Gaming Academic Freedom

Last week, at a meeting of the Academic Freedom Committee of the Professional Staff Congress (the CUNY faculty union), the name Anita Sarkeesian came up. Though she is not an academic (in the sense of being employed by a college or university), she felt forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University due to threats against her life and the inability of campus security to provide adequate protection (they could not prohibit guns in the room). Sarkeesian is a blogger and videographer dedicated to critical examination of depictions of women in popular culture. The reason for the harassment is distressingly simple: Sarkeesian want to move culture, and video-gaming culture in particular, from its mindless misogyny into inclusive mind-sets. She gave a talk in September:

Over 20 minutes, she coolly analyzed the strategies that trolls have used to harass her, rooting their fears in a gaming culture that is slowly changing to improve the depiction of women. “The perpetrators do not see themselves as perpetrators at all,” she said. “They see themselves as noble warriors.” To preserve that view, she said, they deny that women are being threatened at all. “We are blamed for the abuse we receive and regularly told that we are either asking for it or inventing it entirely,” she said.

This fits a pattern of attack that is also used against academics (just look at David Horowitz and ACTA’s Anne Neal) and in a great deal of contemporary American politics where the attackers see themselves as victims. It also shows why, even though Academic Freedom is a compact between universities and their faculties, the concept needs to be extended much further into the culture by those of us who are vigorous supporters of it on campus.

Such an extension has been something I’ve long been hesitant to argue for. After all, it can be (and has been) used as a means, paradoxically, for limiting academic freedom or, at least, debate. This seemed to be the point of David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom, where student academic freedom is seen as protection against the views of professors. As I said some years ago:

Giving students the same rights of academic freedom as professors places them on an intellectual plain equal to their professors but without having to prove themselves. This makes any control of the discussion by the professor rather more difficult than it should be, taking everything back to what are really foundational arguments that, often, distract from the purpose of the particular course. By the same token, giving student the same measure of academic freedom makes student ideas and beliefs, which can come from any source imaginable and needn’t have any basis, the equals of those of their professors, who have to work much more carefully and in a peer-review structure. In the classroom, student views most distinctly are not the equal of professors’—nor can they be. To avoid chaos, students must generally accept the authority of the professor in the proscribed subject matter for at least the course of the semester. The teacher, for pedagogical purposes, may open the class up to debate and discussion, but the limits are defined by the instructor. Real academic freedom, in other words, does not and cannot apply to the student in the classroom—narrowly defined within a limited temporal and spatial framework.

Horowitz was gaming Academic Freedom, using it to try to make “belief” the equal of “knowledge” as a means for limiting the influence of what he sees as the left-wing indoctrinarians of the ivory towers. Like the people attacking Sarkeesian, he sees himself as a “noble warrior” using any means necessary to combat a threat that he has, in fact, created all on his own.

“Belief,” however, is not “knowledge,” for it is extremely defensive and even violent when its veracity is challenged. “Knowledge” encourages challenge and constantly evolves. Unlike “belief,” it does not consider itself an absolute.

And, because it is not adamant in its own defense but prefers challenge, response, and revision, “knowledge” needs something to block for it, to stop it from being knocked down by the arrogance of “belief.” Academic Freedom is just such a blocker.

Why should that be limited only to academics? Why shouldn’t Academic Freedom be extended as a principle, not as a simple compact, one that covers all who pursue knowledge even at the expense of belief? My mistake in the past was to imagine, with Horowitz, that “belief” and “knowledge,” in terms of Academic Freedom, could be considered at the same time and in the same frame. Horowitz conflates them as a means for attacking American higher education, an institution that he feels has rejected him–and that has done so ever since his leftist days of the sixties. An institution that he has hated for decades. Letting myself be drawn into a discussion he had begun, I struggled to change the terms as he had defined them. He wanted to expand the definition of Academic Freedom to include students; in response and to protect the concept, I wanted to limit it to its original intent as a protection for faculty only.

That may be understandable, but it is really too limiting, as the Sarkeesian case shows us.

