Posts Tagged ‘academic freedom’

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Academic freedom is under assault within the new corporate university.

No, the problem is not the much-publicized kerfuffle surrounding recent talks by Charles Murray and other right-wing speakers on U.S. college campuses. That’s what students do: they try to be provocative. Small conservative student groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and with financing from off-campus groups, invite incendiary speakers to their campuses—and then other students protest those visits. It’s much ado about nothing, except of course when official academic units and administrators lend their names to the invitations and events.

The most disturbing challenge to academic freedom right now is something else: the unilateral decisions by academic administrators to curtail the speech of faculty members.

Just yesterday morning, the Washington Post reported that two professors were fired for expressing controversial views. One, at the University of Delaware, was an adjunct professor who suggested that Otto Warmbier, the American student whose death last week after being imprisoned in North Korea drew worldwide attention, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.” Another adjunct professor, at Essex County College in Newark, was first suspended and then fired for defending a Black Lives Matter chapter’s decision to host a Memorial Day event exclusively for black people.

In both instances, adjunct professors—who, with other other members of the academic precariat, now make up close to two-thirds of the faculty employed in U.S. colleges and universities—were fired for making public comments academic administrators deemed unsuitable.

And then there’s the case of a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s [ht: mfa] History Department who found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach.

It so happens that [Jay] Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken.

In the new academy, faculty governance has been replaced by top-down decision-making and academic administrators treat everything—from employment contracts to course offerings—just like the executives of any other corporation. If they add to the bottom-line, faculty members are rewarded; if they don’t, contracts are terminated and courses are cancelled.

That’s how the new corporate university operates in the United States. It’s not student protests but academic administrators that are creating a chilling effect, by circumscribing faculty speech and ultimately undermining academic freedom.

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In the United States, we’ve heard a lot of crazy stuff about building walls, expelling populations, carpet-bombing countries, and so on in recent months.

But Amitai Etzioni’s suggestion [ht: ja] that Israel “flatten” Beirut with overwhelming use of extreme weapons, including fuel air explosives that incinerate everything in their path, along with George Washington University’s refusal to condemn Etzioni, surely takes the cake.

Endowed chair Amitai Etzioni published the article on Monday in the Israeli paper Haaretz, a supposedly liberal bastion, originally using the headline, “Should Israel Flatten Beirut to Destroy Hezbollah’s Missiles?”

In the latest version of the piece, the headline has been modified.

In the piece, the Israeli-American scholar Etzioni argues that “it is time” to seriously consider unleashing extreme weapons against Beirut with the power to incinerate and level everything within a wide range. Beirut’s greater metropolitan area is home to over one million people.

“Most of Hezbollah’s 100,000 missile arsenal are hidden in civilian areas,” Etzioni writes, echoing rhetoric from Israel’s brutal 2006 onslaught on Lebanon, in which it justified killing large numbers of civilians and dropping over a millioncluster bombs by dubiously claiming innocents were being used as human shields.

As for Etzioni’s university:

When asked whether the article violates academic standards of civility, GWU spokesperson Jason Shevrin told AlterNet, “The George Washington University is committed to academic freedom and encourages efforts to foster an environment welcoming to many different viewpoints. Dr. Etzioni is a faculty member who is expressing his personal views.”

Etzioni, who teaches in the department of international affairs and is the director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, is no ordinary professor. At the private school, he has the highly competitive rank of University Professor,described as a status “reserved for a select few individuals who have attained the accomplishments and associated stature to be so recognized.” The position is funded through an endowment, according to GWU materials.

Etzioni did not immediately respond to a request for comment, submitted through his publicly available office contact.

But Steven Salaita, who was fired in August 2014 from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for social media posts criticizing Israel’s military assault on Gaza that year, was quick to weigh in. The vague charge of “incivility” played a key role in Salaita’s wrongful termination, for which Salaita eventually sued the university and settled. However, he never got his job back and maintains he has suffered a major blow to his career.

“I can think of no better example of the profound moral inconsistency within academic spaces than this article by Amitai Etzioni, in which he advises Israel to ‘flatten Beirut,’” he said. “Will all of the pious academics so devoted to civility dare speak out? Will they express deep concern about the safety and comfort of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians in Professor Etzioni’s courses? Will they wonder about his ability to be properly disinterested and balanced?”

 

Disclosure: one of my nieces is a graduate of George Washington University.

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The American Economic Association was, in the beginning, a radical organization—founded in 1885, according to Marshall I. Steinbaum and Bernard A. Weisberger, by “Richard Ely, an avowedly Christian Heidelberg-trained professor at Johns Hopkins with a calling to make economics a friend of the working man.” Now, of course, it is anything but radical.

