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Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Duties, not just rights

MINDING THE CAMPUS   |  November 3, 2009 by Erin O'Connor & Maurice Black

In “What Is Academic Freedom For?,” University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer says some things that need to be said—but is also silent some things that should not have been ignored. Zimmer is right that academic freedom is poorly understood. He’s right that to safeguard academic freedom, the university should take no political stance. (That should not be a controversial point, but when faculties are pushing to take consequential positions on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iraq, it becomes one.) He’s right that sometimes, academics threaten academic freedom. ACTA and FIRE draw critical attention to academia’s problems with speech codes, biased hiring and promotion practices, and doctrinaire teaching.

But Zimmer’s explanation is incomplete.

First: the gap between Zimmer’s idealized University of Chicago and the real one. Chicago has a history of principled statements defending free inquiry, but it also enjoys FIRE’s “red light rating: for speech codes. In recent years, Chicago has investigated a student for posting a cartoon and has compelled another to delete a Facebook page.) Just last month, Zimmer was doing campus-wide damage control after hecklers nearly prevented former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert from completing an invited speech. Zimmer talks the talk—but Chicago needs to walk the walk.

Second: Zimmer defines academic freedom as faculty members’ freedom from political pressure. But that’s a partial and skewed definition. Academic freedom is, in fact, a form of professionalism grounded in what the AAUP calls “duties correlative with rights.” Chief among those duties is to be a self-policing profession with peer review practices that justify considerable autonomy. Behaving ethically is a prerequisite for the rights associated with academic freedom—including professors’ right to be free from political pressure when pursuing the truth. Today’s professoriate is not meeting its ethical obligations—a fact Zimmer ignores.

Writing about academia’s “crisis of ethic proportion,” University of St. Thomas professor Neil Hamilton notes that today’s academics see academic freedom as a set of inalienable rights, and lack a sense of concurrent responsibility. Professorial misconduct is common; accountability is rare. Graduate education should include professional ethics, but does not. As a concept, “academic freedom” has lost the responsibilities that justify it: professional self-regulation and a commitment to serve first not oneself, not one’s institution, but the public good. “The academic profession’s defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security,” Hamilton observes; this “anemic defense,” combined with institutions’ failure to “undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members’ work,” does more harm than good.

Academic freedom cannot be justified—or sensibly defended—without two explicit recognitions: 1) academic freedom requires professors to ensure their ethical behavior; and 2) academics are not living up to that responsibility. In sidestepping these truths, Zimmer’s talk might best be understood as another “anemic defense,” one that misses a real opportunity to build public trust.


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