Academic Freedom or Government Intrusion

September 9, 2005

Academic Freedom or Government Intrusion

In preparing students for lifelong learning and democratic citizenship, today's great universities are more open than ever to intellectual diversity. Students learn to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries when they examine issues like AIDS and global terrorism from the multiple perspectives and with the methodologies that faculty members bring to the classroom.

Why, then, the perception of a chill among people who complain that certain views are not allowed full expression on our campuses? Perhaps it derives from the fact that universities are considering some of the most controversial issues of our time, like the ethics of stem-cell research and the future of the Middle East. Moreover, we are living at a time when the right and left are quick to seize upon flash points -- a single course, a controversial article, an isolated incident -- to take the full measure of a faculty member or a university campus.

More broadly speaking, it is easy to forget that American colleges and universities derive their greatness not by echoing the conventional views of society, carrying the partisan banner of governments, or giving aid and comfort to purveyors of prejudices. Rather, they do so by protecting the freedom of professors and students to read widely and explore topics in all their complexity, to think critically and debate issues where there are grounds for reasonable disagreement, and to imagine and express new ideas and new worlds without fear of reprisal or retribution. Many of the most powerful critiques of society, along with compelling solutions to the world's seemingly intractable problems, have issued from university scholars and students.

Is there, then, a problem? If so, how should we rectify it? Not by outside regulation, as some critics urge. Guided by established procedures of self-governance, universities must be steadfast in their commitment to the principles of academic freedom -- which is not a license to suppress student dissent or engage in partisan proselytizing in the classroom. Upholding academic freedom does require universities to furnish a safe haven for free inquiry and discussion. And it recommends that we provide a respectful hearing to all debatable opinions and to external criticisms of the academy, rather than dismiss those who question us as "barbarians at the gates," against whom we must close ranks.

We must also make a better effort to describe the nature of faculty-student interactions. We should begin by explaining that we teach young people both to think critically and to support their arguments with reasons, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing on the campus or off. Students in any class may not feel comfortable being challenged by a viewpoint with which they strongly disagree. But neither should they ever feel inhibited or afraid to disagree with their professors.

For two decades, I taught a course on ethics and public policy that dealt with the controversial topics of our time, such as terrorism, abortion, affirmative action, and bioethics. My students knew that agreeing with me on a given issue would have no bearing on how I treated or graded them. Those who brought solid evidence and original thinking to bear on their arguments, and who responded effectively to the strongest counterarguments, earned the highest grades.

For their part, instead of making their case through reasoned arguments in academic forums, some critics of higher education are promoting legislation to regulate professors. In doing so, they are violating the spirit of academic freedom and threatening to poison the collegial atmosphere of robust and respectful debate that has enabled American universities to contribute so much to our democracy. By demonstrating our steadfast commitment to protecting the freedom of faculty members and students to engage in vigorous discourse across the political spectrum without government interference, we can prevent the threat of a chill from becoming a devastating frost.