Tentative Thoughts on Academic Freedom

So there’s been a ongoing dustup in my field over an article about a blowjob.

No seriously. HuffPo of all places has a decent enough rundown (although a few months old, since then Prof. Dreger became former Professor Dreger by resigning in protest, plus some other back and forth in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that managed to include some names that share or shared a hallway with me).

Although I’m doing a sort of slow motion career suicide, I have no interest in accelerating that by commenting on the landmine of the article itself. I do miss the days when gossip in our field revolved around current affairs with subordinates and who’s wife threw who down a stairwell after finding out about said affairs, rather than 40 year old recounting of a blowjob.

Tempting though it is to sit back and watch the liberal ivory tower eat its own, I have been trying to consider the nuances this case seems to highlight. These are tentative thoughts (in case one of the guys from Popehat or FIRE finds there way to our corner of the internet and wants to beat me senseless.) Think of them as still in draft mode.

  • The connection between universities and things published under their masthead is really cloudy, and needs clarification.

Consider the publication in question: Atrium. It’s billed as the “The Report of the Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program.” It states at the bottom: “A publication of the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine” Copies I used to get in the mail have Northwestern Addresses and use Northwestern’s postage. This seems to me to change the relationship a bit compared to say a published book or an article in another journal. The letter from FIRE embedded in the HuffPo article tries to draw a connection to faculty blogs, which doesn’t seem right (especially since they note the blogs have the standard “not the opinion of the university disclaimer” on them, Atrium does not). The owner of a publication gets ultimate editorial control over that publication. No one would suggest that JAMA has to publish every idea thrown at it because the AMA is committed to academic freedom. I find something intuitively wrong about the idea that academic freedom means a university can’t forge a direction.

All that being said, I couldn’t imagine a stupider way to handle this situation than what Northwestern chose. It’s unclear when a publication is effectively owned by the university; something I think should be put down in writing: who owns the journal and thus gets total editorial control? Pro-tip: It’s going to be the person footing the bill, and since I haven’t heard much from the director of the Bioethics program in this debacle, I’m guessing that’s the medical school in this case. There’s also the issue of how editoral control is exercised. You do this by hiring editors (and as a long tradition of academic journals go, they often invite guest editors.) If you don’t like the choices your editors are making, you hire new editors. It’s that simple. But you don’t run around pulling down every digital version of something then putting it back up then creating some “Super Editorial board.” I mean: what the actual fuck? If you’re relieved as editor? Tough shit, it means the owner didn’t like your choices. Find a new journal or start your own. Don’t cry censorship.

Now this situation is complicated by the fact that the “guest editor” was a member of the faculty. So it’s not like they didn’t know what they were getting when they gave her the role. And honestly, it’s not like Northwestern’s reputation could be lowered by this story.  There’s a blurry mess here, and it’s not only happening at Northwestern. I don’t really know where the line is. I’m not sure it’s all the way over where FIRE wants it (basically asserting that Northwestern has 0 editorial control over something they fund) but it’s not where the people who want to memory hole the whole thing are either. The best solution I have now is what I already said: Universities need to establish clear expectations about ownership. If Atrium is solely owned by the Bioethics department than only they get to exert the editorial control. But if it’s owned by the Medical School, then they pay the piper so they call the tune.

  • Criticism is not censorship, but among actual cries for censorship it can be confused for it.

This is a crucial but often overlooked point. “You’re article is bad, and you should feel bad” is not censorship. “Memory hole this now!” is censorship. “That article didn’t meet the normal criteria for publication in [journal x] so I’m not sure why it was published in the first place” isn’t really censorship. But when it’s said right after the guy next to you says “Memory hole it!” it sorta sounds like censorship. If you’re going to wade into a contentious discussion, be sure your making your point clearly or it’s likely to get hijacked. (Alternatively if a bunch of people are actually trying to censor something maybe it’s in your best interest to let the dust die down on that before you begin your critical analysis of the piece in question. It’s hard to have a conversation in the middle of a rock concert, wait until the music is over (and your ears stop ringing.)

  • Tenure is a mess and we should rethink the whole idea of it.

The most vocal proponents of tenure I see are a) people with it and b) people trying to get it. Strange how that works. I’ve often wondered about tenure and what roll it fills in the modern era.  In theory tenure protects your academic freedom. But that doesn’t work out well in reality. I’ve already been told a couple of times “interesting idea, but it’d be a career killer to work on it right now” or “you want to come back to that when you have tenure and can safely explore it.” As a conservative academic I know I’m probably going to fight an uphill battle if I want a tenure track position in the first place unless (as was once suggested to me) I hide my viewpoint for the entire lead up to tenure.

Basically under the current system you have effectively 0 academic freedom until you get tenure than suddenly you’re free as a bird. Which frankly makes absolutely no sense. The period where I’m expected to publish like a madman is the period in which I have the least freedom?

Returning to a question of the university’s ability to create it’s own institutional identity, I think this is a real issue to consider. If after getting tenure you have an epiphany and want to write articles about how great embryonic stem cell research is and how everyone should have to donate their first conceived child to the science, maybe Catholic Creighton isn’t the institution for you, try Georgetown.  I’ve also seen tenure ossify entire departments. They’d like to shift emphasis or try a new approach but can’t because they’re full up on tenured professors who aren’t going anywhere.

In a time when universities were scarcer than they are now, tenure may have served an important role, but it seems redundant given the wide swath of universities. The people with tenure often have their pick of places to go and work. I have no doubt Alice Dreger will land on her feet after this. Some university will like her avant-garde style and offer her a job. Furthermore, there are ample examples of how even with tenure the university can all but force you out.

For my part, I’m not even sure I want tenure for myself. I either want to be told I have to toe the company line from the outset (which I’m fine with) or have a broad degree of freedom to speak my mind. I don’t want to feel like I have to wait for some magic period to pass before I can truly fill a role.

  • The university is a lot like government

There’s also a side issue that really comes out in the cases of student organizations. Much like the government and NPR, the university takes a chunk of your money and redistributes it groups so they can tell you how awful you are. A chunk of my mandatory student fee goes to a group that supports the BDS movement against Israel. Indeed, I’m paying to be told how awful I am for not supporting that movement. Since the funding process is largely handled by a few small groups the distribution of funds tends to represent the most well connected rather than reflect the student body as a whole.

I don’t really have a great solution to this. From a strictly funding perspective I’d like to see all groups get 0 money from the university. You want to organize? Charge your members a fee or find a way to actually earn the money (advertising, whatever). But this only solves the funding problem. Since officially recognized groups get access to other resources (classroom space, access to university email lists, etc.) there presumably has to be some way of determining who makes the cut.

  • A quick final thought

As I said these are tentative thoughts. I reserve total right to change my opinion on a whim. I’m sure I’ll get cries of “hypocrite” or “censor!” I don’t think this is true though. I’ve never believed universities have a duty to provide absolute academic freedom. (The first amendment complicates that for state universities, but that’s a whole other bag of beans.) I believe there should be broad deference given to academic freedom, but that institutions also have a right to self-determination.  This of course means there’s nuance to be sussed out, which in today’s day and age makes it an opinion that is hated I suppose.

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