Academic Freedom, the Big Picture

Reviewed by Gary Natriello

Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University. Robert O’Neil. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Robert O’Neil’s fine volume Academic Freedom in the Wired World covers a landscape that is much broader than the title signals. Indeed, O’Neil provides up-to-date coverage of the full spectrum of issues attending the idea of academic freedom. For those who have spent too many years in meetings and at other events where the term “academic freedom” has surfaced, as well as those just embarking on an academic career, this volume is essential reading.

The book’s ten chapters address both perennial and emerging issues. The first chapter examines contemporary cases in which the protections associated with academic freedom have been invoked and uses those cases as entry points to a discussion of the history of academic freedom as a concept. O’Neil dives directly into the case of Northwestern University engineering professor Arthur Butz’s endorsement of the views of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who termed the Holocaust a myth. This example of abhorrent faculty behavior becomes the starting point for O’Neil’s discussion of the origins of academic freedom in the special nature of the university as a truthseeking institution. The chapter traces the development of academic freedom, introducing some finer points on which later chapters will elaborate and noting the fragility of the concept of academic freedom.

In the second chapter, O’Neil discusses the role of both the AAUP and other higher education groups in protecting academic freedom and the processes for ensuring that academic freedom is not compromised in times of crisis. He uses historical examples, such as the dismissal of tenured professors during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, as well as contemporary ones, such as the treatment of dismissed University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, to highlight key issues.

The third chapter is devoted to the academic freedom protections derived from the U.S. Constitution, most of which pertain only to those teaching in public or state-supported institutions. Key cases and decisions are discussed in an engaging and accessible fashion.

In several of the early chapters, O’Neil points to the special stresses placed on academic freedom and institutions of higher education during the McCarthy era. These discussions are an important backdrop for the fourth chapter’s discussion of academic freedom in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. With the cases emanating from September 11 still fresh, O’Neil’s assessment that these latest threats to academic freedom were handled far more effectively than those of the McCarthy era is particularly welcome. He attributes this stronger positioning of academic freedom to several factors: lessons learned from the 1950s, a more welldeveloped “protective matrix” of watchdog organizations, and the actions of key higher education leaders—Benno Schmidt on the board at the City University of New York, Lee Bollinger as president of Columbia University, and Mark Yudof as head of the University of Texas system—who understood the importance of academic freedom.

Research activities can also raise academic freedom issues. In the fifth chapter, O’Neil takes up such research-related concerns, which include efforts to compel faculty members to produce data and other materials for legal and policy proceedings and to curtail faculty members’ receipt of external funds for projects deemed inconsistent with the missions of their institutions. Other worries involve attempts to impose confidentiality requirements in government- sponsored research, to restrict collaboration with foreign scholars, and to influence the conduct and dissemination of corporate-sponsored research.

In the sixth chapter, O’Neil addresses the special problems for academic freedom posed by artistic expression. The chapter begins with an account of the development of Academic Freedom and Artistic Expression, a statement endorsed by the AAUP in 1990 following a three-day conference at the Wolf Trap center in Northern Virginia. The statement asserts that academic freedom protections for artistic work, including classroom use of such work, are equal to those of more traditional scholarly products and teaching materials. O’Neil reviews challenges to various types of artistic works created by faculty and students—plays, films, paintings, sculptures—to highlight the particular difficulties of identifying compromise positions to resolve disputes.

Like other sectors of society, institutions of higher education and their faculties are subject to the new forces connected with advances in computing and communications technologies. The implications of these developments for academic freedom are the subject of the seventh chapter. New technologies have delivered diverse and powerful opportunities for academic communications. Somewhat unexpectedly, the academic work relying on new media, from Web pages to e-mail messages to data gathered online, has been accorded lower levels of academic freedom protections than work that relies on more traditional media. O’Neil cites a set of cases that raise concern and require serious attention from the academic community. For example, cases involving faculty members using university Web pages to disseminate controversial views at Indiana University, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis have tested the resolve of university administrators to support faculty free speech. Other cases, involving the privacy of faculty e-mail messages and faculty access to controversial online content, have highlighted both the positive role of institutions of higher education in supporting academic freedom and the weak support or lack of support afforded by state and federal law.

Although many of the issues of academic freedom discussed in the volume arise in cases in which the interests of the individual faculty member are aligned with those of the institution, increasingly cases are arising in which there is not such a convergence of interests. In the eighth chapter, O’Neil considers cases in which the rights of individual faculty members collide with the asserted prerogatives of college or university administrators as well as cases in which the rights of faculty collide with the rights of students.

The growing pressures to examine the alleged political and ideological biases of university faculty receive attention in the ninth chapter, where O’Neil mixes discussion of particular cases affecting individual institutions, state-level legislative initiatives, and the work of national organizations. He develops a troubling account of how continuing efforts to bring broader public attention to the ideological caste of American colleges and universities require constant attention to preserve faculty and institutional interests—and autonomy—and he highlights a set of strategies that institutional leaders might use to address demands for “balance” while preserving academic freedom.

The final chapter addresses three major questions: Does academic freedom really matter? How secure is academic freedom? And how might academic freedom be made more secure? The answers are not surprising. Yes, academic freedom does matter if we want to protect independent thought and inquiry. Academic freedom has grown more secure, but it faces an emerging set of threats. We can make academic freedom still more secure by becoming more vigilant when it is under attack and more assertive about its value both within and beyond the academic community. I might begin the last task by purchasing this volume as a gift for my graduating doctoral students.

Academic Freedom, the Big Picture Gary Natriello is the Ruth L. Gottesman Professor of Educational Research and professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research focuses on the organization of learning and schooling in the postindustrial era. His e-mail address is gjn6@columbia.edu.

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