Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Lopsided Warning

Tibor R. Machan

The president of the AAUP--American Association of University Professors--issued a lengthy declaration warning the membership against getting involved with BP, the giant oil company whose operations have gone awry in the Gulf of Mexico and whose management is suspected of numerous failures and malpractices that have lead to the disaster in the Gulf. Of course, this, like some other high visible corporate infelicities have provoked innumerable people, pundits, government officials, bureaucrats, and, of course, most of all the cheerleaders of extensive government regulation of business, to chime in with a chorus of condemnation not only of BP (way before any serious scrutiny of its conduct has been carried out) but of big business itself.

Gary Nelson, AAUP’s president, joined in with his lengthy dissertation imploring academicians--professors and researchers alike--to refuse any job offers from BP which contained contractual provisions that would keep research and scholarship about the GUlf disaster secret or the property of BP. Sounding the mantra of threatening academic freedom--which, strictly speaking, such contracts do not threaten at all--President Nelson paints BP in the worst possible light, which, incidentally, may very well turn out to be justified (although it is at this point too early to tell and anyone with the slightest respect for due process of law, or even morality, would probably best remain silent).

But that is not what is really the most disturbing part of what Craig Nelson has done here. The worst thing is the lopsided nature of his warning. The greatest and bona fide threat to academic freedom does not come from BP and other big corporations. It comes from governments that are knee deep involved in American higher education and university scientific and technological research across the country. The sums of moneys taxpayers are coerced to contribute to universities is staggering. All those costly experiments conducted by the astro- or high energy, particle physicists across the land are funded by the taxpayers, other than those that some big private businesses support voluntarily (!).

When and if Professor Nelson identifies the source of troubles in higher education as stemming from massive government involvement, including funding and regulation, his lamentations about big business may acquire some measure of credibility but before that he has no basis for all his righteous cautionary words about academics getting into bed with big corporations. The threat from government to academic freedom, scholarly impartiality, lack of bias and partisanship is far greater than that coming from associating with big business--one can always, even if with difficulty, withdraw from businesses and go to some that behave better, but there is but one (or a few different levels of) government and usually equipped with guns to get its tasks achieved.

Nor is there any justification in treating government officials as if they were all knowing and virtuous, while corporate managers are regarded as villains. They aren’t public servants any more than are the rest of us. The idea of their having special virtues that qualify them to regiment around professionals of all sorts, including people in business, is misguided or an out and out ruse. Or maybe it’s just rank prejudice, especially in light of the source of most of the world’s deadly wars having been and still being waged by governments. BP has its serious faults but the federal government of nearly every country is far worse.

The first task for academicians is to achieve genuine independence, which must include independence of government funding and its cherry picking of where support will be given and where it will be withheld. Once that theme is central to the message of AAUP president Nelson and others like him, they will have earned the warrant to engage in chiding professors who may chose to join big businesses in the capacity of apologists.

But we should not hold our breaths waiting for this. Consistency and integrity are far from the list of virtues of the likes of Professor Nelson, at least when it comes to this topic.