Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Where's the edge of academic freedom? 

I'd like to move away from the previous post to discuss academic freedom in a different way. The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber link here) has an article today about the pressure groups trying to persuade Utah State University to censure or even fire Prof. David Hailey for arguing that the Rathergate memos were in fact typed on a typewriter. He is not saying they are real, just that they were most likely not done in word, as LGF and PowerLine first reported and as most experts now seem to agree.

Mr. Hailey has no direct experience in forensic textual analysis, but he has taught courses in textual design and digital archiving for many years. "I've been up to my eyeballs in text since 1966," he said in an interview on Monday.

A number of online critics, not all of whom say Mr. Hailey should be formally punished, have argued during the past several days that his report is sloppy and deceptive. Some critics have even campaigned against Mr. Hailey, sometimes in vitriolic terms. Kermit Hall, president of Utah State, estimated in an interview on Monday that he had received 25 e-mail messages condemning Mr. Hailey.

Mr. Hailey has denied a partisan motive. "The purpose of this report has never been to demonstrate that these memos are authentic," he said on Monday. "The purpose has always been simply to figure out what typeface was used. And then I also felt kind of bad about Dan Rather's situation ... Given the physical nature of these documents, there's no reason that [CBS officials] should have known that they were not authentic."

OK, he's acting within his area of expertise. He is being criticized for doing sloppy research, and perhaps even forging the documents. Forgery would be a case for dismissal, I think we agree. But short of that, pressuring him to be censured or fired is beyond the bounds, because he is working within his area of expertise.

Mr. Hailey said that university administrators have been "totally supportive."

"They see this as an issue of academic freedom and freedom of speech," he
said. "They looked at my stuff. It was not political. It was an area where I'm,
if not an expert, at least able to come up with an informed opinion."

Bringing this back to St. Cloud: Someone on the discuss list today asked about these limits as well. Someone in the discussion on the post below suggested the following:
I would say that if I used my position as a History professor to tell my students that history teaches us irrefutably that we should vote Democratic, I would be abusing my position and overstepping the authority of my discipline. If, however, I say that the overwhelming consensus of my discipline is that racism has been a central force in Americn history and has profound impacts on contemporary society, I am making an accurate statement with political implications. Where is the line between these two statements? If a faculty member is convinced that solid scholarly research proves that George W. Bush was dead wrong on issue X, and says so in a University-sponsored forum, is that acceptable?
I would have to answer he's right on the last question, though I sincerely doubt that there is an "overwhelming consensus" of historians that view racism as "a central force in American history". If it turned it he's right about that, too, then there's no issue in saying so, just as it is accurate for me to represent the overwhelming consensus of economists that free trade is beneficial to society. And on that basis I'd also have to answer that Prof. Hailey, though perhaps misguided and maybe incorrect, is entitled to express himself (again, absent the possibility that he forged his results, a possibility that remains only that at this time.)

Again, though, what makes that correct is that Hailey studies type fonts, or my colleague is a historian, speaking through their own expertises. It is difficult for me to accept that a department of multicultural education (whatever this means -- I confess to not fully understanding the term) is somehow qualified to give their professional imprimatur on a piece about media bias.