Ivory towers with dodgy foundations

The Future of Academic Freedom - The Creation of a University System
April 25, 1997

The Future of Academic Freedom may, with any luck, belie its title by providing an epitaph for the "culture wars" of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This collection of essays began in 1992 as a project of the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP was set up in 1915 to defend the intellectual freedom of American professors, and its "Committee A" has over many years investigated wrongful dismissals, culminating often enough in the blacklisting of misbehaving institutions. It is essentially an organisation whose gaze is fixed on tyrannical administrators or bullying politicians. In 1992, the problem seemed to be the professoriate itself.

The Future of Academic Freedom is, in the best sense of the term, an academic treatment of its subject. That is, the authors of the ten essays collected here stick resolutely to such questions as the relevance (or irrelevance) of epistemological theory to the defence of academic freedom, the connection of academic freedom with the guarantees of freedom of speech and expression contained in the First Amendment, the plausibility of critical race theory's attack on the liberal ideal of academic freedom, and the like. The essays are not only sharp, elegant and lucid, but extremely well-informed about the history of American battles over academic freedom. One or two of them manage to be quite amusing about some of the dottier aspects of a serious subject, while Skip Gates's essay on critical race theory is deft, acerbic and wonderfully funny.

Arguments about academic freedom in the United States begin in 1896 with the determination of Mrs Jane Lothrop Stanford to rid her late husband's university of the economist E. A. Ross. Ross was a supporter of William Jennings Bryan, and a critic of the gold standard; he was, moreover, given to flamboyant public declarations on the subject. Mrs Stanford told the president of the university to sack Ross. He held out for several years, but Mrs Stanford upped the ante by declaring a total ban on political pronouncements by the faculty, and Ross responded by making more of them than ever. In 1900, he attacked the importation of Chinese labourers, and in another speech declared that natural monopolies such as railroads would shortly pass into public ownership. This was too much - the late Leland Stanford's money had come from railroads built by coolie labour - and Ross was given six months' notice.

Sacking people of radical opinions was by no means unheard of. What made the Ross case important was that Ross did not go quietly; and the American Economic Association supported him against his employer. The AEA did not, in the event, mount an effective campaign for his reinstatement - something Ross did not in any case care about. Nonetheless, as the standard history of academic freedom in the United States observes, with the setting up of the committee to investigate Ross's firing, "the first professorial inquiry into an academic freedom case was conceived and brought into being - the predecessor if not directly the precursor of Committee A of the AAUP."

What Ross's case suggests, however, is something that Thomas Haskell and several other of the authors of these essays bring out very clearly. Academic freedom is very much a professional achievement rather than an individual right. This is hardly surprising. The founders of the AAUP, who included the philosophers John Dewey and Arthur O. Lovejoy, were communitarians rather than individualists. They wanted to defend the professoriate's right to free inquiry against autocratic benefactors of the stripe of Mrs Stanford and John D. Rockefeller; but they wanted to do so for the sake of the university as an institution that served what Dewey famously called "the truth function". They did not think of academic freedom as a version of the political freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

They were right to separate the two things as they did. In 1892, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, later famous for defending "the marketplace of ideas", upheld the dismissal of a policeman who had criticised the police department that employed him. "The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics," wrote Holmes, "but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman." On that basis, Ross did not have a leg to stand on, and the defenders of academic freedom knew it.

What they defended was a privilege for a guild. The guild was marked out by its concern for "the truth function", and its privileges were available only to those in good standing. Almost every one of the essayists in this volume points out two salient truths. First, there is no absolute right of free speech, even under the First Amendment: libel, incitement, inducing a breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, and a great deal else are crimes whose perpetrators will rightly get nowhere by protesting that they engaged in "speech". Second, our ordinary contracts of employment quite properly restrict what we can say in class; if I am hired to explain Mill's utilitarianism to my students, I cannot plead the First Amendment if I decide to inflict my eccentric views on the differential calculus on the kids. Louis Menand, Richard Rorty, Thomas Haskell and Ronald Dworkin disagree about many things, but they all concur in the thought that the kind of freedom protected within the academy needs to be spelled out in terms specific to the academy.

It is at this point that The Future of Academic Freedom offers some low-minded entertainment for philosophical readers. There is within these pages considerable disagreement about just what it is like to perform Dewey's "truth function". And it is this topic that takes us back to one of our contemporary bugbears, and the anxiety that led the AAUP to launch its inquiry, namely the alleged tendency of all sorts of postmodernism to weaken academic freedom by rotting our faith in truth. The fear is simple enough: academic freedom is enjoyed by people who are professionally committed to following the truth wherever it may lead. Only their willingness to sacrifice everything to the search for truth entitles them to a freedom they would have in no other occupation. But if they do not believe that there is any such thing as truth, they can surely not believe in academic freedom either. For have they not said with Foucault that it is all a matter of power, or with Derrida that it is all play?

Richard Rorty offers his usual provocations to the high-minded by insisting that the truth function can be performed even if there is no such thing as truth. Or, more exactly, if there is no such thing as Truth. It is not that Rorty thinks we are as well off getting our understanding of physics from the milkman as from Richard Feynman; all he wants to say is that we can mind about physics, history, or literature and be utterly opposed to bullying, insult, and other sorts of intellectual coercion without subscribing to the correspondence theory of truth. The evidence of John Dewey and Jurgen Habermas suggests that he is right.

Menand is more anxious, and Thomas utterly convinced that some version of Realism is our only safe starting point. I find it hard not to share Rorty's view that there is just about no philosophical view that a rational person would subscribe to as firmly as they would subscribe to the defence of academic freedom. Or to put it somewhat differently, the superstructure is in better shape than its supposed foundations.

The treat of the whole book, however, is Skip Gates's polite, kindly and comprehensive destruction of the arguments against a concern for academic freedom offered by the so-called "critical race theory" movement. As the chair of Harvard's African American studies programme, Gates is rather less vulnerable to accusations of antiblack prejudice than is the average white liberal, and he revels in the liberty this gives him.

The fundamental thought of critical race theorists is not especially odd. Academic environments are often pretty uncomfortable, especially for people in some sort of minority position - blacks, gays, the disabled, and so on. The conclusion they draw is that where the discomfort is caused by "speech" it is proper to suppress the source of the discomfort by means of speech codes, compulsory sensitivity training, backed up in the end by firing offenders. The byword among many black activists and intellectuals is no longer the political imperative to protect free speech but the moral imperative to suppress hate speech.

Gates acknowledges that the one thing that tempts him to side with the critical race theorists is the badness of the arguments their opponents use against them. He therefore has some fun at the expense of those who think that the supporters of antihate speech regulations are violating traditional First Amendment rights. On the contrary, the movement for control is traditional, not to say atavistic, reaching back to Supreme Court decisions of the 1940s and 1950s that upheld convictions for uttering "fighting words" and for group defamation. Fighting words were declared undeserving of protection in a 1942 case in which a Jehovah's Witness had been convicted for calling a city marshal a "damned racketeer" and a "damned fascist". The court held that fighting words were by their nature assaultive, just the doctrine that hate speech theorising needs. Are they, though? Gates quotes Mari Matsuda as arguing that "Victims of vicious hate propaganda experience physiological symptoms and emotional distress ranging from fear in the gut to rapid pulse rate and difficulty in breathing, nightmares, post-traumatic stress syndrome, hypertension and suicide." Another claims that the effects are long-lasting. "The person who is timid, withdrawn, bitter, hypertense, or psychotic, will almost certainly fare poorly in employment settings." On which Gates's comment is decisive: "As a member of the Harvard faculty, I would venture that there are exceptions to the rule."

To put it differently, what underlies the demand for the repression of hate speech is the demand that institutions of higher education and research should provide whatever comfort is asked of them - even when they can only do so at the price of silencing and discomforting those who are not singled out as particularly needy. But what happens when a black student declares that gays are sick? Or a bright gay decides that black students are inherently hopeless at maths, and says so? Who pulls rank in the neediness stakes? What Gates especially detests is the infantilising tendency of the critical race theorists; the price of turning a university into a therapeutic community is that the inner child never grows up.

Anyone who thinks we do things better on this side of the Atlantic, however, would do well to read Gates's paragraph on the subject: he mentions a small sample of obnoxious decisions, such as John Major's successful libel action against the New Statesman, the conviction of the editors of Gay News for blasphemous libel, and the jailing of the editors of Oz. "To be sure," he graciously concedes, "Britain has its attractions - scones, tea, and cucumber sandwiches among them. But the jurisprudence of free speech isn't among them."

Menand, the editor of The Future of Academic Freedom, suggests that freedom is more at threat from the power of money than from the philosophical enthusiasms of postmodernists.

The Creation of a University System is not on the face of it primarily about academic freedom in Britain. But dig half an inch into this collection of 21 pieces reprinted from the past 50 years of Universities Quarterly/Higher Education Quarterly, and the truth of Menand's observation becomes apparent. The theme of the essays - the principle of their selection - is the development of the British university system from the immediately postwar years in which there was no system, only 16 universities getting on with their own lives, funded modestly but adequately by the University Grants Committee down to the present in which there are over 100 universities, constantly chivvied, inspected, bullied, nagged, and whined at by government and its agents, in order that they should be part of a system, though unhappily it remains a system whose nature government has not so far worked out.

Of course, it is far from a story of downhill all the way. Some of the expansion of higher education has clearly been a good thing, even if it has plainly been utterly botched in its most recent phases, where the lunacy of pursuing parity of esteem in the face of extreme disparities of both financial and intellectual resources has become too gross to overlook. Innovations that Oxbridge was never going to contemplate have often proved fruitful - sandwich degrees, modularisation before it turned into an orthodoxy, using Open University units as components in the degree schemes of what became the new "new universities", for instance. But from the perspective of a concern for liberal education, that is, for the thought that an undergraduate education can help students to become responsible, self-critical, free-thinking and autonomous citizens of a modern, progressive, liberal-democratic society, the record is pretty terrible.

These 21 essays not only demonstrate that most of the familiar problems remain firmly in place but that the ideal of intellectual freedom has been entirely lost sight of by our new academic CEOs. Since the essays include some of the best things A. H. Halsey, Martin Trow and Edward Shils ever wrote on higher education, The Creation of a University System is a very good read. It is as well that it is. A dreary or complacent account of the missed opportunities of the past half-century would have been quite unbearable.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.

The Future of Academic Freedom

Editor - Louis Menand
ISBN - 0 226 52004 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 239

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