Academic Freedom

Thursday, 2016, April 21

Academic Freedom and Our Values as a University

One of the exciting things about being your provost is the opportunity to see so much of what I value exemplified across Grounds – excellence, community spirit, personal teaching and learning, inclusiveness, fairness, wellness and positive impact on lives and society.  But perhaps no value at a great University is more important than truth.  It is at the foundation of what we do in discovering and imparting knowledge with and to students. It is at the heart of why we find it so important to support academic freedom.  

Academic freedom in turn is really a compound value.  It involves protecting not just truth but the ways in which we get at it.  That means fostering dissent -- the voices of others whose perspectives may differ from ours and so add new insights to our own.  Supporting dissent often means developing a seemingly paradoxical intolerance of intolerance.   It means speaking out against others who would squelch dissenting voices, even as we sometimes disagree viscerally with the dissent we defend.   That suppression that we must not tolerate may take the form of attacks against a person or character, coercion, unwarranted scrutiny, and loss of employment, among others.  Although academic freedom does not require that we defend the dissenter’s arguments, we have a responsibility to defend their ability to make them. 

An interesting recent example is the case of some student leaders at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga* leaving chalk messages stating “Trump 2016” on the walls of university buildings.  Their peers in student government moved to expel them from student government on the basis that the ideals Trump represents are repugnant to the anti-Trump student leaders.  There may be a case for sanctioning the pro-Trump students for violating university policy in defacing its property, but not for what they said.  The anti-Trump student leaders need to support the pro-Trump students’ freedom to express themselves, even as the anti-Trump students should publicly and vigorously denounce the positions of the pro-Trump students with whom they so strongly disagree. 

Of course, freedom of expression never extends to supporting hate speech, which is a gross form of attack on person that we must not tolerate as discussed above.  Recently, we experienced hate speech chalked on Grounds.   I cannot react strongly enough in condemning such repulsive acts. We as a community and each of us as individuals must be vocal and use whatever platforms we have to stand as one against those who would propagate them, and we must do so again and again until our message prevails.

It is not only hate speech that suppresses freedom. Personal attacks too must not be tolerated. One example comes from the recent controversy involving the University of Illinois’s rescinding an offer of employment to Professor Steven Salaita based on his tweets regarding Israel. Although the media has focused on Salaita’s criticism of Israel, to me, that was not the problem with what he said.  Academic freedom clearly protects his right to criticize Israel. What I found problematic about his statement was the personal attack on those who would disagree with him: “If you’re defending Israel right now, you are an awful human being.” This type of personal attack can have the effect of suppressing debate, rather than fostering it. There are serious questions of whether due process was violated and whether the sanction imposed was excessive in the Salaita case, and I am not passing judgment on the University of Illinois’ handling of the situation. But I do believe that the academic community should reject the idea that personal attacks intended to silence dissent can be justified in the name of academic freedom.

Protecting academic freedom does not mean that we do not engage in self-scrutiny. The administrative review of processes followed in the pursuit of research, for example, are an important aspect of ensuring fairness to all involved.  Although investigations may at times seem chilling, objective and fair reviews are necessary, and support the same core value of pursuing truth on which academic freedom is founded.

The only difficult ethical dilemmas are between right and right, not right and wrong.  Reflecting on the values we hold most dear can help us navigate well the sometimes seemingly contradictory choices we must take to uphold them.


Tom Katsouleas

*Previously this article refered to University of Texas and has since been corrected to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.