Why Academic Freedom Should Be Covered at Freshman Orientation

May 31, 2017

Todd Balfour
Student protesters at Middlebury College disrupted a talk by Charles Murray, a controversial political scientists, in March. After the event, a scuffle erupted and a professor was injured.

Twenty years ago, several New York State legislators, a member of the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees, and members of the New Paltz College Council (an advisory board) publicly and privately pressured the then-president of SUNY New Paltz — me — to cancel a long-planned conference about women’s sexuality hosted by the women’s-studies program. When I demurred, the SUNY chancellor ordered an investigation, and the governor decried the waste of taxpayer dollars. The New York Post repeatedly attacked me, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed about the conference by a right-wing ideologue, and The New York Times supported me for defending academic freedom.

The New Paltz women’s-studies conference barely merits a footnote in the history of the academy, yet at this particular time, when liberals and conservatives both are slamming liberal students’ attacks against invited conservative speakers on campus, it is well to remember that political pressure to constrain "free speech" transcends political partisanship, even as it may reflect national political partisanship at the time the attacks occur. Conservatives in New York detested President Bill Clinton 20 years ago no less than liberals at Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley today detest Donald Trump.

Attacking disagreeable speech before actually hearing the speech itself is exactly contrary to the ethics of academe.
Attacking disagreeable speech before actually hearing the speech itself is exactly contrary to the ethics of academe. Phrasing these attacks in terms of the First Amendment muddies the water; framing them in terms of academic freedom brings clarity. First Amendment principles about free speech refer specifically to speech that the state must not constrain and thus apply directly and only to public universities, such as Berkeley, while academic freedom broadens the protections afforded the voicing of ideas and research to include private colleges, such as Middlebury.

That it is students who are trying to stifle speech today, rather than conservative authorities as at New Paltz, is deeply worrisome because it indicates that the institutions they attend are not acculturating new students into the ethics of academic freedom. New-student orientation today tends to focus on how to get along with your roommate, how to navigate the curriculum, how to use the health center, and so on. To my knowledge, colleges do not offer new students a primer in the meaning and purpose of academic freedom. They should.

A simple syllabus of readings for such an orientation might include:

Dewey’s article emphasizes that academic freedom "makes its recipients better judges of truth and more effective in applying it to the affairs of life," not least of which is that fidelity to academic freedom helps shape a citizenry inclined to be engaged in strengthening democracy. The "1915 Declaration" makes the crucial point that college should be an "inviolable refuge" from the tyranny of trustees, politicians, special interests, and public opinion. The "1940 Statement" underscores that the "common good depends upon the free search for truth and its exposition." And the U.S. Supreme Court case makes explicit that academic freedom is "a special concern of the First Amendment."

Students who are exposed to these (and other) readings, and who engage their student-orientation instructor in conversation about their implications, will be less likely to don black ski masks in protest against a guest speaker on campus, more likely to challenge their instructors in class, and less likely to blindly adopt a campus orthodoxy (if there is one).

As the "1915 Statement" makes clear, students enjoy a "freedom to learn" no less than faculty members enjoy the "freedom to teach," and if the latter interferes with the former, students are more likely to speak up instead of look down in the classroom.

In brief, students who understand the principles of academic freedom and who put them into practice will help create a vibrant teaching and learning culture, one that welcomes outside speakers whose ideas may differ from their own and that encourages debate instead of censorship.

Just over a year after the controversial conference at New Paltz, an op-ed I wrote for The New York Times about the dangers of charter-school legislation prompted a SUNY trustee to summon me to his office in Manhattan for another rebuke. This was not a first; in 1997 a different SUNY trustee had urged me not to hire as our next dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences a woman who was a lesbian, a wiccan, a former nun, and an accomplished academic and author. Then, in the spring of 2000, a state higher-education administrator asked me to pressure a faculty member and expert on Native American history not to testify against the State of New York in an Indian land-claims dispute.

Such trustee and administration intervention is dangerous, but in all of those instances the trustees and the administrator felt emboldened to apply political pressure to weaken academic freedom. Their fear of ideas that they rejected is not much different than liberal students’ obvious fear of conservative ideas today. But both the established authorities and the students should know better than to censor.

All the more reason, I believe, to require not just students but trustees and academic leaders as well to sit through a new-student orientation, or at least the part that explains the meaning and purpose of academic freedom.

Roger Bowen is a former president of SUNY New Paltz and a former general secretary of the AAUP. He is now senior adviser to the Council of Independent Colleges and program director of the council’s Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows.