David R. Henderson  

Academic Freedom: For Professors Only?

"Take pity of your town and yo... Psychohistory and us...

This past weekend, I was engaged in a fierce debate on Facebook about academic freedom. What led to the debate was was a video that has gone viral. The video is of William Penn, an English professor at Michigan State University. As a result of that video's circulation, the university suspended him from teaching the class. Given his apparent age and his salary, $146,510, I suspect that he's tenured.

So what was the debate about? Academic freedom. A FB friend--I'll call him Professor A [Note: I never quote FB friends by name because I respect the privacy of FB friends.]--who is a fellow tenured academic and a libertarian, wrote the following on FB:

While his remarks were often crude and offensive, they clearly deserved protection under any sound doctrine of academic freedom. This suspension is an extremely worrisome precedent for those of us who still value universities as centers of free, and sometimes offensive, speech.

The question I raised was whether academic freedom applies to professors only. When I went through the whole 9-minute video, I concluded that Professor Penn was making it very difficult for students to disagree. I think defense of academic freedom requires defense of students' academic freedom too: in this case, the freedom to question and disagree without reasonable fear of reprisal.

Another FB friend, and a fellow libertarian economics professor--call him Professor B--suggested that the students were basically wimps who didn't even try to argue. He and I agreed that the students did not try to argue. I disagreed about whether we could say they are wimps.

Yet another FB libertarian economics professor, Professor C, took my side of the issue, writing:

He [Professor Penn] says, "I am a college professor. If I find out you are a closet racist I am coming after you. Okay. This country still is full of closet racists." That's a threat. And it seems only reasonable for a student to fear that being a Republican is proof (in the professor's eyes) of being a "closet racist." So, basically, I"m out to get all the Republicans in this class. Nope, that ain't protected speech under AAUP [American Association of University Professor] standards, or any reasonable and good set of standards.

Professor B said that in his days as a student, he and I were willing to challenge professors with whom we disagreed. That's true. But I pointed out that I had never had a professor who so aggressively made fun of people's color, age, and politics. Penn was a master of ad hominem. And, remember, this was a class in writing: I would think that one of the first things you should teach in such a class is that the arguments a person makes should be separated from his motives, his race, his age, and his wealth.

I hasten to add that I don't know that the students would face retribution for disagreeing, but I know people well enough that I do know that many of the students would reasonably fear retribution. When we are given the power to teach for a quarter or semester, we professors are being trusted to treat the students fairly. Building a safe environment for students while still teaching controversial issues on which we have strong views is tricky. At times we're walking a tightrope. In my view, Professor Penn wasn't even trying to walk a tightrope. He was just venting his own feelings and not, apparently worrying about what that would do to the learning environment. None of this means that I think Penn should have necessarily been suspended. But I do think that he deserved a strong "talking-to."

Incidentally, I could never get Professor A, the original person who raised the issue, to respond on whether students should be guaranteed academic freedom.

What do you think? Is it important for universities to protect the academic freedom of students?

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Steve Horwitz writes:

I'm with you on this David. The reason to get this guy out of the classroom has nothing to do with academic freedom for faculty, but rather competent teaching and fair treatment of students. Academic freedom to express a particular idea does not trump going after one's students as he does and creating a classroom environment clearly designed to intimidate those disagree, and not because he's just so brilliant but because he has told some of his students that he thinks they are loathsome.

I don't know if I want to call this "academic freedom" for students, but I do want to call it a right to a classroom in which they can reasonably expect to be free of name-calling and get fair treatment.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

[Comment awaiting clarification.--Econlib Ed.]

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Grade A+ students regularly figure out professor prejudices and play them accordingly, corrupting themselves and the process. Profs like to say they don't grade on end-result and are quick to give you anecdotes, but that's just a self-serving delusion: it's easier to get a higher mark if your argument agrees with the professor's prejudices.

Karl Popper wrote about the paradox of liberty, where you must occasionally stifle groups that would stifle you. Clearly most of the Muslim world is filled with such a regime, and their technology, arts and politics all suffer for it. Teaching tolerance towards those you disagree with includes not tolerating intolerance.

