Commentary

Academic Freedom Has Limits. Where They Are Isn’t Always Clear.

January 15, 2016

This month Florida Atlantic University fired a tenured professor of communications named James F. Tracy, citing his failure to file routine paperwork. This fact is both technically true and essentially false. Tracy was actually fired for bringing shame and embarrassment upon his university by publicly and vocally insisting that the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 did not occur.

His efforts in this regard included mailing a certified letter to the parents of Noah Pozner, a 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim whose body was torn to pieces by .223-caliber bullets fired from a military-style rifle, in which he demanded proof that their son had ever been alive. When they protested, Tracy called them "alleged parents" who were financially profiting from a hoax.

One of the most difficult jobs campus leaders face is choosing between academic community and academic freedom.
Florida Atlantic got stuck with a tenured truther, and showed him the door. It is not the only institution recently forced to choose between academic community and academic freedom. These values, we are learning, are not wholly reconcilable at a modern university. One of the most difficult jobs campus leaders face is choosing between them.

Tracy’s repugnant conduct has few defenders, none among the sane. Other cases are more complex. Wheaton College, in Illinois, a mostly-white evangelical college, insists that it is not firing Larycia Hawkins, a tenured woman of color, for wearing a hijab in solidarity with oppressed Muslims. The official reason has to do with Hawkins’s suspiciously coincidental failure to adhere to religious doctrine involving the tripartite nature of God, a dispute that mattered a great deal in England 400 years ago.

Religious belief instantiated in college policy is, more or less by definition, indisputable. But if that’s the case, one wonders why Wheaton bothers to employ scholars to explore theology; it would be easier to just hand down the Word from on high. Churches and colleges are not the same thing.

Ward Churchill was officially fired by the University of Colorado at Boulder for research misconduct, but was actually fired for his senseless and inhumane denunciation of the thousands killed by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Steven Salaita’s tenured job offer was canceled by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of his profane anti-Israel writings on social media. At least the Illinois trustees didn’t pretend there was another reason, and they paid Salaita $600,000 to settle his lawsuits.

Any debate over academic freedom must acknowledge that the continuing threat to free inquiry is very real. The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by the Texas Republican Lamar Smith, is currently conducting a kind of medieval anti-science inquisition designed to intimidate scholars, many employed at universities, who have publicly supported the consensus opinion on anthropogenic climate change. The only reason this doesn’t happen more often is that academic freedom is deeply established in the culture and practice of higher education.

At the same time, it can be hard for anyone outside the academy to make sense of the specific relationship between academic freedom and tenure, particularly given how campuses have lately become the center of the roiling national debate on justice and race.

I fully support the students and educators who have acted, spoken, and agitated for racial justice in higher education. There have been mistakes and excesses, including occasional challenges to First Amendment rights and some people’s troubling use of the Title IX adjudication process as a means of attacking those whose speech they disagree with. But all that students are demanding is that people of color experience exactly the same amount of discrimination and racial aggression that I as a white, heterosexual man of indeterminate regional and religious origin have experienced over the course of my 45 years, which is to say: none, of any kind, ever. This is reasonable, possible, and essential for a decent society, and colleges should be proud to once again be at the forefront of creating a more socially just world.

But there’s something strange about the unequal distribution of speech rights on campus. Right now, a nontenured faculty member or administrator can be censured, pressured, or even fired for making statements that fall well within the boundaries of contemporary dialogue on racial equality. Tenured faculty, by contrast, can employ harmful speech about race with impunity as long as it’s dressed in a thin layer of academic inquiry or occurs at some remove from the classroom. Northwestern has a tenured Holocaust denier on staff.

It’s also hard to find an American population more oppressed by elaborate speech codes than early-career academics hoping to enter tenure’s promised land. One only has to scroll through the legions of anonymous handles on academic comment boards to find people who feel in no way free to speak truth to power or voice opinions that run contrary to established orthodoxy in their fields.

Great universities can afford to shelter a few cranks and fools in order to support genuinely original thinking.
Ultimately, there must be ample space on campus for ideas that seem bizarre and transgressive. We are all partially blinded by the consensus of our times. If a professor wants to use the rare privilege of tenure to compare a democratically elected governor to Hitler circa 1935 or somesuch, it’s best to let the court of public opinion and academic labor market take their courses. Great universities can afford to shelter a few cranks and fools in order to support genuinely original thinking.

But that protection should be extended well beyond the shrinking ranks of the tenured professoriate. And it should be balanced against a college’s obligations to its students and its core values. While Florida Atlantic was right to fire James Tracy, it should be forthright about why: Not because of his offenses against truth and decency, though they are many, but because someone so cruel and possibly deranged has no business being employed to teach undergraduate students. Sometimes, the expansive protections of academic freedom are strengthened by defining where they end.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at New America. His most recent book is The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (Riverhead Books, 2015).