Academic Freedom, True and False
Tibor R. Machan
It is nothing new?the controversy about what academic freedom amounts to.
At the University of Colorado a professor, Ward Churchill, wrote an essay
claiming the victims in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center were
little Eichmans, suggesting that WTC professionals were perpetrating
genocide?even if they didn?t overtly intend to do so?by being complicit in
activities that contribute to attacks on certain ethnic groups. I have no
idea which ethnic groups he had in mind, nor how WTC folks were supposed
to bring off this deed. The point is he made this outrageous claim.
University of Colorado officials are now reported to be bent out of shape
about what to do about this person.
In another case the University of New Mexico had to deal with Richard
Berthold, a former history professor, who had told students just after the
9/11 attacks: "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote." The
university didn?t fire him as many had urged but conducted some kind of
review and in time issued a letter of reprimand after he had apologized.
We actually have different cases here. In the one involving Ward
Churchill, he wrote an essay, which clearly comes under academic
freedom?the well entrenched and officially proclaimed tradition at most
higher academic institutions in the USA of the liberty of university and
other teachers to produce works that develop and even promote various
ideas, however objectionable these may be. In the case of Richard
Berthold, however, we have someone who ?told students? his highly
contentious opinion and here something else comes to the fore: the ethics
pertaining to a teacher?s professional responsibilities.
There are gray areas, of course, in all human affairs, including academic
freedom vs. academic ethics, which is why we have faculty committees to
look into such cases now and then. One professor at the University of
Nevada, Las Vegas, reportedly got into hot water with his administration
because he gave an example of a gay couple in a discussion of the
economics of savings. He observed that given that gays aren?t so likely to
have kids as heterosexuals, the probability of their saving as diligently
as heterosexuals do is significantly lower. For this observation some
student complained to the administration and he is now under
investigation, possibly getting reprimanded and docked a month of pay.
This professor was addressing his students in his professional capacity
but he wasn?t advocating anything but using an apt example to illustrate a
point in economics, one, however, that made a student uncomfortable.
Had he advocated something to his class about gays being bad people for
failing to save for the future, the matter would raise certain valid
questions: Is he abusing his position by advocating to a captive audience
that is not there to hear his own values, be these right or wrong? Is he
unqualified to judge whether not saving on the part of gays is something
objectionable? In both cases if the answer is in the affirmative, academic
freedom would not apply. However, if he published an essay promoting such
views, that would fall under academic freedom, regardless of how wrong
they may be.
Much of the problem with academic freedom is to distinguish advocacy from
coverage of the discipline?s various topics. One should be free in a
political theory course to explain the Nazi's position; however, one
should not be free to use one?s classroom as a platform for advocating
one?s own views, be it for or against Nazism. This is not a matter of
academic freedom but of professional competence and ethics.
Suppose one decided to tell jokes in class all day long?to take a bit of
an extreme case for illustrative purposes?instead of covering the topic
one is supposed to be teaching. Now if they fire such a person or issue a
reprimand, that's perfectly OK. The matter has nothing to do with academic
freedom. Now suppose one writes a book of jokes under one?s real name, one
that is quite offensive to some people. This an academician ought to be
free to do without any sanctions applied to by one?s academic employer.
That's academic freedom.
However, suppose one writes a book in the field of history and it gets
published and in it one claims that Abraham Lincoln was president of the
United States of America in 1984. This, is gross incompetence and one
should get one?s comeuppance for it?it has nothing to do with academic
freedom. And it need not be so gross, in fact?demonstrably bad historical
scholarship qualifies as incompetence in the field and isn?t protected by
The biggest problem, of course, is that universities are funded with
money taken in taxes from all citizens, many of whom don?t believe in
granting academic freedom to people with what they regard as highly
objectionable viewpoints. So these victims of such taxation will agitate,
often vigorously, against defending the academic freedom of those
professors and scholars of whom they disapprove. And they are right?not
because academic freedom is a bad idea but because having them fund such
scholars against their will is a bad idea.