I agree it's somewhat of a paradox, but you just have to apply some common sense. When dealing with 19 year olds vs. adults who've argued these subjects for decades and have power over their future, isn't a level playing field, the youngster will be stifled whatever the truth is. Further, regarding whether one side in a great debate can be simply brushed off as this professor implies, only the simplest minds can think that in any great controversy one side has no principled, viable, arguments.

NZ writes:

There is a staff member named Mark Lyons at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Lyons is the equipment room manager for the film school there--any time students want to borrow filmmaking equipment or DVDs, they must go through him. He also teaches a film production class for film history and theory majors.

  • In 2005, Mark Lyons physically assaulted a student because that student had a Republican button on his backpack: as the student walked by his office, he darted out, shoved the student against a wall, tore the button off the backpack, and said something to the effect of "We don't want your kind here." He later issued a brief apology.
  • He once said of his political beliefs (and this is a direct quote): "The only good Republican is a dead Republican."
  • He once said half-jokingly that all Israelis are presented with their own personal Uzi at birth.
  • He mostly hires female students to work under him in the equipment room, and has come on to several of them. He asked one of them out on a date. (He is in his 50s and has children of his own, though he is, I believe, estranged from them.)
  • Contra the requirements of his position, he sets random hours and charges random fees, mostly based on his whims and how he feels about the student he's interacting with.
  • He uses the bulletin boards in the hallway outside the equipment room to post his far Left political opinions.
Numerous complaints have been lodged against Mark Lyons based on these and other offenses, and yet he is unfirable. He is protected by the professors and department chair because he is an alumnus who shares their politics.

Wright State film students who openly contradict far left-wing political beliefs, on the other hand, are all but blackballed. The slightest infractions are leapt upon as grounds to discontinue them from the program (each year there is an "audition" to determine who may continue) or leave them otherwise unsupported.

Matt writes:

What exactly is meant by "Academic Freedom?" This doesn't seem to have anything to do with academics. He's an English professor and I highly doubt there is any need whatsoever to broach on these subjects. I'm not sure why he would have the freedom to say the things he said, and say for example, a biology teacher couldn't go on a ten minute rant on how Mexicans are stealing all the jobs. Neither should be tolerated.

This is a sore subject for me. I had a history of technology class, where the professor (whom I thought was pretty good up until this point) is teaching about the history of DARPA. In the middle of it, he stops and says he has to get on a soapbox and starts talking about how you can't call Obama a socialist because if it wasn't for DARPA we wouldn't have the internet. It was very distracting and ruined a very good lecture.

I also took a lot of "communication" classes where the professors spent most of the time defending Marxist world views. It's not like Marx wasn't relevant at all, it's just that they all seemed way more political and way less academic.

I left school feeling like I hadn't learned that much. And I also left wondering how many professors aren't so much teachers as they professional political activists.

MikeP writes:

[Note: I never quote FB friends by name because I respect the privacy of FB friends.]

The first rule of Face Book?

Mark Brophy writes:

When were universities a bastion of free speech? They enforce the most restrictive speech codes of any institution. If you value free speech or due process or are male, college is a poor choice. There are many other better paths to a good life.

Steve Z writes:

My general response is to question why we need to engage in rights-talk about voluntary, contractual relationships such as professor/student, where the offended party can already quit or drop out. In short, I agree with Professor Henderson that crappy teachers should be fired and/or reprimanded if they are bad, just like any other worker. Being a professor is not special.

Students already have just as much of a right to academic freedom as professors do, which is to say, none at all absent voluntary contractual arrangements. Students voluntarily choose to go to schools; professors, to work for them. There are laws against fraud, so both students and professors could have a pretty good idea of what they are getting into. Students have the additional advantage of being able to ask other students about the professors they elect to take. And if they dislike the professor, they can typically drop the class. Finally, if they dislike all the professors, and want true academic freedom, they can drop out and/or transfer. Exit is more powerful than voice.

