Rarely have I read anything on the Chronicle of Higher Education website quite so repulsive as the blog by Diane Auer Jones demanding the firing of New York University professor Andrew Ross on grounds of “educational malpractice” for encouraging students to join the Occupy Student Loan movement.
Incredibly, the video of Ross at Occupy Wall Street linked to by Jones contains nothing about her key charge against him of “encouragement of students to default on their loans.” But let’s assume that a more competent critic could actually prove that Ross is guilty of such a statement. Would that justify his firing from NYU (and, one presumes, his banishment from the entire academic profession)? Absolutely not.
Jones claims, “Academic freedom does not give Dr. Ross the right to knowingly advise students to do something that will harm them for years to come, and that violates a legal contract between the borrower and ultimately the federal government.” Actually, that’s exactly what academic freedom does. The right to encourage others to do things that someone else thinks is harmful is fundamental to the First Amendment. The fact that Jones wanted to define a professor’s actions outside the classroom as “educational malpractice” simply because she dislikes them is appalling.
Ross may be wrong to urge students to take personal action against educational debt, but that’s what academic freedom is meant to protect: the right to argue about public policy issues, and the right to encourage political action.
In an earlier era, a person like Jones would have urged the firing of radical professors during the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War on the grounds that encouraging students to get arrested was intentionally causing harm to them. That repressive view was despicable then, and it’s still despicable.
Since refusing to pay student debt is not (yet) a crime, Ross’ alleged recommendations are even more benign. Indeed, the worst thing I can say about encouraging nonpayment of student debt (if Ross ever urged it) is that it’s a highly ineffective form of protest unlikely to bring about necessary reform to the student debt system.
It should not surprise us that someone like Jones with such a thorough hatred of academic freedom was U.S. assistant secretary of postsecondary education under George W. Bush. But the fact that Jones is now vice president for external and regulatory affairs for the for-profit Career Education Corporation (CEC) raises another question: are faculty at the CEC free to express themselves without fear of being fired if they question conservative views about student debt? Considering that Jones obviously has no conception of what academic freedom or educational malpractice means, it raises disturbing questions about whether academic freedom exists at CEC.