Academic freedom under fire

Academic freedom under fire

Louis Menand writes:

The congressional appearance last month by Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University, was a breathtaking “What was she thinking?” episode in the history of academic freedom. It was shocking to hear her negotiating with a member of Congress over disciplining two members of her own faculty, by name, for things they had written or said. The next day, in what appeared to be a signal to Congress, Shafik had more than a hundred students, many from Barnard, arrested by New York City police and booked for trespassing—on their own campus. But Columbia made their presence illegal by summarily suspending the protesters first. If you are a university official, you never want law-enforcement officers on your campus. Faculty particularly don’t like it. They regard the campus as their jurisdiction, and they have complained that the Columbia administration did not consult with them before ordering the arrests. Calling in law enforcement did not work at Berkeley in 1964, at Columbia in 1968, at Harvard in 1969, or at Kent State in 1970.

What’s more alarming than the arrests—after all, the students wanted to be arrested—is the matter of their suspensions. They had their I.D.s invalidated, and they have not been permitted to attend class, an astonishing disregard of the fact that although the students may have violated university policy, they are still students, whom Columbia and Barnard are committed to educating. You can’t educate people who cannot attend classes.

The right at stake in these events is that of academic freedom, a right that derives from the role the university plays in American life. Professors don’t work for politicians, they don’t work for trustees, and they don’t work for themselves. They work for the public. Their job is to produce scholarship and instruction that add to society’s store of knowledge. They commit themselves to doing this disinterestedly: that is, without regard to financial, partisan, or personal advantage. In exchange, society allows them to insulate themselves—and to some extent their students—against external interference in their affairs. It builds them a tower.

The concept originated in Germany—the German term is Lehrfreiheit, freedom to teach—and it was imported here in the late nineteenth century, along with the model, also German, of the research university, an educational institution in which the faculty produce scholarship and research. Since that time, it has been understood that academic freedom is the defining feature of the modern research university. [Continue reading…]

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