SHORT TAKES


March 30, 2010

The Groupthink Version Of Academic Freedom

The City University of New York (CUNY) serves as a type of funhouse mirror to faculty conditions throughout the academy: for a variety of structural reasons (the vise-like grip of the faculty union and the legacy of economic difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s, which drove out many high-quality scholars searching for better-paying jobs, leaving behind a disproportionate share of ideologues) the university suffers from an extreme version of academic groupthink. In this respect, conditions at CUNY can illustrate with particular clarity broader problems in the academy.

One such case involves effort of the AAUP and other defenders of the academic status quo to redefine "academic freedom" into a concept suggesting that professors whose views represent the majority in the academy should be free from criticism, regardless of its validity. Last week, CUNY's University Faculty Senate sent to all CUNY faculty a 13-page "statement on academic freedom." The document makes for an intriguing read.

In his cover note announcing the statement's availability, UFS chairman Manfred Phillips maintained, "Political pressures from organizations, university administrators or students [emphasis added] can threaten the academic freedom of individual faculty members." This statement was remarkable for both what it included and what it excluded. Not only does the faculty's "statement on academic freedom" contain no mention that students, as well as faculty, possess (more limited) academic freedom rights, but to CUNY's elected faculty, students are a threat to academic freedom. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, only "organizations, university administrators or students can threaten the academic freedom of individual faculty members"---not members of the faculty majority intent on driving out dissenters in their midst.

How convenient: academic freedom, in this respect, is a license for professors in the pedagogical or ideological majority to do whatever they want.

The academic freedom "statement" expresses grave concern with the prospect of outside pressure on faculty prerogatives. Under the heading of "political pressures on academic freedom," the statement frets, "Organizations such as Students for Academic Freedom, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), Campus Watch, and others which support the highly controversial 'Academic Bill of Rights' monitor colleges and universities for political purposes." (In an unusual decision for a publication coming from academics, the statement contains no citations to substantiate its claims about ACTA or Campus Watch. The website of Campus Watch contains no mention of the organization's position on the Academic Bill of Rights, "highly controversial" or not; the same condition applies with ACTA.)

Regardless, focus on the CUNY faculty's definition of what constitutes "outside pressure." An obvious point of "outside pressure" on academics would be attempts by politicians to influence the hiring or firing of academic personnel; indeed, the need to resist such pressures led to creation of the AAUP in the early 20th century.

Late last month, several members of the New York City Council publicly criticized the performance of CUNY professors in the hiring process, and demanded that CUNY faculty hire different kinds of people. Chairman of the Higher Education Committee Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) asserted that CUNY "has to do more" to increase diversity. Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) went even further. Referring to people of color, he proclaimed, "If we're the new majority, then we should be a majority of the faculty."

Given the realities of tenure, the only way to accommodate Barron's demand would be for CUNY to summarily fire large numbers of white, tenured professors. And while Rodriguez's words were milder, they still constituted political pressure on the hiring process.

But the "statement on academic freedom"---and subsequent comments from both the CUNY Faculty Senate and the CUNY union---have offered no resistance to this type of political pressure. It appears that, for the elected leadership of the CUNY faculty, "outside" or "political" pressure cannot come from politicians with whom a majority of the faculty agree, even when those politicians control the purse-strings that help fund CUNY.

It's so much easier, after all, to demonize ACTA.

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