This type of academic freedom is better than an academic freedom secured by rights talk. It is also consistent with the real world. There are few, if any, places in meatspace where one can disagree with the group and/or figures of authority without rational fear of retribution. If you disagree with your boss at work about the direction a project should take, and say so, you might rationally fear retribution, e.g., a poor performance review. But nobody would argue that this is impinges upon your "employee freedom." Your "employee freedom" consists of the ability to quit, and---in America---it's already secured by the Thirteenth Amendment.

If the reasonable expectation of retribution in a voluntary/contractual situation that you choose to engage in is conceptualized as an impingement upon "freedom," then I fear that the cure may end up being worse than the disease. Somebody will have to decide whose freedom is being impinged upon, and that person--or, more likely, bureaucracy--will need coercive powers to safeguard the alleged freedom. Most likely, the end result will be that the freedom to engage in voluntary transactions will be reduced in order to make way for the power of the bureaucracy to regulate academic freedom.

I'm not so much of a wag as to suggest that academic freedom is completely unimportant. I merely do not think that there is any market failure here, at least, none redressable through setting up yet another campus group of apparatchiks to serve as the Board of Academic Freedom for Students. It is sad that Gramscian socialists have mostly taken over all the academic institutions in America, and that it is nevertheless an ironic necessity to pass through these institutions in order to be gainfully employed, but more rights talk won't solve anything. A better solution would be to do away with the concept of "academic freedom" altogether, and just treat professors like every other service professional: liable to get fired if they piss off the customer.

Chris writes:

Did the professor get suspended for what he said? Or was the professor suspended for how he acted?

The first is problematic, the second is completely understandable.

Hazel Meade writes:

I find this interesting more as a kind of display of how unhinged certain parts of the academic left are.

And while there are unhinged people on both ends of the spectrum, you'd never see someone this unhinged from the right side of the spectrum working as a college professor, or at some top think tank. The right-wing equivalent would be on talk radio.

I've certainly met people this looney on both ends of the spectrum, but it seems like delivering these kinds of insane rants is more tolerated by mainstream liberals than by mainstream conservatives.

Foobarista writes:

This prof made it clear that not following his line meant a bad grade in the class, if nothing else. Since a single bad grade, particularly an "unforced" one of this sort, could affect one's ability to get into a good grad school or get a good job (many companies want GPAs nowadays) a student is pretty much forced to shut up and take it.

My standing doctrine on tenure, civil service protections, etc: if you can't be fired, you can't be trusted.

Various writes:

I agree with Steve Z. I would also add that whether or not the professor should be protected by some notion of "academic freedom" depends on the contractual arrangement he has with his employer. However, unlike the free speech we are granted pursuant to the First Amendment, the professor's employer does not have the sort of monopolistic power as does the U.S. Federal government. Therefore, I don't think there would be a sound basis for a statute to somehow force the notion of "academic freedom" on this school, absent contractual language that speaks to this subject.

Separately, as a matter of policy (but not as a legal matter) I would think that if the professor's employer grants the guy some notion of "academic freedom" then the school may also want to grant similar freedom to its students, provided there is sufficiently large number of students who would demand such a thing. I say as a matter of policy because I rather doubt that the contractual relationship between students and the school is well codified in this regard, and therefore one would need to rely on a policy rather than contract language. And because the students are a significant constituency of the school, I would think it would be in the best interests of the school to include this sort of thing in a policy. Otherwise the school may disenfranchise some of the students. Fewer students = lower revenue = lower profits and a diminished brand.

Tracy W writes:

Well why do we have academic freedom as an ideal in the first place?
J.S. Mills in the first chapter of On Liberty makes two arguments for for freedom of speech, firstly our ideas might be wrong, secondly even when our ideas are right we don't really understand them unless we've had to to defend them against their best opponents. Nor do we really believe them, and he gives the example of the disparity between Christian teachings and the behaviour of most Christians in 19th century England.
I think J.S. Mills arguments on his second point are very good.
Furthermore, if a a teacher wants to improve their students' understanding and fix their their wrong ideas then it seems entirely logical that it's a good idea to ask them what they're thinking from time to time, to see how well the teacher is doing. Which calls for being non-judgmental in class, particularly if you want to bring about a deeper change than merely regurgitating the "right" answers on an exam. A teacher can't force someone to believe something after they've left the classroom.

So that's two arguments for student freedom as instrumental for effective teaching.

Ryan writes:

Academic freedom belongs to the institution and all actors within.

Relevance to the material being studied is one of the key questions here that the 9 minute video doesn't allow one determine.

MingoV writes:
Is it important for universities to protect the academic freedom of students?
Define academic freedom. If it means that students can interrupt my lecture with inane questions, give mini-lectures to show off, and argue with every third sentence I speak, then the answer is no, student academic freedom should be restricted.

If academic freedom of students means they can answer a subjective classroom question with an honest opinion without being subjected to harassment or reduced grades, then the answer is yes, student academic freedom should be protected.

@Eric Falkenstein:

Grade A+ students regularly figure out professor prejudices and play them accordingly...
You use too broad a brush. Lots of A students do no such thing. My experience shows that A students are more likely to openly question a professor than all other students combined. Perhaps that's not true for humanities students.

Thomas Sewell writes:

This fall is my daughter's second semester at college and her first taking heavier "academic" classes outside her regular interests. She's 15, generally soft-spoken and polite, so not exactly intimidating to most adults.

Despite trying to choose her professors well to limit the philosophical issues with her education, she's already come back from her psychology class having decided that she can't discuss her truthful views in class because in the psychology department, any sort of religion or freedom of choice as a basis for anything is forbidden. Everything must be mechanistic and biologically deterministic and she needs to just repeat back the professor and the textbook's point of view in order to get a good grade in the class.

There are plenty of other examples I'm familiar with, and they are worse in the humanities, especially in the humanities that tend to be more and more subjective and less tangible results oriented. (teaching, literature, "studies", etc...)

The pursuit of truth in learning has been largely replaced by the pursuit of memorizing accepted wisdom, with what is accepted determined by full time academics, with input from the media and government bureaucrats.

You generally have to get your own education if you actually want one. There aren't many places you can pay to get an actual education anymore, vs. a piece of paper certifying you can memorize and regurgitate the approved information at a minimal level.

Students realize and internalize this. That's one reason they immediately forget what they "learned" in most classes. No practical future application beyond their "education". It would be funny, if the waste wasn't so sad.

James writes:

Indeed, why do the advocates of academic freedom stop with professors? Why stop with academic freedom at all? Maybe chefs should enjoy culinary freedom so that their employers must keep them on payroll no matter what they put on a plate? How about jurisprudential freedom so that attorneys cannot be fired by their clients just because their clients disagree with their legal arguments? Engineering freedom? Medical freedom? Landscaping and interior design freedom?

Each example I just gave, just like academic freedom, is the freedom to draw a paycheck in exchange for output that the employer's customers do not value. I get that the relationship between professor and university is mutually consensual and would regard academic freedom as simply a bad business decision if no other parties were involved. But in a world where post-secondary education is heavily subsidized there is a huge cost being imposed on non-consenting persons.

A. L. writes:

Professor, you are basing your assumptions on an edited video that shows only a small part of a class and was posted on a conservative website? Surely we can hold ourselves to a higher standard of research. It is simply amazing how many blanket assumptions have been made based on this "evidence." The other day I was giving a lecture on Emma Goldman and I read her "New Declaration of Independence" aloud. Now imagine a student decided to tape and selectively edit a bit of that and conservatives declared that I was fomenting a communist revolution and brainwashing my students into participation. This was a literature class, where we were studying the form of the protest essay. Now imagine that conservatives decided that reading Emma Goldman was irrelevant to the study of literature, mostly because they did not like the ideas expressed. Who are they to decide? I've been studying this kind of literature for 30 years. But apparently, people outside the profession can decide that whatever they don't like, usually on a purely emotional basis, must be irrelevant. The other problem is that commentators are making all kinds of assumptions about the policy alleged to have been violated. We do not know, and the way the decision has been handled so far should at least give one pause. So why are you all acting as judge, jury and executioner based on an edited clip on a website with a clearly political agenda. I can say that as a historian, we would certainly not rely on a such a document to make any kind of substantive case, especially against a person!

