Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Academic freedom without responsibility has consequences 

I exchanged email last night at length with Eva about this Mirecki case. I think she misunderstood what I was trying to say, and if so perhaps others do as well. Let me see if I can clarify.

First, the point I was trying to make does not turn on whether or not you believe in intelligent design, creationism, evolution or the earth being a colony from Andromeda. Neither does it particularly matter to the point what subsequently has happened to Prof. Mirecki. I assume the beating he took was real (though as Mitch points out, you can't just take these things at face value any more), and until someone shows otherwise let's assume Prof. Mirecki is telling the truth about his attackers. If the attackers were indeed intentional in their attack on him for his views, they've sinned and they either repent or face damnation.

The point I was making Friday, however, was over the use of Prof. Mirecki's classroom towards a particular political end. His statements to this effect were public, though amplified by a comment on a private mailing list that folks found particularly objectional ("slapping fundies in their big fat faces.") My problem with this is that it is a threat to academic freedom. In the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, faculty are admonished that academic freedom comes with a price tag:
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution. (Emphasis added.)
You may argue that Mirecki has been accurate in the service of striking down malign creationists; I will venture that Mirecki did enough to indicate he did not speak for the University of Kansas. But he did not "show respect for the opinons of others" "at all times", and neither did he "exercise appropriate restraint". The AAUP's 1966 Statement on Professional Ethics makes the point even clearer.
As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.
Even in public and not on his mailing list, Prof. Mirecki did not discharge his "particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry." The email quoted was merely a plainer view of the dark heart behind which a course was created to let people know "the KU faculty has had enough." Has had enough what? Academic freedom?

The University of Kansas failed to hold Professor Mirecki to these professional standards. It bears responsibility for the public furor that resulted, and while some folks want to shovel about responsibility for the attack on the professor on rednecks and fundies, someone should throw some of the dirt towards an academy that allows professors to think using their classrooms as bully pulpits is OK.