Is Academic Freedom for Sale in Michigan?

Before departing for their two week break, Michigan’s House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education issued a group of policy recommendations tied to new funding. One recommendation in particular, tries to force public universities to sell their academic freedom or risk losing new state money. Section 273a threatens the state appropriations of any Michigan public university that ”collaborates” with any  “nonprofit worker center”. Mind you, the legislature has yet to define either term.

The recommendation reads:

Sec. 273a. It is the intent of the legislature that a public university that receives funds in section 236 shall not collaborate in any manner with a nonprofit worker center whose documented activities include coercion through protest, demonstration, or organization against a Michigan business.

The proposed language is broad and could prevent public universities from partnering with any non-profit organization that engages in public outreach. This kind of heavy-handed and clumsy policy recommendation represents direct interference by the legislature in the university curriculum and should not be tolerated. Plus it has all the markings of a special interest attack on university autonomy. In an interview with the Lansing Journal, State Representative Joan Bauer agrees.

“My biggest concern with this budget and this language is that not only are universities autonomous by the constitution, but now the Legislature is beginning to pick at the things they don’t like that are going on, one-incident things,” she said, “and addressing them in ways that might have unforeseen consequences.”

Scholars across the country have begun to respond. Todd Gitlin, a Brainstorm blogger with the Chronicle of Higher Education published a post entitled “The Demeaning of Academic Freedom in Michigan”. The same day, April 15th, AAUP President Cary Nelson released the following statement entitled “Michigan’s Folly”:

Should Michigan residents be concerned that the state’s legislators will enact legislation denying public university students their academic freedom? That’s exactly what will happen if the state’s higher education appropriations bill includes section 273a, which prohibits Michigan universities from having any working relationship with a potentially very broad range of civic, religious, and public advocacy groups in the state.

The issue is whether students can freely choose from among a wide variety of employers to gain work experience with while in college, or whether the employers will have to pass a political litmus test. One thing is absolutely clear: hands-on work experience while in college is the single best way of finding out whether you want to make a given industry, business, or nonprofit agency your life’s work. No classroom, no matter how good, can replace actual workplace experience. That’s the single best way to learn what work you love and what work you do not enjoy.

I worked as an assistant teacher in a fifth grade class in Harlem while in college and learned that education is the best way to escape poverty and discrimination. That conviction has stayed with me for fifty years. I also worked in an office from 9 to 5 another semester and absolutely hated it.
While working at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland I advocated for federal prisoners there who were the subjects of medical experiments in the days before informed consent. The Michigan law would prohibit that. On another job I protested corporal punishment in New York schools. That too would have been unacceptable under the Michigan law.

Students need the academic freedom to choose the work experiences that best match their interests. Faculty members need the academic freedom to share their expertise with students when they advise them about possible work experiences. Universities need the academic freedom to set up work opportunities with all kinds of businesses and agencies—without political restrictions imposed by the state.

Section 273 should be soundly defeated.

The AAUP has long held that academic freedom is essential to the mission of the academy. In order to maintain the quality and integrity of higher education in Michigan and beyond, we must defend academic freedom and the independence of our institutions from the whims of special interests.

Neither academic freedom, nor the independence of our universities, should ever go on sale; no matter how badly they need the money.

2 thoughts on “Is Academic Freedom for Sale in Michigan?

  1. Given the fact that college students have played a large role in political change in the past, through “protest, demonstration and organization”, this seems to be but another to limit civil rights, control “the mob” and keep the citizens of this state under thumb.

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