The media view of Academic freedom, a century ago



Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of a famous editorial in the New York Times denouncing academic freedom, one that I quote in my article about the media and academic freedom in the new issue of Academe. Reacting to an AAUP report about the firing of Scott Nearing by the University of Pennsylvania, the New York Times attacked “the Professors’ Union” and the concept of academic freedom:

“Academic freedom,” that is, the inalienable right of every college instructor to make a fool of himself and his college by vealy, intemperate sensational prattle about every subject under heaven, to his classes and to the public, and still keep on the payroll or be reft therefrom only by elaborate process, is cried to all the winds by the organized dons.

This is a wonderful definition of academic freedom. That’s exactly what academic freedom is, when you strip away the lofty rhetoric: It is the right to say foolish things and keep your job, and the requirement of elaborate due process. Protecting the genius who says brilliant things is easy. It’s the fool who tests our commitment to academic freedom and this key principle.

Unfortunately, the New York Times was declaring this in order to denounce academic freedom. And perhaps today, most of the public and the media would take a similar stand: “Parents will not send their sons to, will withdraw their sons from, colleges which are afflicted with one of these rash and sudden utterers of flubdub.”

We need to explain why we need to protect “the utterers of flubdub”: First, that the attack on “flubdub” is often a cover for firing politically controversial professors with no regard for their academic qualifications. Second, that “flubdub” is in the eye of the beholder, and if you allow “flubdub” (or today’s equivalents) to justify dismissal, it can easily be turned against those whose views you like. Third, banning “flubdub” has a slippery slope, because it makes professors afraid to speak out honestly for fear of punishment.

One point I make in my Academe article is that social media don’t fundamentally change the principles of academic freedom, but they do make it easier to professors to write something deemed foolish and have the news about it spread widely. And that means we’re likely to see more professors suspended and fired for their utterances, whether it’s David Guth at the University of Kansas, Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, or the latest case, Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College.

Social media only change academic freedom if you endorse the position of the New York Times a century ago that foolish comments provide a good reason to fire professors. We need to defend academic freedom, and we need to defend (and encourage) the right of professors to participate in all aspects of communicating ideas to the public.