Northern Valley Beacon

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Saturday, December 03, 2005


Academic freedom ain't what it used to be

The matter of professors participating on web logs has resulted in many bloggish pronouncements in South Dakota about what academic freedom is. On one hand, the comments indicate what a lousy job academics have done in defining just how the First Amendment applies to the academic setting. On the other hand, they indicate the infinite reservoir of pompous presumption that characterizes what passes for the substance of academic life in the lower echelons of post-secondary education. The ego is an erectile organ of personality, and the frictive self-stroking of it in public is not gratifying to those who are exposed to it in the name of discourse.

Brand new Ph.D.s tend to think that in the conferment of their degrees, God extended his work week and revised the universe to make the new Ph.D. the center of it. In better institutions of higher learning, this nonsense is knocked out of the young faculty in the first semester or two, and they learn that other people have educations as current and as extensive as theirs, that other people have powers of knowledge and discernment equal to theirs, and that other people often know more and think better than they do. The lower echelon institutions fail in the mission of instilling collegial perceptions in their faculty, and rather than grow more professorial, the faculty tends to regress into adolescent egotism rather than progress in the collegial attributes of equality, respect, and shared authority.

Self-absorption blinds professors to their essential responsibilities. There are two academic "crimes" for which professors can be terminated or receive other discipline: plagiarism and fabrication. Plagiarism, the using of other people's words or ideas without appropriation attribution, gets the most attention in the classrooms. Fabrication is often the more serious because it involves either making up data that has no basis in fact, or misrepresenting data, or drawing a false conclusion in a way that falsely represents what someone has said or done. It was an instance of fabrication that produced the current spate of commentary on academic freedom.

A professor who was attempting to defend the war on Iraq wrote in a blog "the idea that we are winning in Iraq will make much of the left angry." This effort to define the character and motives of "much of the left" irked the holy hell out of Clean Cut Kid. He wondered if the professor's president knew that he said such things and suggested that readers call it to the university president's attention. This immediately provoked the charges that CCK was advocating Big Brother suppressions of free speech and free inquiry.

The statement by this professor is one of the lesser instances in which the contributors to the South Dakota Politics blog draw conclusions based totally upon their need to malign or refabricate what other people say into false representations of the context and text of their remarks. The campaigns against John Kerry and Tom Daschle were totally devoid of an address of their positions and were devoted to ad hominem attacks aimed at besmirching their character, their motives, and past accomplishments. This is the standard rhetorical practice of South Dakota Politics. The question raised is whether professors, whose profession and institutions are judged by their public comments, have an obligation to conduct themselves in such a way that they do not reflect negatively on their colleagues and institution. At times these professors, who constantly invoke their status as academic officers, descend into the monomaniacal regressions of that poor wretch of South Dakota blogging Sibby. The question is whether their blogs compromise their status as professors.

For 65 years, involving thousands of cases, a statement of principles regarding academic freedom has been used to adjudicate instances where professors' exercise of freedom of speech has damaged their own credibility as professors and the credibility of their institutions.

In the early part of the 20th century, American professors became convinced that the academic profession needed to protect the freedom to inquire, learn, and speak as the essential tools in the process of generating, refining, and transmitting knowledge. Following World War I, a considerable degree of political debate was taking place. Incidents of rioting and violence and vandalism in the name of political causes were common, and professors realized that freedom of speech and its derivative academic freedoms needed to be made a formalized process. Led by the philosopher and writer William James, the academic community began working out statements of principle and protocols for insuring vigorous and unrestrained debate. The result was the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure published by the Association of American University Professors. That statement is endorsed by more than 180 professional organizations of professors, and most higher education systems and institutions incorporate the statement into their policies and faculty handbooks as the defining principle.

The statement is included in the collective bargaining agreement under South Dakota faculty operate and in the Board of Regents Policy Manual.

The core statement on academic freedom is:


A. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the
authorities of the institution.
B. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[2] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[3]

C. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[4]

Paragraph C. is the one that deals with such extra-curricular activities such as blogging. It states that the position of college faculty members in their communities "imposes special obligations." It cautions that their profession and institutions will be judged by their utterances, but it does not prescribe any further instructions. The AAUP appended this clarifying statement regarding the provisions of paragraph C:

So Chad of CCK is not off-base in suggesting that the public may ask a university administration to monitor the appropriateness of comments and activities of professors. Administrations have to both insure the academic freedom of faculty and students but also to insure the academic integrity of the institution. The question raised by the statements from South Dakota Politics is not a matter of exercising free speech, but whether that free speech violates the standards of accuracy, truth, and benign purpose in a way that violates other people's rights to be free from defamation and oppression.

AAUP has a code of ethics that sets standards as to what obligations professors have in exercising their rights of free speech:

1. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry.

2. As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit. They respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student. They avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students. They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from them. They protect their academic freedom.

3. As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. Professors do not discriminate against or harass colleagues. They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas professors show due respect for the opinions of others. Professors acknowledge academic debt and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues. Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution.

4. As members of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars. Although professors observe the stated regulations of the institution, provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom, they maintain their right to criticize and seek revision. Professors give due regard to their paramount responsibilities within their institution in determining the amount and character of work done outside it. When considering the interruption or termination of their service, professors recognize the effect of their decision upon the program of the institution and give due notice of their intentions.

5. As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution. When they speak or act as private persons, they avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university. As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.

These statements define the obligations under which professors operate. Here endeth the readings for the day.

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