Monday, January 02, 2006

Academic freedom stalking horse 

Via Joanne Jacobs, I read Charlotte Hays' dissection of the Difficult Dialogues initiative, which is has given away nearly $3 million to 43 schools so they can talk about race, sexual identification and religion. Ms. Hays finds the project dubious.
My own most recent experience with dialogue was a meeting to discuss why there aren't more women working on editorial pages. When I suggested that editorialists aren't hired on the basis of their sex, I learned that if you stake out a heretical position, nobody really listens.
She details the types of projects that are being paid for with this money, such as a role-playing game for the creation of Israel (operated out of the school's Women's Center, for reasons I can't figure out) and
The University of Nebraska, Omaha, has boldly named its initiative "Breaking Silence." It will aim at "open, productive dialogues on issues of religion, sexuality and race." Yes, the silence on all those subjects has been deafening. No doubt the Omaha dialogues will aide participants in "understanding the complex roots of bigotry," as Ford's grant prospectus puts it. And if participants are lucky and someone in the room announces his opposition to gay marriage, students will productively be told that they have real live bigots in their very midst.
Indeed. The Ford Foundation argues that the purpose of its grant is to promote academic freedom. Yet within its request for proposals was this view of what academic freedom means.
University professors enjoy, both as teachers and as citizens, substantial latitude in what they say and what they write�free from institutional constraints or sanctions�save in rare situations. If, however, professors seek to exploit students, coerce the views of students, or display a demonstrable lack of competence in their discipline, their academic colleagues may conclude that their expression exceeds the limits of academic freedom. That is, academic freedom must always be accompanied by academic responsibility. Defending academic freedom also entails sensitivity to those rare cases where it is abused. Indeed, a central mission of academic freedom is to afford students the broadest range of learning opportunities as they prepare to understand and engage in an increasingly heterogeneous and global community.
Now if Difficult Dialogues was committed to that view, it might support proposals that included putting alternative viewpoints in the discussion. But within the RFP itself it limited its proposals to looking only at "religious pluralism or cultural diversity." A discussion of Islam that included the work of Victor Davis Hanson, for example, is probably not among the RFPs selected for funding.

This use of "academic freedom" as a stalking horse for continuing to promote illiberal views of academic discourse is on the increase. Our campus recently passed a statement on adopting the AAUP principles on academic freedom, but the discussion of the campus is leery of any attempt to create an oversight board of faculty that would look into "those rare cases where it is abused." To them, the oversight board investigating Ward Churchill is a chill on academic freedom, not its defense. Do not be fooled by statements that "academic freedom must always be accompanied by academic responsibility." The abusers are already in power, and they will give up that power only with a great fight.