Gene writes:

Perhaps Prof. A.L. would be so kind as to assure us that he has used "protest essays" written by non-leftist authors as well?

Tracy W writes:

James: isn't academic freedom instrumentally useful for effective teaching?
So the correct analogy would be hiring a chef but banning them from using a frypan, or hiring a lawyer and then refusing to answer their questions about your problem, or hiring an engineer and banning them from using blueprints.
They all might be able to pull off their jobs anyway, but by refusing to let them use common tools of their trade you'd've made the likelihood of them failing higher.

Emil writes:

Freedom is not forcing someone else to pay you if they don't like what you do or say on the job. It is about not being put in jail or harrassed for your views - I can agree that we can extend this to not being fired for what you do outside your job

RPLong writes:

There is more to this issue than academic freedom. This speaks to a young person's ability to retain his or her ideals in a world in which we are constantly pressured from all angles to conform to whatever is the prevailing ideology of the current social situation.

I am tempted to agree with Prof. Henderson, but at the same time, I have seen so many non-academic situations in which this has occurred that I think the issue is much larger.

People in general seem to want to bend over backwards to smooth things over in difficult social situations, even when one person is being particularly over-bearing. The real solution is to refuse to make any allowances for jerks. But how realistic is it to expect a classroom full of students to stand up for what's right when the wrongdoer is in a position of authority.

Now, extend that to the political arena...

A. L. writes:

Gene, why do you assume I'm male? I do indeed use non-leftist authors, although the right vs. left dichotomy is not a very useful distinction if you actually know this field. I teach Atlas Shrugged. So there go all your assumptions, right out the window!

Tracy W writes:

Emil: but sometimes it's rational to offer a contract in which you assure your potential employee/contractor of certain freedoms (or more precisely that you won't attempt to influence certain decisions of theirs) in order to impress your customers with your quality commitment.

The main example I can think of this is in government, with rulers promising to submit themselves to independent judges. Another case is independent quality testing of engineering products.

Of course people are often time-inconsistent, promising independence and then later on seeking to secretly influence, or or openly breaking their promises. But that doesn't mean that there are no instrumental reasons to promise non-interference in certain areas of employment.

NZ writes:

Even for hardcore libertarians, universities may qualify for a special exemption from the usual "he who pays calls the plays" philosophy.

The idea of a university as a skilled-employee factory, churning out certified labor, is fairly new. For much longer, the dedicated purpose of universities has been to seek and discover Truth. Sort of the churches of scientific thinking, if you will, and such thinking extends beyond just the natural sciences.

Given that, academic freedom, both of professors to state their opinions and of students to vocalize opposing opinions, seems pretty important.

What is detrimental is when people use their authority to silence others, especially with violence the way Mark Lyons does at Wright State, or the way William Penn threatens to "come after" racists and Republicans at MSU.

Blue Aurora writes:
There is more to this issue than academic freedom. This speaks to a young person's ability to retain his or her ideals in a world in which we are constantly pressured from all angles to conform to whatever is the prevailing ideology of the current social situation.

Couldn't the argument be made that any society will impose the values it seeks to create onto others, and by extension, that this reflects "confirmation bias" on a larger scale?

There's a reason why social circles that form usually have a consensus around a particular perspective, value, or opinion. This can be seen in social circles in human beings in the adolescent years, and I wouldn't be surprised if this extended to all stages of life.

But to bring myself back to the original discussion...

I do agree with David Henderson that Penn should have received a strong warning, or a lesser punishment.

As for students and academic freedom - well, they are free to pursue their own interests, however, even the most distinguished and accomplished of professors are nowhere near omniscient. If a student were to find that his or her interests aren't being supported due to a lack of expertise (for example, there may be a student interested in writing about Sismondi for his or her undergraduate thesis, but the professor isn't an expert on Sismondi), then that's a logistical issue.

However, if it is the case of a professor being hostile and intolerant to a different point of view, then of course I'd agree. But to go back to my point about social circles, consensuses tend to form for a reason...

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