Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences

Lately, I’ve been reading/skimming some interesting higher ed news stories about academic freedom/academic free speech. A lot of my reading has been about the crazy stuff going on in Kansas and that state’s Board of Regents’ rules that try to rein in the use of social media by faculty and everyone else. The go-to place for news on this, IMO, is Philip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel.  For example:

But it’s not just Kansas, of course. Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman has a piece in Slate Free to Be a Jerk” where she applauds the court victory of Mike Adams, a UNC-Wilmington professor who argued successfully that he was denied promotion to full professor based on his views. A quote:

[…]Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 10 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.

Then there’s the whole series of craziness at the University of Saskatchewan that (as I understand it– I haven’t been following this one that closely) came about when the Provost fired Professor and adminstrator-type Robert Buckingham and had security escort him off of campus because Buckingham spoke out against a reform/reorganization plan. That apparently backfired. Badly. As recapped in The StarPhoenix article “University of Saskatchewan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac fired,” Buckingham was rehired, the Provost “resigned” (it seems to be a classic “did he fall or was he pushed” scenario), and then, as the headline suggests, the president was sacked.

Of course I am all about academic freedom and academic free speech. Of course of course of course. Nel is completely right in all of his criticism of the Kansas Board of Regents and the ridiculousness of their policy. I don’t know enough of the details about the Adams case or the mess up in Canada, but of course I’m in support of the wronged and fired here, and by the way, I’m encouraged by the developments in North Carolina and Canada because it is evidence that academic freedom is winning out in the end. Hopefully that will be the result in Kansas as well.

That said, it seems to me there are a few things we need to remember about the reality of such thought police policies and the limits of free speech, even for academics.


First off, the Kansas BoR policy is stupid and unenforceable, and I suspect even the members of the Kansas BoR know that. It reminds me of a policy that they used to have in Oregon way back when I was out there that faculty (and all state employees) were barred from political campaigning on the job. I guess that meant I wasn’t supposed to try to convince my students to vote a certain way, though it wasn’t clear if it also meant I couldn’t put a campaign poster in my office or wear a campaign button while I was teaching. Here at EMU, the Board of Regents/Administration raises the idea of adding “collegiality” and “competency” clauses to the faculty contract once in a while. I think the intention of this is to deal with faculty and staff who have mental breakdowns and become hostile to others around them, but it’s pretty obvious to see how the collegiality clause could be abused, so these proposals haven’t gone anywhere. Another one of the benefits of being a unionized faculty.

Anyway, the same seems largely true with this social media policy. After all, Nel continues to speak out on his blog and in social media and he doesn’t seem too worried about it. Why should he be? In the world we live in now, for the Kansas BoR to have some sort of vague policy about speaking negatively on social media is sort of akin to having a policy against the color green: it just doesn’t make sense.

Second, there are limits to academic freedom, though those limits are never precisely spelled out. I hate to trot out these clichéd commonplaces, but a comparison to both pornography and Nazis are perhaps useful here. The “I know it when I see it” sort of definition of pornography is about community standards, and I think in academia, the degree of tolerance for differing academic views and  the definition of what constitutes academic scholarship varies. I applied for some jobs at Catholic universities back in the day, and while these weren’t institutions where I would have had to have signed paperwork to uphold the faith beliefs of the church or what-have-you, I definitely got the vibe that a course about the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement wouldn’t have exactly been endorsed. Describing what actually counts as academic speech (aka scholarship) tends to be a lot more clear: R1 institutions tend to not value the kinds of experimental and electronic forms of scholarship that we happily embrace at EMU, a less research-oriented institution.

As for the Nazi comparison: I think there are logical extremes where speech– especially in an academic context– ought to not be tolerated. I don’t think I could defend a colleague’s right to free academic speech if their scholarship/speech was about what’s good about antisemitism, racism, extermination of non-Aryans, etc., etc, etc. Obviously, that’s an extreme example– the Nazis are always good for that!– but my point is that not all speech/scholarship is or should be “free.” The tricky part is the fuzzy line between speech/scholarship that makes one indefensible rather than merely an asshole.

Third, free speech has consequences both bad and good, especially when the context surrounding a speech act collapses as it regularly does online generally and in social media in particular. Not being aware of this has gotten any number of K-12 educators and a few higher ed folks in various forms of trouble in recent years– bitching about specific students or colleagues on Facebook or in email without realizing that yes, Facebook is in fact a remarkably public space with unintended audiences, and yes, email messages can be forwarded without your knowledge. And that’s the thing: a certain level of self-censorship is normal in our everyday speech acts, and it’s normal in academic speech acts as well. We don’t say everything and anything to everyone and anyone and for good reason. Anyone who has been burnt by telling someone in confidence about someone else only to have that someone else confront you about what you said in confidence knows what I’m talking about.

So for example, there are tenured professors out there who are exercising their academic freedom to give presentations/publish scholarship that others in the field think is batshit crazy. (I am of course being vague on purpose– self-censorship at work again!) These folks are well within their rights to continue to profess crazy ideas– assuming these ideas don’t cross into the aforementioned Nazi territory– but there will be consequences for this, namely, that others around them will continue to think they are batshit crazy.

In my view, this is kind of the problem with some of the folks I’ve responded to recently– Ann Larson here and Schuman back here— who write things about the bad job market (or whatever), are criticized for what they say, and then who feel all wronged and attacked. Freedom of speech/academic freedom are both double-edged swords: you can say what you want, but what you say has consequences.

But there is definitely a lot of good that can come from speaking out about what you believe in, and despite these recent events and the sort of feeling of chill they suggest, I continue to believe that speaking out (with some self-censorship, of course) is better than not speaking. I know it has benefited me both personally and professionally quite a bit. For my blogging here, I won an award in 2011, I feel like I’m in a community of fellow bloggers/writers/thinkers in my field, and all the stuff I’ve been able to do with MOOCs for the last couple of years is the result of blogging about it here in the first place. EMUTalk might be in the process of winding down a bit, but it has been a pretty useful space for community commentary and frequent dissent, and I’ve never had anyone– including some official EMU people– say anything but good things about it.

Anyway, the test of free academic speech isn’t going to be if some jerk of a faculty person in Kansas or wherever gets censured for an over the top insulting and/or crazy Facebook post or Tweet. I of course want to honor the rights of the jerk to say whatever she or he wants to say to show the world how much of a jerk they are, but I will really start to worry when UNC-Wilmington or the now ex president of the University of Saskatchewan prevail, or when the Phil Nels of the world are silenced.

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