning of the university?

          And how does your ridiculous notion of submitting employment decisions to popular vote protect academic freedom?

        5. Edgar Wai

          Rik, I think we are not communicating because you think that I am talking about an immediate future, but I am talking about a longer time frame. The concept of academic freedom is becoming and will be an obsolete concept. It adds nothing to a society when the bar to research and distribute ideas becomes lower and lower, and people are generally free to say and explore what they want already. The only thing left from tenure will be the liability that the tax payers are on a hook continually funding a professor that they would not have hired if they knew the professor would behave in such a way.

          People are inherently free to do whatever they want (be it speech, research, publication). That freedom is not limited to the academia. The topic of academic freedom becomes a topic because there exists an entity that can forbid someone from doing their research, publication, speech, etc.

          Now, if we focus on the entity that forbids, the only questions remaining are:

          1) Given an instant when the entity forbids something, is the decision to forbid a just decision?
          2) Who decides whether a decision is just?
          3) Who has the authority to dictate how a person should spend their money?

  4. Alan Miller

    You all keep mentioning Edgar.  Did this stupid “blocking” thing kick in for me again?  I don’t see his comments.  Would you please fix this AGAIN.  It’s too easy to hit that button accidentally, no way to see who you have accidentally blocked, and no way to fix it.  Is it even necessary as a feature anymore?  It was always a bad idea, as anyone could skip anyone’s posts.

  5. Alan Miller

    “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.”

    I hope he was fired for the murder of the English language.

  6. Alan Miller

    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.

    What a limp, back-door way to finally bring up the topic of Joshua Clover.  And I call BS on the “several years ago” cop out (pun intended):  Joshua Clover may have made those comments years ago, but when asked about them recently, he didn’t say they were metaphorical, or explain, or put them in context, or apologize . . . he doubled down.

    So the U says police aren’t a ‘protected group’, so there is nothing they can do.  Are “Mrak Hall Administrators” a protected group?  What if Clover called for the murder of Mrak Hall Administrators rather than cops?  Shoot them in the back, as he called for for cops.  Would that be OK with Mrak Hall?  Just wondering.

    I was all for Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at UC Davis.  And I was in favor of students protesting his visit — but not to the point of blocking his ability to speak.  Freedom of speech, baby!  Both sides.  Conservative and liberal, and freaks like me who identify with neither.  You do note that the only freedoms called for in this article were all of liberal causes, right?

    I’m all for academic freedom; I’m all for freedom of speech, as long as that means everyone.  However, calling for violence, for murder, is a step too far .  Maybe Mrak Hall can’t do anything about it, but we can do something.  I am giving ZERO to UC Davis in their ‘giving drive’, and I am letting them know that and why, and I am encouraging all others who feel as I do to do the same.  Doing my part for crippling UC Davis for their refusal to fire those who advocate for murder.  If that makes me against freedom of speech in your opinion, go ahead and paint me with your brush.

    What a wonderful town we live in.  We have an Imam who called for the murder of all Jews, every single one, and he is still there, and that’s just fallen off the civic radar; and now we have a University professor who calls for the murder of all cops.  What a wonderful, F—KING tolerant town we live in.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Just to point out – Josh Clover was never mentioned during the forum. I simply referenced it as a way to make the issues a bit more live.

    2. Edgar Wai

      Not sure if Alan can read my comments.

      “he didn’t say they were metaphorical, or explain, or put them in context, or apologize . . . he doubled down.”

      Clover said he would have a statement when police fears professors. Depending on the meaning of “statement”, this could be interpreted as him saying, “I shall shut up now.”

    3. Edgar Wai

      ” I am giving ZERO to UC Davis in their ‘giving drive’, and I am letting them know that and why, and I am encouraging all others who feel as I do to do the same.  Doing my part for crippling UC Davis for their refusal to fire those who advocate for murder.”

      The chancellor already condemned Clover, but the legal team said UC cannot fire the professor. Is the chancellor doing something wrong?

      https://www.thefire.org/university-of-california-davis-rejects-legislators-push-for-termination-of-professor-for-years-old-tweets-about-police/

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