Academics have the right to make wrong arguments


The uneasy coexistence of academic freedom and more restrictive codes of conduct for scholars using social media has long caused confusion and consternation on US campuses.

But this seemingly unresolvable conflict seems particularly relevant at the present moment, especially when it comes to scholars making comments in the powder-keg context of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

That was the case when Cornell law professor William Jacobson used his personal blog to detail what he called the “false narrative” behind the creation of BLM in 2014 following the fatal shooting by police of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Jacobson, who proudly describes himself as a “conservative on a liberal campus”, argued the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan that originated from this incident, and was subsequently used as a rallying cry for activists and protestors, misrepresented the circumstances of Brown’s killing. It was a provocative stance, particularly for those, like myself, who have highlighted the highly contested events of Brown’s encounter with police that evening.

Cornell University’s default answer could have simply been to invoke its doctrine of academic freedom, which stridently – and correctly – protects faculty members’ freedom “to speak and write as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline”. Instead, Jacobson’s dean at Cornell, Eduardo M. Peñalver, issued a statement calling Jacobson’s posts “offensive and poorly reasoned”. Peñalver also said they were not in keeping with the core values of Cornell Law School, which is a harder claim to adjudicate.

Still, he defended the faculty’s speech rights and dismissed the idea of disciplinary action out of hand. This was also the correct approach to take. In his own voice, Peñalver had already issued an earlier statement supporting the George Floyd protests. By then recognising Jacobson’s right to speak, Peñalver acknowledges that modern universities will not speak with a single voice.

A second, more worrying, case occurred at Michigan State University, which recently forced the resignation of its vice-president of research Steve Hsu over dubious claims that he was a “vocal scientific racist and eugenicist”. That accusation rested on a string of decontextualised quotes on genetics and intelligence taken from Twitter and his personal blog, as well as anger at a recent tweet calling attention to a 2019 Michigan State study that found no link between race and police shootings.

Nevertheless, his resignation from his administrative role was sought – and tendered, though the theoretical physicist retained his faculty post – with president Samuel Stanley Jr explaining that “when senior administrators at MSU choose to speak out on any issue, they are viewed as speaking for the university as a whole”.

However, while Hsu’s removal was wrong, the emphasis on speaking like a citizen is crucial for academics because therein lies the connection between rights and the exercise of rights. This tissue of secondary principles is just as important as the basic rights themselves, and valid differences on these principles is where we find the difference between conservatives and progressives, and an important source of the right to be wrong. Both Jacobson and his dean agree on the principle of academic freedom, but they disagree on how to exercise it.

One of these crucial secondary principles is what Cornell’s handbook calls “responsibility”, and academic freedom is enshrined there on the presumption that “freedom [will be] accompanied by responsibility”.

When assessing controversial political viewpoints of academics, responsibility can be further explained by referring to political judgement. Sound judgement consists of factual knowledge, knowledge of the preferences of the persons affected by policy and principled moral reflection.

In Professor Jacobson’s case, he seems convinced that the BLM movement is “based on lies” and that it is his job to unmask or uncover them. His interpretation of the facts is not egregious. But the meaning of social movements is not defined entirely by their origin. They evolve over time. Rome’s revolution in 509 BC began with an outcry over sexual violence towards a noblewoman but morphed into a republican movement, creating a model of early participatory government that ran for five centuries. Consider the high hopes, but less than lofty returns, of the Arab Spring, which also began with individual violence and led to mass calls for democratic reform.

Factual records are, then, never “just the facts”. There are always complications involved. Even acceptable factual revisions raise questions about motivation: why this revision, at this time, with this framing?

As academics, we ask our students to understand the motivations of all parties involved, which means seeing the other side, indeed all the sides, including and especially the partisan limits of one’s own perspective. Reading critical works such as Suspect Race or The New Jim Crow may be enough to see the issue of police misconduct in its complexity, but sometimes it takes a moment of empathy. It is not up to scholars, however informed, to prescribe what directions popular social movements will take.

Faculty electing to pursue social engagement have a responsibility to develop a principled moral viewpoint. The difficult, iterative process of learning how society and politics work should not be an absolute barrier to the uninitiated, but the initiates have, I think, an extra responsibility to use their resources and privileges of position for informed, reflective engagement – not to score quick points, however tempting the urge to do so.

The humanities and social sciences have a responsibility to prod, remind and teach these reasoning skills and the ethics of persuasion. And these skills should be in evidence when faculty enter the domain of social media, even or especially when faculty are rightly protected from the chilling effects of retaliation by high academic walls.

Author Bio: Chris Barker is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo.