Posts Tagged ‘Academic freedom’

Academic freedom then and now

October 12, 2017

From a young age, I’ve believed in American ideals of freedom and democracy, as I understood them.   But my political thinking crystallized when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-1956 and took part in controversies about academic freedom then.

Academic freedom, as I conceives it then and still do, is the freedom of college faculty to engage in scholarship free from outside pressure, and the freedom of students to discuss and debate issues without restriction.

I regard the defense of freedom of expression as a defining principle of liberalism.  Back then most American leftists were liberals.   Sadly this is no longer true.

A plaque on Bascom Hall, on a high hill in the center of the liberal arts part of the campus, contained an excerpt from the Board of Regents declaration of 1894, when they resisted pressure from the state legislature to fire a professor for his outspoken pro-labor opinions.

The regents’ reply was that scholarship required free inquiry and was incompatible with censorship of opinion.

The academic freedom issues on the UW campus in the early 1950s were: (1) Should a known Communist, or a member of a group on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations, be automatically barred from employment on the UW faculty, and (2) Should Communists or groups on the Attorney-General’s list be eligible to participate in students activities?

In the year 1952, when I enrolled as a freshman, Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was still waging and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his influence.   McCarthy’s power was based on his charges, which later proved baseless, of Communist infiltration of government and other American institutions.   Interestingly, he represented Wisconsin, but never had anything to say about the University of Wisconsin.

Fear of Communists had a real basis.  It was not just the “intolerance of the intolerant” argument—that enemies of democracy were not entitled to democratic freedoms.

Communist parties in those days were subservient to Stalin.   In the 1930s, Communist parties all supported the idea of a Popular Front of radicals, liberals and conservatives against Hitler.   Then, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1940, they all opposed the British “imperialist” war.

After the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, they became anti-fascist again.   British and American Communists provided the Soviet Union with critical information about the U.S. atomic bomb.

Things are different now, but that’s how they were then.

Nevertheless, I and my friends took the extreme liberal position—the extreme libertarian position—that people should be judged on their individual actions, and not on group identity.

That wasn’t just a matter of justice.   If Communists were outlawed, or denied employment, for being Communists, then they wouldn’t identify themselves as Communists.    The only way to root them out would be to create an inquisition to determine people’s secret beliefs.   The obvious target for this inquisition would be those of us who are pro-labor, anti-racist and pro-civil liberties.

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Free speech on and off the campus

September 4, 2015

When I reported on business in Rochester, NY, for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s and 1990s, I found that most people were terrified of saying anything that might offend an employer or potential employer.

People could be fired or not hired for having a bad attitude, let alone saying or doing something that was out of line.

The only people I knew who were unafraid to speak as free Americans should were self-employed crafts workers and professionals, civil servants, tenured college professors and union members with good contracts.

AFDLogoSo-called “political correctness” in universities is a minor subset of a much bigger problem.  It is not as if it were the only threat, or even the main threat, even to academic freedom.

But two wrongs don’t make a right.   I take “political correctness” seriously, even though I have never been a member of academia myself, for the same reason I take killings by police more seriously than I take killings by criminal civilians.

The university community, and the scientific community, should embody free inquiry.  And liberals and progressives should be in the forefront of those defending free inquiry.

I attended the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate in the 1950s, and I believe in the famous UW Regents’ statement of 1894 of its commitment to “that fearless and endless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

You can’t have free inquiry when people are afraid to say what they think, or even to tell a joke.  Click on the links below for examples of what I mean.

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 I am triggered by people who fear books and speech by Alex Small for Physicist at Large.

The Timothy Hunt Witch Hunt by Jonathan Foreman for Commentary.

What Happened to a Govt Scientist Whose Findings Stood in the Way of Big Oil’s Plans for Arctic Drilling by Kamil Ahsan for AlterNet.

Why I am ‘politically correct’ (up to a point)

February 6, 2015

quote-let-me-never-fall-into-the-vulgar-mistake-of-dreaming-that-i-am-persecuted-whenever-i-am-ralph-waldo-emerson-227115

Whenever I hear someone say in a belligerent tone that he or she is “politically incorrect,” I take it to mean that the person is about to say something offensive or vulgar, and that anybody who criticizes is a timid conformist.

There are words I don’t use—”nigger,” “kike” and “faggot”—that are the language of murder.  They are the vocabulary of lynch mobs hanging black people, Cossacks conducting pogroms against Jewish villages, homophobes beating people sometimes to death.

bus_stop_colorFor that matter, I refrain from using words such “redneck.”  It originally was a derogatory term used by the Southern elite for men who worked all day in the hot sun, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

If I want to be treated with courtesy, I extend courtesy in return.  I make a reasonable effort to avoid giving offense.   I expect in return that other people not take offense when no offense is intended.

Being polite doesn’t mean that I self-censor what I say.  It means that I try to think of ways of saying what I have to say so that other people will listen, and that I listen to what they have to say in return.

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I’ve been called “racist” a few times during my life.   This didn’t shut me up..

I said I don’t deserve to be called by the same word that is used for Klansman and or Nazis.  I was told that this was not what was meant.  “We are all racists,” the other person would say.

I don’t agree, but I stopped taking offense.  If the meaning of “racist” is “average insensitive, ignorant white guy,” it probably applies.  But then another word is needed for the likes of David Duke.

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Women on the Internet are subject to terrible abuse, including threats of rape and dismemberment, especially when they express a pro-feminist point of view.

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Liberals, the left and academic freedom

February 6, 2015

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856I was a college student in the 1950s, the heyday of Joe McCarthy, and strongly believed in academic freedom, which was under attack.

The idea was that Communists, and people thought to be in sympathy with Communists, did not have the right to freedom of speech because they—by definition—did not believe in it themselves.

We liberals insisted that free speech was for everyone.  We frequently quoted John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and others who insisted that freedom meant that people on all sides of a question had a right to be heard.

The big issue was whether a student organization called the Labor Youth League, which was on the attorney-general’s list of subversive organizations, should be permitted on campus.  We liberals said it should.  The correct response to Communist arguments was to refute them, not to suppress them.

Our principles were that any student organization that followed impartial university rules should be permitted, and any college professor who was met impartial academic standards should be permitted to teach.  True education meant exposure to a diverse ideas, including ideas we might not like.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been been a part of the academic world.  But I get the idea that my concept of academic freedom is no longer taken for granted on campus.   There is a whole campus sub-culture based on a vocabulary that is new to me—”cis-gender,” “tone police,” “micro-aggression”, and, by some accounts, little tolerance for deviation from the new norms.

A graduate student named Fredrick deBoer wrote:

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.”  Not repeatedly.  Not with malice.  Not because of privilege.  She used the word once and was excoriated for it.  She never came back.  I watched that happen.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences.  He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist.  It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook.  But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war.  Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people.  I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him.  I saw that.  Myself.

via Fredrik deBoer.

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Nickel and diming freedom of speech

April 2, 2012

The video above tells the story of a University of Wisconsin professor who stood up to administrators who demanded he take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.   One of the things I was proud of was the university’s dedication to academic freedom, which is just another word for freedom of speech as practiced on the university level.   A plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, one of the main academic buildings,  quoted as follows from a Board of Regents declaration in 1894 defending the rights of a professor who was under attack by members of the state legislature for allegedly advocating socialism.

WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT FEARLESS AND ENDLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.

When I attended the University of Wisconsin, the administration and faculty lived up to that declaration.   This was in the era of Joe McCarthy, and the university administration was under pressure to ban the Labor Youth League, a student organization which was on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations.  The administration said that so long as the LYL observed the university’s rules, they had as much right to hold meetings and invite outside speakers as any other–which was what they should have done, but not everybody would have agreed with in those days.

