Freedom’s just another word to flap around

Stanley Fish on academic freedom in the New York Times, in one of the most misleading articles about academia that I’ve read in a long time:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments. […]

[The Rancourt case] may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Well, no. In case any non-academics are reading this, here are a few basic facts. Neither academic freedom nor tenure means that we can do whatever we want while the university must continue to pay our salary. Academic freedom has a much more specific meaning: that any evaluation of our scholarly activities for the purpose of academic advancement should be conducted by qualified peers and based on academic merit alone. In particular, such evaluation should be independent of political or commercial interests. For instance, the evaluation of scholarly work in economics or political science should not depend on whether said work supports the policies of the current government. This applies to promotion and tenure cases as well as funding decisions, so that it may well happen that a governmental funding agency (such as NSERC or NSF) will end up supporting researchers who are critical of the government in their published work. This doesn’t mean that we are being promoted and rewarded for trivial insubordination. It simply reflects our obligation to seek scientific truths that will still hold a few years from now regardless of the outcome of the next election.

As for the possible conflicts between academic research and commercial interests, you might want to read these articles on the case of Dr. Nancy Olivieri: a dispute between a medical researcher and the commercial sponsor of her research over the public disclosure of her findings.

Academic freedom is often invoked to protect the bearers of unpopular or controversial opinions, on the grounds that such opinions should nonetheless be part of the academic dialogue. See here for a case that tested the limits of it at UBC. At such times academic freedom is an obligation more than a privilege, in that it compels us to protect the right of our colleagues to express views that we disagree with and possibly find repugnant.

Academic freedom is, normally, not a legal right. Instead, it is a general principle whose interpretation and enforcement is left to the community of scholars and their academic institutions. This means, among other things, that while our work can be relatively free of political and commercial influence, it is very much subject to the influence and judgement of the community of our peers. We are being evaluated all the time, including hiring, promotion and tenure, annual merit reviews, grant proposals and other funding decisions, student and peer teaching evaluations, and every time we submit a paper for publication. There are strict and demanding professional standards that we have to meet.

The Rancourt case has absolutely nothing to do with academic freedom. Rancourt, who effectively refused to teach his courses, has been recommended to the Board of Governors for dismissal with cause, and rightly so if one believes the news reports. One suspects that if there had been any known cases of professors who similarly neglected their teaching duties and got away with it by pleading academic freedom, Fish would have cited them. He doesn’t. Chances are, academic freedom isn’t a good excuse for not showing up for work.

Lesser infractions – those “milder versions” – do happen. A few academics are indeed arrogant and dismissive of their colleagues and students. Most of us do our jobs as well as we can, but aren’t always able to do them perfectly, due to time constraints, excessive workload, or just because we’re only human in the end. This again has nothing to do with academic freedom. If it did, surely we wouldn’t ever see arrogance, negligence, rudeness, or general imperfection in any other profession, would we now?

Fish, an academic and a former dean, is perfectly correct to say that academic freedom does not justify unprofessional behaviour. He is dead wrong to say that faculty don’t understand that. We do. Where I’m from, anyone who claimed academic freedom as an excuse for a poorly prepared class would be laughed right out the door. But then Fish goes off in yet another direction. Faculty, he claims, think of themselves as “special” and “different”, an über-class to whom normal rules don’t apply, with no sense of responsibility to our institutions.

It would be hard to imagine another field of endeavor in which employees believe that being attentive to their employer’s goals and wishes is tantamount to a moral crime. But this is what many (not all) academics believe, and if pressed they will support their belief by invoking a form of academic exceptionalism, the idea that while colleges and universities may bear some of the marks of places of employment — work-days, promotions, salaries, vacations, meetings, etc. — they are really places in which something much more rarefied than a mere job goes on.

In my experience, this last claim – that higher education is a calling rather than a job – is more likely to be made by administrators than by faculty, especially in the context of the administrator asking a faculty member to take on an additional workload without compensation. Never mind. Fish’s point is that we are not being attentive enough to our employers’ goals.

So these are the two conceptions of academic freedom that are in play: academic freedom as the freedom to do the academic job (understood by reference to university norms and requirements);

Note the Orwellian language: most employees would regard the above as an obligation rather than a freedom.

and academic freedom as the freedom to chart your own way, to go boldly where no man or woman has gone before, constrained only by your inner sense of what is right and true.

As I have already explained, that’s not what academic freedom means.

In setting up this false alternative – obedience to employer or unprofessional behaviour – Fish neglects to mention that academic freedom is closely tied to another concept: academic integrity. The latter could be explained, in the present context, as serving the same greater goals that the universities should serve – the pursuit of truth, the advancement of science, the education of students. It also has the more specific, and very much relevant here, meaning of not being influenced by undue factors (political, commercial, etc.) in the evaluation of the academic work of our peers.

This is important because there are very common situations when academic integrity sets us directly against, and should take precedence over, the goals of our employers. For example, we are involved in peer review on a regular basis. We referee research papers, evaluate individual or institutional grant proposals, make recommendations on tenure and promotion cases, serve on committees to select prize recipients, and so on. It might be the goal of my university to, say, have a Major Resources Support institute proposal fully funded. However, if I’m on the committee evaluating Major Resources Support proposals, and if in my judgement the UBC proposal is weak and does not compare well to the competing proposals, academic integrity demands that I recommend that the proposal be given lower priority. (I have not served on the MRS selection committee. For confidentiality reasons I will not be discussing actual funding decisions that I was involved in.)

Fish ignores the fact that universities are not managed from the top down like corporations, but instead have an elaborate system of collective agreements and self-governance. This means that the concept of “the employer’s goals” is not always particularly well defined. Different faculties within a university can have their own conflicting goals, likewise the departments within a faculty or the research groups within a department. Furthermore, our terms of employment call on us explicitly to participate in the university governance, for example by serving on committees and voting at faculty meetings. I have to teach my calculus course according to the syllabus approved by the Faculty of Science, but I may also be called on to propose a revision of said syllabus.

Our job description includes maintaining an active research program – this is an explicit requirement for tenure and promotion at UBC. The individual faculty are ultimately held responsible for the success or failure of their research programs. They have spent years gaining the relevant expertise and experience. It only follows logically that they should be able to make their own decisions on managing their research – the “employer’s goals” may well be a factor, but only one of many. For instance, my department might choose (as it did several years ago) to focus its resources on a few “priority research areas” that do not include mine. That does not (and did not) compel me to change the direction of my research against my better judgement.

I still have to teach my assigned classes, though. Darn.

1 Comment

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One response to “Freedom’s just another word to flap around

  1. Mark Meckes

    If you read a lot of Stanley Fish’s writings on this subject (and others), you’ll realize two things to put this somewhat maddening column of his in perspective:

    1) Fish frequently discusses two different views of what some concept (in this case, “academic freedom”) means, deliberately writing in such a way that it can be difficult to tell which viewpoint he personally agrees with, if either. Judging from comments on his NY Times columns, different people tend to make different assumptions about his views.

    2) Judging from others of his columns, Fish’s views on academic freedom are probably actually rather closer to yours than this column would lead one to guess.

    The points you raise about academic freedom and academic integrity are good ones (and it’s not clear to me whether Fish has considered them – he also deliberately limits the scope of his discussion), but the thing that really bugged me about Fish’s column was his implication that many, if not most, academics abuse the system and the freedoms it provides us. The concepts of academic freedom and tenure would have died long ago if not for the fact that in practice the system works shockingly well.