Today, in The New York Times, Chris Suellentrop writes about GamerGate, an “inchoate but effective online movement” that “uses the phrase ‘social justice warriors’ to describe the game designers, journalists and critics who, among other alleged sins, desire to see more (and more realistic) representations of women and minorities.” Sarkeesian has been but one of its victims.

If we in academia truly believe in the principles behind Academic Freedom, if we support the compact with our institutions because of a real commitment to the basic needs of scientific and intellectual investigation and exploration, we should never limit (as I did) our support of Academic Freedom to the faculty. Sarkeesian came up at the PSC committee meeting because the threat to her concerned an activity on campus. Thinking about that since, and thinking about Suellentrop’s column, I have decided that I have been wrong not to see Academic Freedom as simply one facet of a broader freedom of inquiry and expression, an expression of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech, something much greater than a simple (though necessary) prerogative of those within the walls of academe.


15 thoughts on “Gaming Academic Freedom

  1. I wish knowledge could have primacy over belief. We are losing ground on this score, given the state of journalism and the preponderance of PR (and the failure of the education system?) But in practical terms, what would it mean for the AAUP to support academic freedom outside colleges? Or do you just want to remain in a university context. What can AAUP members be counted on to support?

    • Edward, I wish I could answer your questions, but I just don’t know, not at this point. I can’t speak for the organization, but I think that I, personally, have to be more aware of and more reactive to attacks on people that are meant to abridge their quests for knowledge and to increase the knowledge of others.

  2. In this year of the centennial, it might be worthwhile for all AAUP’ers to engage in further reading on the history of academic freedom in America, and its legacy from and relationship to German concepts and practices — perhaps from a law article or two by Walter Metzger, for example, rather than David Horowitz.

    Lehrfreiheitt and Lernfreiheit are not the same. And the legal definitions of academic freedom are generally not subject to poetic license.


    • Agreed. I think we do concentrate too much on the history in America, forgetting Germany, which has an older history of academic freedom. In the past, I have not liked the way some conflate Academic Freedom with Freedom of Speech. Now, I am not so sure I was right. My views are changing… and I want to do a great deal more thinking and reading before I’m willing to adamantly present a new position.

      • The point is that if one wants to define a “new” academic freedom, then one must not assume that this “new” idea has any protection from the courts or contract law. It’s as simple and as profound as that.

        The AAUP began as a professional organization and its concerns are those of the profession. The gravitas of the AAUP came from it core principles which have been agreed upon by the profession and, in many cases, buttressed by the courts for nearly a century. One way to undermine the value of an AAUP Committee A investigation is to start “inventing” new concepts based on the semantic fields of the words “academic” and “freedom” and then setting up the organization as the policing agent for what are not “standard” definitions.

        But then again, the AAUP leadership of the past quarter century has been so self-absorbed and organizationally undemocratic that the AAUP’s gravitas has already been publicly challenged and undermined in ways that were actually unthinkable a half century ago. When one finds that the arguments of a university against the “standing” of AAUP for a Committee A investigation have some merit based on the novel actions of the leadership, then one realizes that the legacy of Dewey and Lovejoy has been squandered. And once that horse has been let out of the barn, it’ll be a devil of a time getting it back.

        • I don’t want to define a “new” anything, simply for us in academia to recognize that there are needs for protections like Academic Freedom beyond the ivory towers. That protection comes, for the most part, through public protest when someone’s freedom of inquiry is abridged. This has nothing to do with the AAUP as an organization but with how members of the faculty might best react to situations outside of our institutions.

  3. Since I’m defending my dissertation on the history of academic freedom in America tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot. I’m perfectly happy to define a “new” version of academic freedom because there’s a lot of flaws in “old” versions of academic freedom. The AAUP’s definition of academic freedom has been changing and evolving for a century, and the advocates of “old” versions are actually calling for change by taking us back to outmoded ideas about academic freedom.

    I don’t think the German approach is particularly fruitful because “Lehrfreiheit” (freedom to teach) was sharply limited (it did not include the right to criticize the government, for example), and “Lernfreiheit” (freedom to learn) referred to the freedom of students to select courses and choose not to attend class, not to today’s notions of freedom of speech for students.

