Things academic freedom does not mean:
- Profs allowed to say whatever they want in class lectures. They largely do have that freedom, but only because neither the department, nor the college, nor the university give a rat’s ass what goes in in classrooms. Faculty exist to publish papers and bring in grant money.
- Profs allowed to write what they want, protected from having their careers hurt by tenure. This is closer to the truth, but it’s not really what academics mean by their “freedom”. It’s not too hard to put pressure on a tenured professor. He still has to worry about funding, committee assignments, and promotions. Being labeled a crackpot would be devastating to him.
Actually, it seems to me that “academic freedom” means something different in the natural sciences and in the humanities/social sciences. For most of us natural scientists, it’s inconceivable that a department or funding agency would try to dictate our results to us. Academic freedom for a scientist means the right to work on whatever problem he wants. Not everybody has this freedom. Postdocs (the one’s not on fellowships) don’t have academic freedom; they have to spend most of their time working on the problem the professor who pays their salary wants them to. In theory, a tenured professor who was hired as a biophysicist can decide to start doing research in solid state physics, and he can’t be punished for that. Of course, there are practical difficulties with such branching which makes it uncommon.
In the social sciences/humanities, there obviously are restrictions on what claims one can make. Deviation from PC brings terrible retaliation–“hostile work environment” for minorities and perverts, and all that. How do they square this with their purported commitment to academic freedom? Perhaps JMSmith can help me out on this*, but my impression is that, in the social sciences and humanities, “academic freedom” refers to the department, or perhaps the field, as a whole. Society at large shall not retaliate against sociology as a discipline or against any particular sociology department because of sociologists’ work to delegitimize that society. The discipline’s internal policing is an entirely separate matter.
* For interested readers, here was JMSmith’s reply:
With respect to publication, academic freedom in the social sciences exists for any cabal large enough to control some funding streams and a couple of “peer reviewed” journals. And for many sorts of “research,” all that is needed is a journal or two. An eccentric social scientist will be unable to publish his work, and so has no effective freedom, but an eccentric group of social scientists can get along very nicely. Practitioners of “queer theory” would be an example.
Academic freedom is more often mentioned when questions are raised about course content. Sometimes this is a cover for ideologically biased courses, but it is more frequently used to defend an idiosyncratic syllabus. I don’t have a problem with a somewhat idiosyncratic syllabus. In most of the social sciences there are many things one may teach and few things one must teach, and professors teach best when they are interested in the material.
One could argue that crackpots are a majority in many social sciences. These are, after all, people who believe in the labor theory of value, contact theory, and the idea that sex is a social construct. But I think what you’re describing is what I call the “wild man.” A wild man is either embarrassingly passionate or embarrassingly angry (often about his own professional disappointments). His hair is often wild, his dress slovenly, and he is known for shouting at professional meetings. All of this is in very bad taste. An academic is expected to be serious, not passionate. And if he gets shafted, he must never mention it.
As I understand it, the concept of academic freedom came from the German universities, where it meant that professors were not subject to religious or political tests. One didn’t have to belong to the ruling party or the state religion in order to teach, say, chemistry at the university. So academic freedom was originally a means to ensure that academics was a meritocracy, not a patronage system. It was not a license to do as one pleased.
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