New book argues for narrower definition of academic freedom
Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth believe in academic freedom, but not in the way we hear it in 2022, with social media spewing hate (amongst other things) and colleges employing many adjuncts, usually without job security which is part of academic freedom.
Bérubé and Ruth argue in their new book, It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press), that college and university professors should adopt and enforce academic freedom policies that distinguish broad First Amendment definitions (which, after all, include a lot of hate) from a new definition of freedom academic for the public good. Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University and Ruth is Professor of Film at Portland State University. They answered questions by email.
Q: Many professors have long regarded the First Amendment as the best guarantee of academic freedom in public colleges and private colleges that agree to follow it. What’s wrong with the First Amendment to guarantee academic freedom?
A: What’s wrong is that the First Amendment has no bearing on academic freedom, because the First Amendment has nothing to do with scientific expertise. It prohibits prior state restriction of speech and certainly does not require or expect that speech to be accountable or informed in any way. Moreover, freedom of expression is an individual right. While academic freedom, as a collective right of faculty, requires that faculty research and teaching be independent of outside influence – donors, administrators, legislators, journalists, bystanders – because faculty have established systems rigorous peer review that verifies knowledge so that the search for truth (or justice or good) is undertaken in an intellectually legitimate manner.
As Robert Post says Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State, the First Amendment has to do with democratic legitimation — that is, the belief that we can all participate in public debate without fear of government repression or reprisal — whereas academic freedom is about competence democracy, or the development of expert regimes that establish that certain forms of discourse are more informed and reliable and can function as resources for an informed population. This distinction is not widely understood, which is one of the reasons why millions of people consult Joe Rogan.
Q: Why is it important that much of the speech you’re talking about is shared on social media?
A: For two reasons, one of which is that we have learned that a global mass communications system that connects two billion people around the world is not like a big cafe where people exchange reasoned ideas about good life and a just society. Rather, it is an incubator for campaigns against shadowy pedophile rings operating in pizzerias, reckless accusations of gay teachers “grooming” children, and calls for mass violence, insurrection and to genocide. The other is that social media discourse, for professors, is usually “extramural” discourse, that is, where academic freedom overlaps with freedom of expression in confusing and paradoxical ways. .
It takes a whole chapter to explain it, so it’s hard to condense it here, but the result is that in extramural discourse, there’s an inverse relationship between a teacher’s expertise and their freedom: professors have more leeway when talking about subjects on which they have no expertise than when talking about their areas of expertise (the classic example being the Holocaust denying historian who is inept at to the Holocaust-denying engineering professor who is just a crank), because the latter type of talk arguably has implications for judgments about their ability to teach, while the former does not.
Q: How do you know if a faculty member’s views really go beyond the protections of academic freedom?
A: We’re basically proposing that this question be put to a jury of their peers. We want to assure our readers (and especially our potential readers) that we do not intend to try to judge every case in the country. We have a strong feeling that, for example, a health policy professor who holds a high-ranking government position and proceeds to spread medical misinformation in the midst of a pandemic has made a pretty good case for his unfitness. The same goes for a media studies professor who has no idea what a “trusted source” is and is in the business of spreading QAnon-grade conspiracy theories on and off campus, or a professor who believes in theories of racial or cultural hierarchy so fraudulent that they might also involve calipers and head measurements.
Someone who raises controversial issues in their field that a subset of their peers, even if it is a relatively small subset, finds credible and worth pursuing is one thing – one legitimate thing. It is quite another to recycle long-debunked ideas by attempting to force them back into the academic arena in the name of “free speech” without being able to adequately defend them (whether through peer review in credible media or in response to a convened panel of faculty peers).
Q: You cite Peter Singer of Princeton University and John Yoo of the University of California at Berkeley as examples of professors whose work includes the offensive and the valuable. How would you treat them in terms of academic freedom?
A: Pretty much the way they’re treated now. Here’s what we say in the book: “In Singer’s case, we can only suggest that people should ignore his views on human beings with significant intellectual disabilities, a subject on which, despite the volume of his writings to this subject, he remains under-informed. and remarkably uncurious. His work on animal rights and inequality, on the other hand, remains hugely important. Similarly, we imagine that John Yoo could be defended for his work in other areas of the law, areas that do not involve the commission and justification of crimes against humanity. We say that it is possible – though admittedly not easy – to value some aspect of a scholar’s work while asserting that no sane person should take that scholar’s work seriously when advocating torture or infanticide.
Q: What does academic freedom look like if your views are embraced?
A: First, it would take dispute resolution over academic freedom out of the hands of administrators, where it too often resides now, and put it in the hands of faculty peers. This has long been considered best practice by the American Association of University Teachers, but it is not consistently followed and too many cases fall outside the jurisdiction of peer review today. For example, faculty in contingent positions rarely enjoy due process when their research, teaching, or extramural speech is criticized. Administrators can appease partisan forces by simply not rehiring instructors who have become the focus of fabricated outrage. On the other hand, there are the professors whose privileged positions give their discourse a credibility that makes their dissemination of misinformation and disinformation particularly dangerous. One could say that such actors undermine rather than enable the job that universities are supposed to do for democratic societies, which is precisely to discriminate between high and low quality discourse in order to inhibit the development of alternative realities rooted in power, vested interests and conspiratorial delusions.
Second, because the academic freedom committees that we would like to see at institutions across the country would operate with a high degree of clarity around the distinction between free speech and academic freedom, they would understand their work within the context of what has long been considered academic the justification of freedom, that is, the common good. Academic freedom must be grounded in the common good, and the common good is itself an intelligible concept only if what Charles W. Mills calls non-ideal forms of equality and justice (that is, say not colour-blind and abstract but based on history and reality) much appreciated, just like freedom.
If we do not assume the equal dignity and worth of all humans, we will inevitably create regimes of abstract “freedom” that will privilege some groups over others in the name of specious universalism. Our hope is that the procedural component of academic freedom – the deliberative process, with authority distributed among a horizontal panel of peers – will help shape outcomes more consistent with its philosophical underpinnings in the common good. Instead of dwelling on whether or not an individual has the right to put forward a particular point of view, they could focus on whether the points of view put forward are intellectually legitimate and whether they are credible in the service of a diverse, complex and – hopefully – functioning democracy.