May 7, 2010

Free, not clear: panels discuss pitfalls of academic freedom

[img id="78299" align="alignleft"]

It’s a good thing for New York Times columnist Stanley Fish that the University is so dedicated to academic freedom.

That's because Fish took a different stance from President Robert Zimmer in his keynote address of this week's academic freedom conference, disagreeing over the moral argument justifying those freedoms.

“The trouble with the term ‘academic freedom’ is that the emphasis always falls on the freedom and not on the academic part...Freedom is too large a concept that conjures images from the last scene of a bad Mel Gibson movie,” he said.

In consecutive events, Zimmer and law professor Geoffrey Stone discussed why academic freedom needs to be protected, while Fish critiqued their commitment to the ideal. Fish, the conference’s keynote speaker, proposed a much narrower definition of academic freedom.

To Fish, academic freedom means no more or less than the demands of one’s job. “It is freedom to do the job, not the freedom to change it or shirk it,” he said, reacting to Zimmer’s and Stone’s reliance on philosphical, moral, and legal arguments in support of open discourse.

The conference began Wednesday with a panel on academic freedom around the world. Calling academic freedom “a house in disrepair,” law professor Aziz Huq opened the panel with a speech arguing that the law that protects academic freedom has eroded, even as American culture grows more accepting of academic freedom.

“The law—in the form of judgments from the Supreme Court and the lower tiers of federal courts—is at best fragmentary and at worst destitute. Particular academies at our great public, state-run universities, from the University of Virginia on one coast to the University of California on another, have only uncertain protection from meddling by state officials,” Huq said.

One panel member, third-year Nadia Ismail, who is the director of Students for Justice in Palestine, raised the issue of Ehud Olmert’s October speech on campus, at which protesters jeered the former Prime Minister of Israel so that he couldn’t speak for almost an hour. Ismail said the University should not have brought such a divisive speaker to campus—Olmert has been accused of war crimes—and that questions were not moderated fairly, though she said she warned administrators.

“This has made me greatly concerned about the future and the sanctiy of academic freedom on this campus,” Ismail said.

On Thursday, Zimmer noted that the University itself does not invite speakers to campus, but creates a structure that allows others to do so, and that regardless, the culture of speech far outweighs the benefits of preventing the speech.

“You say this person is evil because he has committed some set of acts. When you say that, you are in the business of deciding who is good and bad,” he said, though he did not mention Olmert specifically.

Days after Olmert’s visit, Zimmer sent an e-mail to the University community emphasizing the importance of free discourse. Second-year law student Josh Bushinsky, who helped organize the conference, said the controversy around Olmert was one of the reasons for holding the conference.

“Part of the conversation on campus this year has revolved around the Olmert speech, and there are constantly questions of what the boundaries are within the context of academic freedom,” Bushinsky said.

There were several other panels on Thursday, including one on academic freedom and the admissions process, and one on academic freedom and the Oriental Institute.

Zimmer argued that the University should not adopt formal stances on issues because it would affect the culture of free speech on campus. “I keep emphasizing culture because, yes, the rules are important, but you are not going to be able to legislate an open discourse,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of writing down a bunch of structural rules.”

But Fish said academic freedom has no legal, moral, or philosophical meaning. Instead, it should provide professors, not students or administrators, with a way to complete a certain task.

Fish has a history of arguing against lionizing free speech. In 1995, he published a book chapter called, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” in which he argues that free speech is not protected because of any inherent value, but because particular speech advances various societal preferences.

Fish understands why academics want their freedom, he said, “but you don’t have the right to it. It is, in fact, a form of guild protectionalism, which other people quite reasonably don’t want to grant to you.”

—Additional reporting by Asher Klein.