What happened?

Steinbaum and Weisberger’s analysis is that

University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. . .

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

Perhaps the causes of the transformation in U.S. economics during the first Gilded Age help explain why academic unfreedom in economics is so prevalent now, in the second Gilded Age.

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We forget, at our peril, the extent to which academic unfreedom is enforced in departments of economics across North America.

Most departments of economics offer—in the classroom and in terms of research and policy advice—only mainstream economics. By that I mean they hire economists who only teach, conduct research, and offer policy advice defined by one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics. Other approaches to economics—generally, these days, referred to as heterodox economics—simply aren’t recognized by or represented within those departments. That was true in the decades leading up to the crash of 2007-08 and, perhaps even more startling, it has continued to be the case in the years since.

That’s particularly true in departments that have doctoral programs in economics. While heterodox economists are often hired by undergraduate departments (such as, most famously, the University of Southern Maine), you simply won’t find heterodox economics or heterodox economists at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, and Chicago.

Now, there have been a few departments of economics over the years that have been defined in terms of a significant presence (although generally still a minority view) of heterodox economics. The University of Massachusetts Amherst was certainly one of them (which, to offer the appropriate disclosure, is where I did my doctoral work). The list also includes the New School for Social Research, the University of California-Riverside, American University, and, more recently, the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

I was in fact hired by another of those departments, at the University of Notre Dame, which as readers of this blog know was first split off as a separate department (in 2003) and then (in 2010) simply dissolved by the administration of the university.

What was extraordinary about that episode was the length mainstream economists (and their allies within the university administration) were willing to go to stamp out any and all forms of nonmainstream economics. Not, to be clear, because there was any kind of financial crisis, but simply to first marginalize and then remove entirely the existence of heterodox economics from the curriculum, research profile, and policy recommendations of the department.

I note that history because it was invoked in the extensive investigation of academic freedom in the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (pdf).* The department at Manitoba is the only place in Canada where doctoral students can receive significant training in nonmainstream or heterodox economics. According to the report,

Prior to 2006, the Department of Economics approached hiring, curriculum and pedagogical issues with an approach that made room for heterodox, as well as mainstream views, although the heterodox group remained a minority of the department. This was achieved through a solid degree of good will that permeated the Department.

After that, the “solid degree of good will that permeated the Department” was undermined by the orthodox or mainstream members of the department who, in various ways, sought to “to change the direction of the Economics Department by moving to a more mainstream/orthodox emphasis.” The problem of academic freedom within the department, according to the student newspaper, has still not been resolved.

What is extraordinary in all of this is how few departments there are in all of North America where doctoral students can be exposed to and learn—not to mention, after they complete their degrees and then find a job, teach, conduct research, offer policy advice associated with—heterodox approaches to economics. And, on top of that, in the few departments where both mainstream and heterodox approaches are in fact represented, the length to which mainstream economists (and, as I wrote above, their allies within university administrations) will go to marginalize or eliminate heterodox approaches to economics.

The University of Manitoba is just the latest example in the long line of attempts to define, impose, and police the rules of academic unfreedom in the discipline of economics in North America.

*Just to correct the historical record, though, the 2003 decision to split the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame was opposed by 11 of the 16 members of the department, a group that included both mainstream and heterodox economists. Because they were opposed to the split, they were not invited to join the new Department of Economics and Econometrics, which defined itself from the beginning as a purely neoclassical program.

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Students and faculty continue to protest the layoffs and budget cuts at the University of Southern Maine.

You can read and sign a petition [ht: ja] supporting them here.

The American Association of University Professors has urged the university administration to rescind the notices of termination that have been issued. More recently, the Association’s executive director has reached the conclusion that “these actions at the University of Southern Maine have raised significant issues of academic freedom, tenure, and due process that are of basic concern to the academic community,” and has opened an investigation into the layoffs and budget cuts.

As WGBH explains,

Maine isn’t alone. As states defund public higher education, colleges and universities have made steep cuts while also increasing tuition and fees.

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Or, alternatively, what’s the matter with Kansas?

Apparently, the Board of Regents of that state (with the assistance of the state’s Attorney General) has decided to drastically curtail tenure and academic freedom [ht: br].

The Regents decided that when university faculty use common forms of modern communication (“social media”) they no longer have the protections of tenure and academic freedom.  The Regents’ policy change does not even mention tenure or academic freedom.  The Regents acted without consulting the faculty and without any open debate.

As Scott Jaschik explains,

The policy outlines a number of reasons why any employee could be dismissed over social media postings. Some reasons — such as inciting violence or revealing confidential student information — aren’t causing alarm. But others, faculty advocates say, could severely limit faculty free speech.

