Monday, March 14, 2011

academic freedom, freedom of speech

In two of my classes this semester, we've been spending an inordinate amount of time on an article about academic freedom, its distinction from freedom of speech, and the way economic pressures threaten academic freedom. The article defines academic freedom as the right to teach and to research as an academic sees fit, without undue pressure to conform to some extrinsic production measure.

I woke up this morning wondering about the meaning of academic freedom in my life and in the economic and political environment of contemporary academia. Some basic truths, of a sort, came to mind.

No one actually cares what I say or do in my classes, as long as it doesn't subject the university to liability or otherwise damage the university's public image. Almost nothing I might say about my actual field makes any difference to the university from this standpoint. Nobody much cares if I teach a bunch of crazy radical stuff in my classes, unless and until a student complains about it. In my own experience, what students are likely to complain about is personal conflict, not course content. Students complain about course content tactically, in order to attack faculty.

No one actually cares what I say or argue for in anything I publish, as long as it doesn't similarly endanger the university's currency interests. Administrators aren't going to read what I present at conferences or publish in journals or books. Most of what most faculty publish is in technical jargon that administrators wouldn't grasp, of course, but the main reason they don't read it is that they have absolutely no concern about what's in it - only how much of it there is, and whether it's peer-reviewed.

Which means that the university isn't particularly interested in curtailing the content of my exercise of academic freedom. The content of my speech concerns them much more when I speak as a private citizen, because as a private citizen I might freely criticize the university in a way that could endanger the university's currency interests. That is, the university has a fairly strong interest in curtailing my freedom of speech.

This is how it looks from my perspective, as a non-tenure-eligible faculty member who has a contractually guaranteed position until I either grossly violate university rules or a layoff is declared. It would likely look very different, ironically enough, if I had tenure at risk.

After all, there are tenure-track but not-yet-tenured faculty who are scared shitless to write anything as benign as this blog and post it somewhere. (I guess I mean this particular post.)

Academics argue for tenure on the basis of the claim that it and it alone can protect academic freedom. I wonder if what they mean to protect is freedom of speech, instead.

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