More recently the University stood up for Prof. William Cronon, the distinguished geographer-historian, when he came under attack by members of the state legislature after revealing that legislation proposed by the Scott Walker administration was drafted by an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council,  which is backed by the right-wing Koch brothers.[1]

But while defending itself against external threats to free speech, the University of Wisconsin’s internal policies subordinate free speech to other goals, such as “sensitivity.”  The University of Wisconsin was one of the universities which had speech codes in the 1990s prohibiting “demeaning verbal and other expressive behavior.”  While this code has been repealed, the attitude it reflects lives on, as depicted in the video above.   The video tells the story of Prof. James Miller, who was ordered to take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language, and then an anti-fascist poster on the same grounds.  He might have lost his job and suffered greatly in his career if the libertarian Foundation for Individual Freedom on Campus had not taken up his case.

You might argue such a restriction doesn’t matter.  You can have a full and free discussion of almost any issue without using violent language.  Or using language that is demeaning to women, gays, racial minorities or people with handicaps.   Or denying that the Holocaust occurred.  Or disrespecting the American flag.  Or exhibiting dirty or anti-Christian works of art in Museums.  Or mocking Mohammad.   Or making overly harsh criticisms of the state of Israel.   Or advocating revolution.  Or praising terrorism.   Or publishing representations of the Nazi swastika.  Or flying the Confederate battle flag.  But all these things add up.  And each restriction is a justification for imposing another and bigger one.

I believe in the “broken windows” approach to freedom of speech.  Sociologists have found that a vacant building may stand intact for weeks or months, but as soon as one window is broken, pretty soon all the windows will be broken.  So it is with freedom of speech and other basic Constitutional rights.

Click on Cracking the Speech Code for a good article on the rise and fall of the University of Wisconsin’s speech code in Reason magazine.

Click on PC Never Died for a good article on campus free speech also from Reason magazine.   As the writer points out, freedom of speech is not a left vs. right issue.  Principled conservatives opposed Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s.  Principled liberals opposed the campus speech codes in the 1990s and today.

I personally am not the kind of person who boasts of being “politically incorrect.”  I make a conscious effort to avoid saying or doing things that are needlessly insulting, demeaning or cruel, and to avoid joining in when others do so.  To my mind, this is, among other things, good manners.   I don’t think much is gained by trying to enforce good manners by handing down rules and regulations.  The best way to promote civility is to try to set an example.

Click on FIRE for the home page of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[1]  Prof. Cronon did not claim there is anything wrong in itself for a state legislature to use model legislation drafted by a private group.  He only said that the public has a right to know who is drafting their laws.

Hat tip for the video to Virginia Prostel.

Who’s writing the laws?

March 31, 2011

William Cronon is an outstanding historian on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin.  I own two of his books, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Both made me see the relation of history to geography and the natural world in a new way.

William Cronon

Recently Prof. Cronon turned his attention to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislative program, and found some interesting things about where they’re coming from.  Among other things, he found that the laws of Wisconsin are being drafted by an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council. I never heard of it before, but evidently it has been drafting model legislation for conservative legislators for 40 years, and claims a good success rate in getting its ideas enacted into law.  Proposals such as Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law don’t come out of nowhere.  They are part of a concerted nationwide effort.

As Cronon emphasizes, there is nothing wrong with people banding together to advance a political program they believe in.  The rise of the conservative movement in the United States in the past 50 years is a remarkable success story, and worthy of emulation by those of us who want to move the country in a different direction.  At the same time, I wonder why I never heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Cornon posted his findings on his new web log.  I won’t try to summarize his post.  Click on Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here) to read it.   I strongly recommend reading the post in its entirety.

Wisconsin’s Republicans haven’t taken Cronon’s writings lightly.  The Wisconsin Republican Party has used Wisconsin’s Open Records Law to subpoena any of Cronon’s messages on his university e-mail account that may relate to Republicans and politics; they won’t say why.  Click on A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin for the New York Times comment on this.

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