For example, one definition of improper use is communication that “when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interest of the university.” Another is communication that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

Further, the policy says that, in evaluating social media use that may be improper, the university chief executive should “balance the interest of the university in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees against the employee’s right as a citizen to speak on matters of public concern, and may consider the employee’s position within the university and whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university. The chief executive officer may also consider whether the communication was made during the employee’s working hours or the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment.”

The American Association of University Professors has long maintained that tenure and academic freedom are central to professors’ participation in teaching, research, and university governance. That policy is upheld in the latest draft report on academic freedom, updated to explicitly take into account social media.

This report recommends that each institution work with its faculty to develop policies governing the use of social media. Any such policy must recognize that social media can be used to make extramural utterances, which are protected under principles of academic freedom. As Committee A previously noted regarding extramural utterances, “Professors should . . .have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence.” Obviously, the literal distinction between “extramural” and “intramural” speech—speech outside or inside the university’s walls—has little meaning in the world of cyberspace. But the fundamental meaning of extramural speech, as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one’s area of academic expertise, fully applies in the realm of electronic communications, including social media.

The Kansas Board of Regents has, indeed, developed a policy—but it’s clearly one that violates all of the norms of academic freedom.

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Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University, sought to eliminate the use of Howard Zinn’s books in the state’s classrooms.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels pledged to promote academic freedom when he became president of Purdue University in January, but newly released emails show he attempted to eliminate what he considered liberal “propaganda” at Indiana’s public universities while governor.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request show Daniels requested that historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn’s writings be banned from classrooms and asked for a “cleanup” of college courses. In another exchange, the Republican talks about cutting funding for a program run by a local university professor who was one of his sharpest critics. . .

The emails are raising eyebrows about Daniels’ appointment as president of a major research university just months after critics questioned his lack of academic credentials and his hiring by a board of trustees he appointed.

Only in America can someone without the appropriate academic credentials, who launched a witch hunt against ideas of which he disapproved, become the president of a major university entrusted with protecting academic freedom.

I’ve just received word that academic freedom is under assault in Israel.

Haaretz calls the decision by the Israeli Council for Higher Education not to permit students to enroll in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Politics and Government, and thus to bring about its closure, “unprecedented in its severity.”*

 A situation in which an academic department and a renowned university is forced to battle against a body meant to represent it, and meant to fend off political pressures, should disturb anyone who is concerned with higher education and academic freedom.

The closure of BGU’s Department of Politics and Government, without allowing more time to fix any remaining deficiencies, gives one the impression that the decision was based not on issues of academic quality but on political considerations.

Richard Silverstein connects that decision to the demise of Israel’s venerable Maariv daily newspaper.

Add to this that the government has just voted to recognize a settler college, Ariel, as an official government-funded university over the objections of every president of every other Israeli university and the UK government–and you have an oncoming putsch in academia that matches the one taking place in Israeli media.  Wherever the Israeli far-right sees tolerance, liberalism and freedom of thought it seeks to stamp it out ruthlessly.  It is yet another manifestation of the permanent far-right majority which is designed to turn Israel into a state that chooses nationalism and religious identity over democracy.  This is the rise of the authoritarian state and the death of the hybrid Jewish-democratic state cherished by liberal Zionists.

*The chairperson of that department, Neve Gordon, is a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study this academic year.

Freedom of speech is central to bourgeois society. But it is often under assault, and it falls to the Left to defend it.

It is being undermined in Israel, especially now that the Boycott Bill has been passed. As Neve Gordon explains,

Ironically, the bill itself is likely to be inconsequential. It stipulates that any person who initiates, promotes or publishes material that might serve as grounds for imposing a boycott on Israel or the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem is committing an offence. If found “guilty” of such an offence, that person may be ordered to compensate parties economically affected by the boycott, including reparations of 30,000 Israeli shekels ($8,700) without an obligation on the part of the plaintiffs to prove damages.

And yet this law should still be considered as a turning point. Not because of what the bill does, but because of what it represents.

After hours of debate in the Israeli Knesset, the choice was clear. On one side was Israel’s settlement project and rights-abusive policies, and on the other side was freedom of speech, a basic pillar of democracy. The fact that the majority of Israel’s legislators decided to support the bill plainly demonstrates that they are willing to demolish Israeli democracy for the sake of holding onto the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Daniel Little reviews the classic defenses and definitions of academic freedom of speech (by Richard Hofstadter, Walter Metzger, the American Association of University Professors, and Ronald Dworkin) and then provides a link to Jennifer Washburn’s discussion of academic freedom in the corporate university.

