Academic Freedom

Posted on March 29, 2021


Since we live in a university and college town, from the University of Alabama to Stillman College with Shelton State Community College tucked in for good measure, I thought readers would be interested in the state of academic freedom in the U. S. It comes from a piece by Eric Kaufman, “Academic Freedom is Withering” in the WSJ, March 1.

In spite of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that the University keeps touting as necessary, in fact “diversity and [the] presence of discrimination against conservative and gender-critical scholars” are pervasive and “symptoms of a much wider problem of progressive authoritarianism.”

Conservative faculty and staff are being disciplined or threatened with disciplinary action by “a progressive monoculture” and “political discrimination” is pervasive: “4 in 10 American academics indicated in a survey…that they would not hire a Trump supporter for a job.” So, in practical terms, if you want a job in any university, don’t wear your MAGA hat to the interview. This prejudice goes includes grant applications, journal submissions and promotion cases.

I liked this characterization of the issue. “Only 28 % of American academics say they would be comfortable sitting with a gender-critical scholar over lunch, less even the 41% who would sit with a Trump-voting colleague.”

By the way, what’s a “gender-critical” scholar? one who does not support abortions or boys who say they are girls competing in girls’ sports for examples.

On a personal note, I don’t remember anyone asking me about political affiliations, gender issues, racism, or any other issues occupying today’s academics when I was interviewed for a job at UA in 1972. And, over the years, including eight years as chair of History, I don’t remember asking ANY of those questions in any interviews for hires I participated in.

Interestingly, Kaufman observes, based by the way on eight comprehensive surveys across the U.S. published in a report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, that fully “7 in 20 conservative American academics say they self-censor in their teaching, research or academic discussions. Conservative scholars shy away from asking questions that go against the progressive consensus of fear for their careers.” Does age play a discriminating factor?

“Younger academics are twice as likely to endorse a dismissal campaign as older faculty. Doctoral candidates are around three times as likely.” So, from a point of view of experience, doctoral candidates, those defending their Ph.D. dissertations and work, are not going to keep their mouths shut on political intolerance, and, by inference, their minds too. That’s not what academic freedom is all about.

I take issue with Kaufman’s solution: government intervention in which “public universities [as is now occurring in Great Britain] are to be audited and potentially fined for academic freedom violations each year by the government.” He suggests the U. S. government “must regulate public universities to ensure they protect the First Amendment rights of staff and students and don’t discriminate against political minorities.” More government control just sticks in my craw.

Some private universities, like the University of Chicago, one of the premier research universities in the country, is pushing back. Look up The Chicago Thinker published there by two students, Audrey Unverfeth and Evita Duffy, for what they are doing to protect liberty of expression and academic freedoms.

And for a truly uplifting message, take about four minutes and listen to the new University of Chicago’s president, Paul Alivisatos, and his inaugural message. It is not about politics, but about freedom and truth, the excitement of learning, and how to face the challenges of life today. b. It is not hackneyed political claptrap pushed by Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs across the nation extoling white fragility, ethnic injustice, and victimization.

President Alivisatos remembered a math professor of his when he was an undergraduate at the Univ. of Chicago. His recollection is inspiring and a recognition of the excitement and enthusiasm of pure learning. From my perspective, if a prof can make math exciting, wow, that’s inspiring for all us teachers and professors. We can do it too.

But keep your politics to yourself. The classroom or seminar is not the place to proselytize on behalf of your politics. Use one of your own new instruments: cancel your mouth and stick to teaching. Each subject is exciting enough, even math, to open minds to critical thinking and examining issues with a lot of truth, and some wisdom to boot.

The subject, taught well, and with enthusiasm, will carry the day, even for those of us with normal gifts and brains, not particularly driven to become legends in our time. I remember well teaching undergraduates and graduate students about the conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth century. The “conquest” is no longer the conquest, but now called the “Encounter” or the “Invasion” of the Americas. The etymology of how history is interpreted is enough to get the juices flowing on how history becomes part of our present. Pull down a statue to Abraham Lincoln, and you are feeding your own ignorance.

Academic freedom is filled with multiple virtues. Let’s preserve and extend it by what we say and do in the classroom.

Published as “Let’s preserve academic freedom and keep politics out of the classroom” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021