    I do disagree with Aaron on the question of whether students have academic freedom. Just because David Horowitz consciously abuses the idea in an attempt to restrict the academic freedom of professors doesn’t mean that it’s inherently a bad concept. The problem is how Horowitz defines academic freedom (to require suppression of controversial views), not that he applies it to students. Imagine the hypothetical case of a professor banning students from expressing opinions contrary to the professor’s views, and it’s pretty clear that students should have academic freedom.

    I agree with Aaron on the idea that academic freedom (and academic tenure) is a good model for many other jobs, including K-12 teaching, government jobs, journalism, and even corporate America. At a time when everybody is trying to corporatize higher education, we should be seeking to academize corporations.

    • Unless one were defending a dissertation with Prof. Walter Metzger on the reviewing committee, one shouldn’t be too sure of oneself legally in this gleeful rush to single-handedly “revise” the constitutional and professional definitions of academic freedom in America. For one thing, the blurring of distinctions between and among institutions in the private and public sectors, the extension of the First Amendment to non-governmental institutions, etc.– all of this is highly problematic legal reasoning. Poetic license, as it were, to be sure — for a degree in literature or educational administration, perhaps.

      For an in-depth legal examination of “Profession and Constitution: Two Definitions of Academic Freedom in America,” cf. Walter P. Metzer’s 1988 Texas Law Review Article, Vol. 66:1265-1322.

      • Although I care deeply about the fact that judges often misinterpret the constitutional right of academic freedom, it makes absolutely no difference in how I interpret the professional meaning and ethical right to academic freedom, which should exist at all colleges, public and private. Not all reasoning is legal reasoning, for good reasons.

  4. There is a relevant AAUP document on the question of student academic freedom, the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. Here is the current prefatory language to this document in the 10th edition of the Red Book:

    “In June 1967, a committee composed of representatives from the American Association of University Professors, the United States National Student Association (now the United States Student Association), the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities), the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors formulated the joint statement. The document was endorsed by each of its five national sponsors, as well as by a number of other professional bodies. The governing bodies of the Association of American Colleges and the American Association of University Professors acted respectively in January and April 1990 to remove gender-specific references from the original text.

    “In September 1990, September 1991, and November 1992, an inter-association task force met to study, interpret, update, and affirm (or reaffirm) the Joint Statement. Members of the task force agreed that the document has stood the test of time quite well and continues to provide an excellent set of principles for institutions of higher education. The task force developed a set of interpretive notes to incorporate changes in law and higher education that have occurred since 1967. These interpretive notes are referenced within the original text.”

    Personally, I think from the perspective of 2014 that the document still stands the test of time well. Its preamble refers to “academic freedom of students,” but clearly defines that freedom as the “freedom to learn,” the specifics of which are admirably developed in the remainder of the document. The Joint Statement may be found here:

  5. My basic feeling about freedom, including academic freedom, is that it is about preventing the powerful from infringing on the less powerful. I also think academic freedom is part of a system designed to keep scholars professional and honest; it is an ingredient for developing knowledge. Given peer review, academia spends much time and effort policing itself from the fallacies of the mind we are prey to, at least in theory.

    I think what has happened with Horowitz is not new, although his effort to impose an orthodoxy on colleges may be unusual. I remember Secretary of State James Baker remarking one time that facts are negotiable. So two diplomats will negotiate with each other about what they “believe”.

    There has also been another incident of campus censorship that falls outside the usual purview of academic freedom. Following a commencement address by prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal at his alma mater, the governor of Pennsylvania wants to gag the speech of prisoners. This affair has been reported recently on the left wing news program “Democracy Now”.

  6. Uh, no. The real reason Sarkeesian is being targeted is because she’s a scumbag with a demonstrable record of lying. I suggest you watch these YouTube videos by Davis M.J. Aurini:

    Sarkeesian lying about contacting authorities:

    Trailers for a documentary about her:
    Trailer 1:
    Trailer 2, Who is the Real Censor?:

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