Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Where Academic Freedom Ends

Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  Where Academic Freedom Ends, by Julie A. Reuben (Harvard):

In 1915, when the American Association of University Professors issued its seminal “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” it identified three areas in which faculty members should enjoy the protection of academic freedom: their scholarship, their teaching, and their actions as citizens. In the century since, almost all analyses of academic freedom have focused on the last category — what the report called “extramural utterances.” We have heard a lot about our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and almost nothing about our rights and responsibilities as experts.

That balance should be reversed. We have fought hard for our speech rights as citizens, but we have assumed, thoughtlessly, that those rights apply when we speak as professionals. We are left without an articulated ethical guide for our actions — and that leaves us vulnerable to academics exploiting their credentials under the guise of academic freedom.

The authors of the 1915 report acknowledged limitations on professors’ freedom in all three areas, which they implicitly viewed as a hierarchy, with research deserving the greatest protection and speech on public matters requiring the greatest care. Since intellectual progress requires open inquiry, they thought faculty members’ research should be unfettered by social convention and received opinion, so long as it conforms to the best methods of scholarship. Teaching should be largely free, although professors had to teach all sides of disputed issues fairly, and sometimes censor themselves in deference to students’ immaturity. Faculty members should have the freedom to engage in public affairs as citizens, but they needed to clearly disassociate their personal views from those of the university where they taught, and to speak in a manner consistent with the character of their profession. ...

Academic freedom should ensure that faculty members can conduct their research free from restrictions and influences that might limit the questions they ask and distort their findings. But this does not mean that academics are free to say anything they please in professional contexts. ...

Because most analyses of academic freedom have focused on political rights, we have not been as attentive as we should be to the norms that ought to govern our speech as experts. We have interpreted academic freedom to mean that faculty speech should not be constrained in any way. The consequences of this failure are significant. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury, 2010), demonstrates how professors can use their academic credentials to purposely spread misinformation. Surely that should be considered an abuse of academic freedom.

Now we are experiencing a crisis of misinformation — and our profession has contributed to it. Instead of modeling how standards of evidence and logic can create more trustworthy knowledge, our lack of a coherent professional ethics has fueled the notion that all opinions are equal in the marketplace of ideas. At Stanford’s Hoover Institution, for instance, at least one professor has used his academic authority to spread misinformation about the coronavirus.

Some faculty critics, having accurately identified a potential misuse of academic freedom, are calling for Stanford’s disaffiliation from the Hoover Institution. But their proposed solution is not sufficient. Divorcing Hoover from Stanford would address an immediate problem but not the deeper issue: the misuse of academic credentials to mislead rather than enlighten.

We need to develop professional norms that govern our behavior as experts — and the consequences for people who violate those norms. This means rejecting the equation of academic freedom with free speech and instead articulating legitimate restrictions on our behavior as professionals. I know that this is scary, given the ways in which professors’ rights as citizens have been abused. But the norms that govern us as citizens are not appropriate when we speak as experts.

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Correction: "here at TPB"

Posted by: MM Classic | Dec 23, 2020 10:51:03 AM

UT: "Gravity was reversed three weeks ago last Thursday."

Considering this guy or gal literally advocated cancelling the SATS and other objective standards of performance, here at TAC, this is only partly an attempt at a joke.

Posted by: MM Classic | Dec 23, 2020 10:50:04 AM

Gravity was reversed three weeks ago last Thursday. I read this in a Tweet so it must be true. If one of those pointy-headed academic physicists tries to correct me, it's CANCEL CULTURE and really he should be fired for his insolence towards MY FIRST AMENDMENT.


Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Dec 17, 2020 8:12:26 PM

So there is just one "truth" as determined by the totalitarian left. Put Reuben in charge of determining what is and what is not misinformation the way twitter, facebook and the rest do.

Posted by: JWJ | Dec 17, 2020 9:39:05 AM

Scott Atlas was NOT spreading COVID-19 misinformation. But he worked for Trump and that is an unpardonable sin.

Posted by: Holly T | Dec 17, 2020 7:42:49 AM