In recent years, editors of science journals, members of Congress, federal agencies, education experts, public interest groups, and professional societies—including the Institute of Medicine—have called on US universities to regulate financial conflicts of interest on campus more vigorously. By and large, however, the academic community has resisted regulation of commercialism on campus as well as periodic attempts by the federal government (in 1989, 1995, and 2001) to attach stricter conflict-of-interest rules to the receipt of federal research grants. A growing chorus of critics now considers these university-enforced conflict-of-interest rules far too variable and weak.

In part, this avoidance of the adverse effects of commercialism stems from not wanting to bite any hand that feeds (even though today private industry accounts for a mere 6 percent of academic research funding nationally; 60 percent of academic research is funded by the federal government). Commercialism can be tricky for the faculty to tackle, in part because it often pits faculty members against one another.

However, in my view, another major obstacle stems from the faculty’s current tendency to view academic freedom more as an “individual right” than as a collective, professional right rooted in the university’s core commitment to knowledge for the public good. Consider, for example, the conflict-of-interest problem on campus. Today, one frequently hears entrepreneurial faculty members argue that any effort to restrict financial conflicts of interest (by academic administrators, journal editors, or the federal government) constitutes a violation of individual professors’ academic freedom rights, because such regulation could impede the financing of a professor’s research. . .

The time to act is now. If the university looks and behaves more and more like a for-profit commercial entity—and its commitment to producing and transmitting reliable public knowledge grows increasingly suspect in the public’s eye—then the societal justification for academic freedom will simply fall away, as will the public’s willingness to finance universities. Much as they did when the AAUP was founded, the faculty must take the lead in addressing these threats to the national interest.

The issues Washburn raises go directly to the heart of mainstream academic economists’ role in creating the conditions of the 2008 crisis and Second Great Depression. Yes, they benefit from the principles of academic freedom to utilize and disseminate the results of their neoclassical approach. But their unwillingness to consider the ethics of their work—from conflicts of interest and the lack of disclosure rules through the celebration of academic commercialism to the slavish adherence to one economic theory and the lack of theoretical pluralism—undermines the very freedom of speech on which the university is based.

We’ve come to this: watching the Argentine chancellor of the University of California playing a faux proletarian and crying on the reality show “Undercover Boss.”

Toby Miller, one of his employees, uses the pitiful display as a teachable moment:

Our CEO cried about personal loss. He cried about student debt. He almost cried about putting in false teeth and wearing a Groucho moustache as part of his thrilling disguise. He looked very miserable as he tried to function as an athletic coach, a library assistant, a science adjunct you name it. But then he removed the disguise. He came out, out of the closet of the faux proletariat. And his young mentors in these various failed real jobs were rewarded.

Student loans? Forgiven. Poor athletic facilities? Sorted. Untenured new faculty? Supported. It was magic, provided by unnamed benefactors (perhaps this was a quid pro quo from CBS?). What an absurd moment. . .

It cloaked the horrors of a system that puts children of the working class into generational debt and wastes millions of dollars on anti-educational sports programs.

The cloak is one-off charity, made available to those lucky enough to be subject to childish deceit by a media corporation and a public servant.

What is going on here, at a time when our campus has to cut $US37 million from this year’s budget a figure that could double by the end of the northern summer but is ploughing on with investing $US10m in a medical school? . . .

The University of California can be privatised, turned into an engine of inequality. Goodbye to the most storied public-education system in the world.

While we’re on the subject of public universities, I was pleased to see that the University of Michigan Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Phil Hanlon has issued a statement in support of Juan Cole along with a strong defense of academic freedom, just as the University of Wisconsin publicly supported William Cronon back in April.

On one hand, we need to take notice of the fact that both embattled faculty members, targets of right-wing political attacks, teach at public universities. It’s no coincidence that, at least in the United States, public intellectuals like Cole and Cronon work in public, not private, universities.

On the other hand, while support for academic freedom is important (otherwise, why do universities exist at all?), it’s not enough. It’s equally important to defend what remains of the other dimensions of public universities: a high-quality, affordable education for all working-class students who want it.

Right now, across the United States, that kind of higher education is being undermined, including at the universities of California, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Don’t just cry for us, university officials. Do your job and defend U.S. public higher education.

Update

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education [behind pay barrier], the University of Massachusetts Amherst is also in crisis, since the current chancellor’s strategy to establish the university as an elite institution consisted of the following:

a failed effort to open a medical school, an ambitious and costly plan to play big-time football, and significant improvements in facilities at an honors college that he hopes will appeal to nonresidents of the state.