Academic freedom, attacked left and right

The university has a unique mission. Does anyone remember what it is?

A mortarboard.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Universities are surprisingly popular places. In surveys of public confidence, they fare better than banks, big corporations, and the entertainment industry — and much better than journalists. While only about a third of Americans have a degree, colleges play an outsize role in popular culture, too. That includes the massive collegiate athletics industry as well as niche products like The Chair.

Attitudes toward higher education are sharply partisan, though. A Pew study in August found 76 percent of Democrats but only 34 percent of Republicans believe colleges have a positive social impact. And that difference is reflected in two recent controversies about academic freedom, one at Yale Law School (YLS) and one at the University of Georgia. Disparate in some respects, both incidents involve subversion of the university's core principle of academic freedom in pursuit of knowledge.

In the first case, at Yale, administrators have come under fire for pressuring a student to apologize for hosting a "traphouse" party featuring "Popeye's chicken" and "basic-b--ch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.)." Recordings show an associate dean and the YLS diversity director threatened professional consequences for the student, whose ostensibly "triggering" activities also included participation in the Federalist Society, an influential right-leaning legal scholarship organization. "You're a law student," they warned, "and there's a bar you have to take."

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The Yale story was much-discussed among prominent commentators. The Georgia case has attracted much less attention outside academic circles. On Wednesday, the regents of the University of Georgia system voted to revise its employment policies, making it easier to fire tenured faculty.

These situations are superficially distinct. At Yale, the administrators' intervention reflects the exquisite sensitivity that increasingly defines campus life, but YLS did not open an investigation or formally punish the student. Strictly speaking, his freedoms of speech and association were not constrained. (A trollish party invitation is also a long way from a classroom discussion, let alone a scholarly publication.)

On its face, the Georgia vote is a dry bureaucratic decision without the ideological elements that inspire cultural war drama. But revision of tenure policies across a major state university system is a big deal, potentially affecting tens of thousands of faculty members. Efforts to limit or abolish tenure won't stay confined to Georgia, either. Comparable proposals in Iowa and other states haven't been successful so far, but the Georgia decision is sure to energize critics of the present approach to tenure.

For all their apparent disparities, the underlying motive in both these stories is a rejection of academic autonomy and the core purpose of the university as an institution devoted to discovering and transmitting knowledge. The tenure revision is the right-wing variant, born of a longstanding suspicion of "tenured radicals" who use their protected position to corrupt American youth instead of teaching.

The Yale incident, meanwhile, reflects an alternative to academic autonomy that's appealing to progressives and Democrats, including many with favorable views of higher education. On this view, a university an institution of moral formation — not the religious instruction of elite universities' foundings but a therapeutic conception of social justice obsessed with subtle expressions of ostensible privilege.

The main players in this enterprise, at Yale and far beyond, aren't scholars engaged in disciplinary teaching or study. They're administrators who regard the university as a haven for social movements. Despite widespread concerns about faculty bias, these administrators are the real outliers in their political views, leaning far to the left of faculty and students, to say nothing of the public at large.

Some administrators play a vital role in sustaining core academic functions, but others see their job as policing students' extracurricular activities. In a statement released as public criticism grew, Yale reassured the world that "the dean of students routinely tries to help students talk to one another and resolve their disagreements within the community." That leaves unexplained whether students — in this case, legal adults who mostly live off campus — want or need their assistance.

The co-optation of YLS by the student affairs bureaucracy is one way of rejecting a special academic mission. But attacks on tenure have the same final result. Strong protections against dismissal strike many critics of higher education as an affront to market rationality: If private firms are free to hire the best talent and fire employees who don't perform, they argue, universities should be free to do the same. The strongest critiques of tenure highlight genuine if sometimes exaggerated problems, including the misallocation of faculty to underenrolled subjects or outdated specialties and delayed retirements that create a bottleneck to the advancement of young scholars.

More often, though, tenure opposition is based on mistaken assumptions that professors are lazy or engaged in widespread indoctrination. In conservative media, the influence of left-wing administrators (or even students themselves) is sometimes characterized as "totalitarian." That's an obvious exaggeration; no one's being exiled or executed. The term hits a nerve, though, because it was coined to describe the subjection of every activity to the demands of politics. And that's the problem with subordinating the university to the pursuit of equity, as understood by 30-something administrators with minimal experience of teaching or scholarship.

Ironically, the reduction or elimination of tenure, which is supposed to be an antidote to this politicization, does the same thing. Instructors who fear for their jobs aren't going to be more independent of administrative influence or political fads. Quite the opposite. Removing tenure protections will not make the academy more conservative, only less free.

It's not easy to resist these challenges, which go back decades and are backed by powerful interests. But real friends of the university might start by reflecting on its institutional distinctives. Any number of institutions can provide professional training, applied research, moral formation, sports entertainment, and other tasks that have been piled onto the academic agenda. But the university is unique as "a setting for the scholarly and scientific imagination," wrote sociologist Robert Nisbet in his neglected but perceptive study The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Universities, in other words, are a place for developing and exploring the ideas that inspire, regulate, and correct the pursuit of knowledge.

That ideal is the standard against which any university policy or procedure should be judged. For student speech, that means permitting offensive language and statements so long as they fall short of threats and harassment. The reason is not that all ideas or modes of expression have equal value. Rather, it's that an institution in which even party invitations are subject to official scrutiny is one in which self-censorship will inevitably infect genuine inquiry.

When it comes to tenure, that means recognizing faculty appointments are different from hiring for non-academic jobs. More than a contract for employment on specific terms, they are an invitation to participation in a particular kind of community. It's only appropriate for fellow members of that community to alone be empowered to decide whether that invitation should be revoked, except in cases of gross misbehavior.

Yet Nisbet's idea of a university has few advocates today, even on faculties. By embracing a narrow conception of research at the expense of both general education and institutional service, professors have unintentionally encouraged false friends on the left and critics on the right. The first step to defending academic freedom is recovering and understanding of what universities are for. As a career academic who's never been eligible for tenure (and probably never will be), I hope it's not too late.

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