Topic: Professions & Institutions

Academic Freedom or Indoctrination?

For many years now, conservative commentators like John Leo and David Horowitz have reported and derided on-campus incidents in which students espousing conservative viewpoints were derided, punished, censored, harassed, or otherwise isolated by college professors or college administrators. The leftward tilt of college faculties is well-documented (and for at least 40 years, traditional) but recent years have produced embarrassing examples of over-zealous professors mixing their politics with instruction, such giving class credit for attending anti-war protests, or using class time for partisan rants. Spurred by a proliferation of websites, such as, that collect such stories, Horowitz is pushing for “intellectual diversity” on campus, and has authored an Academic Bill of Rights to blaze the way. He writes,

“The Academic Bill of Rights is based squarely on the almost 100-year-old tradition of academic freedom that the American Association of University Professors has established. The bill’s purposes are to codify that tradition; to emphasize the value of “intellectual diversity,” already implicit in the concept of academic freedom; and, most important, to enumerate the rights of students to not be indoctrinated or otherwise assaulted by political propagandists in the classroom or any educational setting.”

There is no question, or shouldn’t be, that the extreme actions of instructors chronicalled on the SFAF site constitute a breach of professional and general ethics. Abuse of power is always unethical, and this is abuse of trust as well. Parents entrust their children to colleges to learn how to think, not to learn what to think. It is tempting to say that any professor who cannot admit the existence of multiple legitimate points of view and modes of analysis on any topic the social sciences or humanities has no business teaching anything at all. But many academics see dark purposes behind Horowitz’s Bill of Rights. One reason is that they see dark purposes behind Horowitz, who as a gleeful human lightening rod for attacks from the left was probably not the optimum herald for then intellectual diversity principle. One such critic is the unimpeachably fair and intellectually rigorous Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who while barely finding anything objectionable in “The Academic Bill of Rights,” nonetheless sees it as a Trojan Horse for malign motives.

“Someone is going to say,” Fish writes,” let’s monitor those lefty professors and keep tabs on what they’re saying; and while we’re at it, let’s withhold federal funds from programs that do not display “ideological balance” (“balance” is also an unworthy academic goal); and let’s demand that academic institutions demonstrate a commitment to hiring conservatives; and let’s make sure that the material our students read is pro-American and free of the taint of relativism; and let’s publish the names of those who do not comply.”

Fish is rightÂ…that might happen. And presumably, people will have the sense to tell these “someones” to go fly a kite. This is the slippery slope argument used to excess, in which a good principle is judged by its most extreme theoretical distortion. “My dear MadisonÂ…we can’t have a Freedom of Speech provision in the constitution! Why, just wait: someone will want to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater!”

Fish has to work really hard to make the Bill seem sinister, but he has a point: any formal set of rules can and often will lead to unintended consequences. The remarkable alarm of some campus liberals over Horowitz’s rather obvious principles (as well as their denial that a widespread liberal bias exists) supports the contention that something is out of whack, as they doth protest too much. But perhaps the best approach is to broadly agree on Horowitz’s stated goals without enshrining them in statutes and regulations; they are, for the most part, based on common ethical principles of honesty, candor, respect, competence, and trust. Then everyone is free to argue about the details, which was always objective.

Here is the Bill:

Academic Bill of Rights

I. The Mission of the University.

The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large. Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals. The freedom to teach and to learn depends upon the creation of appropriate conditions and opportunities on the campus as a whole as well as in the classrooms and lecture halls. These purposes reflect the values — pluralism, diversity, opportunity, critical intelligence, openness and fairness — that are the cornerstones of American society.

 II. Academic Freedom

1. The Concept . Academic freedom and intellectual diversity are values indispensable to the American university. From its first formulation in the General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, the concept of academic freedom has been premised on the idea that human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge, and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom. FN1 Therefore, academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech. In the words of the General Report, it is vital to protect “as the first condition of progress, [a] complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.”

Because free inquiry and its fruits are crucial to the democratic enterprise itself, academic freedom is a national value as well. In a historic 1967 decision ( Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York ) the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a New York State loyalty provision for teachers with these words: “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, [a] transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.” In Sweezy v. New Hampshire, (1957) the Court observed that the “essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities [was] almost self-evident.”

2. The Practice . Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget.

This protection includes students. From the first statement on academic freedom, it has been recognized that intellectual independence means the protection of students – as well as faculty – from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature. The 1915 General Report admonished faculty to avoid “taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own.” In 1967, the AAUP’s Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students reinforced and amplified this injunction by affirming the inseparability of “the freedom to teach and freedom to learn.” In the words of the report, “Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.”

Therefore, to secure the intellectual independence of faculty and students and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity, the following principles and procedures shall be observed.

These principles fully apply only to public universities and to private universities that present themselves as bound by the canons of academic freedom. Private institutions choosing to restrict academic freedom on the basis of creed have an obligation to be as explicit as is possible about the scope and nature of these restrictions.

1. All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.

2. No faculty member will be excluded from tenure, search and hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

3. Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

4.  Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.

5.  Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.

6. Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.

7. An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas being an essential component of a free university, the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature or other effort to obstruct this exchange will not be tolerated.

8.  Knowledge advances when individual scholars are left free to reach their own conclusions about which methods, facts, and theories have been validated by research. Academic institutions and professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research, maintain the integrity of the research process, and organize the professional lives of related researchers serve as indispensable venues within which scholars circulate research findings and debate their interpretation. To perform these functions adequately, academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry.

FN1. Op. cit., p. 50

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