Peter Wood’s Shaky Architecture of Academic Freedom

BY JOHN K. WILSON

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, has written a detailed 11,000-word theoretical account of what academic freedom means. In response, I want to examine some of his arguments in detail, although I don’t have time and space to address every point. But fundamentally, I think Wood takes academic freedom for a wild ride across history, theory, and some specific concerns of conservatives today. In doing so, I believe that Wood’s principle of academic freedom is fundamentally incoherent and abandons the historical meaning of the term in favor of a new concept that gives enormous power to those in authority to define and control freedom on campus.

At the core, Wood argues, “Truth-seeking remains essential to academic freedom, but how is truth to be determined?”

That’s a fundamental error in thinking. Truth-seeking is essential to academic freedom. But truth-determining is in conflict with truth-seeking and academic freedom. Once a university determines the truth and imposes it on faculty and students, it shuts off truth-seeking. So a university can punish someone for violating the norms of truth-seeking (by engaging in fraud or plagiarism) or someone who violating the rights of others to seek the truth, but universities cannot punish people for making mistakes or thinking that the wrong answer is truth.

Wood turns to student academic freedom (a very recent invention by conservatives such as David Horowitz who were looking for an excuse to silence leftist faculty) as a core part of academic freedom. According to Wood, “The AAUP in later years occasionally glanced at the academic freedom of students but it has never made this a topic of major concern.” That’s not quite true. In 1967, the AAUP issued the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. In 2000, the AAUP created its very important Statement on Graduate Students defending student academic freedom. But it is true that the AAUP has never actively defended the freedom of students in the way FIRE has, and I wish the AAUP had the resources and commitment to expand its work fully to students. However, the AAUP would never embrace Wood’s vision of student academic freedom because it endangers the real meaning of academic freedom and fails to protect the freedom of students.

Wood defines student academic freedom this way: “For students, academic freedom is a combination of freedom from indoctrination and freedom to engage in disciplined inquiry, which includes the freedom to read, hear, and consider views that differ from those of their instructors.” The idea that academic freedom is the freedom not to hear ideas you dislike (such as those vaguely called “indoctrination”) is the antithesis of academic freedom.

According to Wood, “the bias of faculty members is one of the greatest threats to students’ academic freedom because it is often invisible to the students themselves. Students may receive a partial account of a topic and mistake it as impartial; or they may be misled into accepting as authoritative what is only a glib dismissal of an opposing view.”

It is deeply condescending to tell students that their academic freedom is being violated by something completely “invisible” to the students and that administrators must be trusted to step in and dictate what professors must say in order to protect students from the “wrong” ideas.

By imagining academic freedom for students as the “right” to hear a certain range of views, Wood turns a fundamental part of academic freedom—the right of professors to say what they think in class—into a violation of student academic freedom. According to Wood, “The counterpart of the teacher’s duty to give fair and full account of the range of opinions on a topic is the student’s right to receive that fair and full account.” Could anyone truly meet the standard proposed by Wood, that any “bias” or “partial account of a topic” or any “glib dismissal” or anything short of a “fair and full account” of all sides is a violation of student academic freedom? And should professors be punished for violating student academic freedom?

In addition to imagining that professors must be free of any bias in order to protect students, Wood wants to silence other students, too. Wood argues, “The freedom of the student to learn can be impinged upon by other students who party too loudly or too often; who mount disruptive protests in the library or the classroom; or who hijack class discussions to focus on some favored issue or perspective to the detriment of more balanced coverage of a topic.”’

Loud students, disruptive protests, and annoying students in class may all be obnoxious, but they are not a violation of student rights. To the contrary, any attempt to ban all loud noises and protests (not to mention student statements in class) would pose a real threat to student academic freedom.

But I mostly agree with Wood when he writes, “The students cannot be expected to respect a core value from which they are excluded.” Student academic freedom is important to protect; Wood simply misunderstands what it is.

So what is student academic freedom? Basically, it covers the same territory as faculty academic freedom: research, teaching, and extramural utterances. The most important part of student academic freedom, and where it stands as powerful as faculty academic freedom, is in the realm of extramural utterances. Students must be free to express themselves, to organize extramural activities, and to never face punishment for their viewpoints. When students are doing their own research (or classroom projects), they should be free to pick their topics (in consultation with their teachers) and express their views without punishment. Students are not entitled to good grades for poor work, but students should not be penalized for their viewpoints. They should be judged purely on their academic work.

Wood claims, “Lernfreiheit must be restored.” In reality, nothing Wood or I define as student academic freedom has any connection to lernfreiheit, the 19th century German term that translates as “freedom to learn” but actually refers to the idea that students should get to choose their curriculum and choose what classes they want to attend. Lernfreiheit never meant the free political speech of students, or the “right” to unbiased teaching. Wood’s idea of student academic freedom has no historical precedent.

Wood then turns the idea of academic freedom to center upon administrators. Wood writes, “The AAUP and other voices of authority on the general topic of academic freedom tend to treat academic administrators as the primary locus of infringements on faculty academic freedom, and they disregard the importance of embedding the administrators in the same web of rights and responsibilities.”

Since 1973, the AAUP has strongly defended the rights of librarians at academic institutions. In 2002, the AAUP issued a statement defending the academic freedom of academic professionals. So the AAUP does increasingly recognize academic freedom as a universal value that administrators also hold rather than an exclusive right of faculty, and this is a good trend. But it is still a fact that administrators hold enormous disciplinary power over students and faculty, and are the primary locus of infringements on academic freedom.

But Wood’s focus on the academic freedom of administrators is something that he uses to merge with the idea of “institutional academic freedom”: “These zones of relative autonomy are not often spoken of as ‘academic freedoms’ but that is exactly what they are: the freedoms of academic institutions to chart their own educational paths.”

Institutional autonomy is a valuable idea, especially since government regulation can threaten the academic freedom of members of an institution. But the phrase “institutional academic freedom” is used as a tool to deprive individual of real academic freedom. After all, if an institution wants to fire a professor for her views, then “institutional academic freedom” would counterbalance the professor’s academic freedom and provide no intellectual mechanism for making judgments. “Institutional academic freedom” is a phrase used to deny academic freedom.

Wood goes even further when he argues that academic freedom does not belong to individuals or even to institutions but instead is owned by the general public and its representatives: “Academic freedom is sometimes treated as an appurtenance of the faculty, but it does not in fact belong to faculty members. Rather it belongs to the general public, who confer it on college and university faculties through boards of trustees and legislative acts. It is not a natural right or something that comes under the Constitution, although there are those who would like to see it vested there.”

Wood’s views are deeply misguided here. To say that academic freedom belongs to the general public, who confer it via trustees, suggests that the general public can revoke this right whenever they dislike a professor’s views, and that anything trustees and legislators do in the name of the general public is in defense of academic freedom. Academic freedom is a right of everyone at a university, and it is a fundamental value that must be embraced by colleges.

Wood argues, “Does academic freedom apply to whatever a faculty member says, public or private, on campus or off, in his discipline or outside his discipline?  The AAUP today, as we have noted, takes a latitudinarian approach:  once you are a tenured faculty member, you can claim academic freedom for pretty much anything you do or say for the rest of your life.  The National Association of Scholars, by contrast, gravitates to the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration, which limits the doctrine of academic freedom to the realms of disinterested inquiry and prudential teaching.”

Wood is wrong. The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration was certainly not limited to disinterested research and teaching. It was explicitly intended to protect extramural utterances, including strongly held opinions. And many of the caveats in the 1915 Declaration are archaic flaws, much in the same way that we would not today want to embrace the very limited notion of free speech embraced by the Supreme Court in 1915. The latitudinarian approach is the contemporary meaning of academic freedom.

In addition to weakening academic freedom by putting it under the control of authorities in power, Wood wants to undermine academic freedom by making it dependent upon other values he embraces. According to Wood, “Academic freedom cannot stand on its own. As a principle it is dependent on a handful of other principles that must also be upheld if academic freedom is to be anything more than a hollow phrase. The first of these other principles is intellectual diversity.”

Is academic freedom “a hollow phrase” without intellectual diversity? No. If someone argues that people of a certain viewpoint (whether liberal or conservative) must be exclusively hired for the sake of intellectual diversity, that’s a threat to academic freedom, not a necessary precondition. Hiring based on viewpoint rather than academic merit is wrong.

Wood writes, “Can there be meaningful intellectual and academic freedom where there is very little disagreement on key ideas? No.” Plenty of fields have very little disagreement on key ideas, such as the fact of evolution in the field of biology, but it would be absurd to imagine that academic freedom is meaningless unless universities hire creationists to teach biology.

One can imagine a leftist making an argument similar to Wood, contending that academic freedom only be meaningful in conjunction with the principle of social justice, and that therefore there must be social justice exceptions to academic freedom. That notion is equally wrong.

In addition to intellectual diversity, Wood wants to make academic freedom contingent upon another principle, that of civility. Wood argues that “civility in the truest sense cannot be reduced to a set of prohibitions.” And then he reduces civility to a set of very vague prohibitions: “For intellectual freedom to exist with a community, civility must be maintained by authority if and when necessary. Dissent can and should be tolerated but dissent that descends into incivility is unacceptable and must be met with sanctions.”

This is a dangerous approach. Declaring that incivility “must” be sanctioned by authority allows virtually anything to be punished. Wood might target some things he regards as incivility (perhaps loud protests and swearing) while someone else might regard hate speech or offensive viewpoints as incivility.

It’s far better to say the limits of academic freedom are generally established where someone else’s right to academic freedom begins. So heckling a speaker would be incivility but still protected by academic freedom. Shouting down a speaker, however, violates the academic freedom rights of both the speaker and the audience. There is a right to be heard, but not a right to civility.

Our theories of academic freedom are important because they have real-world consequences if implemented. And the consequences of Wood’s theory could be disastrous. Wood moves academic freedom away from individual faculty and instead places it under the trust of administrators, trustees, legislators, and the general public, giving them the institutional power to control academic freedom. One could call this an authoritarian conception of academic freedom.

It is dramatically different from the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration which put faculty at the center of academic freedom and distrusted the public, politicians, and institutional authorities. It is also vastly different from the modern liberty-centered model of academic freedom that I espouse (and that the AAUP today mostly agrees with), which makes academic freedom a fundamental value of colleges and an essential right of all members of the academic community, limited only by the academic freedom rights of others.

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