Conformists Inside the Gates: The Threat to Academic Freedom from Fellow Faculty

September 2019

Universities are full of people, especially professors, who think they know best – about everything, including how others should do their jobs. Among the most serious threats to academic freedom are the actions of other faculty. Consider, for example, the following scenario: Professor Jones, a senior and well-respected academic in the Department of Sociology at any University in North America, becomes concerned that younger members of his faculty are omitting to teach several core concepts in introductory courses. Out of concern for the education of students in the program, he makes a proposal to the Curriculum Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Science to identify mandatory topics to be covered in first- and second-year sociology courses. The faculty members in his department divide over the proposals, some agreeing with the value and necessity of the topics in question, others of the view that the material is orthodox and out-of-date. The proposal ignites the latest battle in the war over the academic identity of the department.

Course content, of course, is a matter of academic judgment – and therefore a matter over which the professor teaching the course has the academic freedom to decide. The senior professor concerned about the course content of his younger colleagues is making a typical error: he thinks that he knows better than they do. If the situation was reversed, no doubt he would strenuously object to being told what to teach. Creating a policy that attempts to control the topics to be covered in particular courses is inconsistent with academic independence.

In spite of their insistence upon academic freedom for themselves, academics can be oddly rule-oriented and conformist in their expectations for those around them, intolerant of difference and suspicious of inventive ideas. Especially when they become embedded in an administrative culture, they are apt to see everywhere issues that require institutional attention, or to fervently believe that their misguided colleagues require supervision. Like fundamentalist zealots who demand the religious freedom to impose their beliefs on everybody else, scholars who believe that their own conclusions, judgments, or beliefs about teaching and research are correct become eager to impose those judgments on others in their departments. Suzanne Lohmann attributes this trait in part to the deep specialization that the university has made possible:

“Tenure is supposed to give individual scholars the freedom to think unthinkable thoughts, embark on high-risk-high-return research programs, stand up to “the powers that be,” and so on. It doesn’t always work that way, or even most of the time. In the university, it is the tenured faculty, above all, who are the fundamental source of ossification. … The problem is in part emotional, in other part cognitive, and it lies in the scholarly brain. First, the identity of a scholar, his connections and loyalties, are defined by his socialization in graduate school. Second, as a result of his graduate training, his brain is locked into seeing the world in a particular way, and he is blind to new ideas and methods that slice the world in a different way.” (Suzanne Lohmann, “Darwinian Medicine for the University” in Ronald G. Ehrenberg, ed., Governing Academia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004) 71 at 78-79.)

For academic freedom to be real, it must protect professors not just from administrators, but also from fellow faculty in their roles as members of faculty boards, committees and university legislative bodies. Academics who wish to control the views and actions of their colleagues or believe that their faculty or department should develop a common academic or social mission miss the point: within the university, opinions on academic matters are supposed to differ. As John Fekete writes, “To give strategic meaning and relevance to the concept of academic freedom, we must find a definition that brings to the foreground the right to offend. I do not mean that we should aim to be uncivil. … The problem we are facing is that a program of taking offence is wreaking havoc in the university. … we have to insist that we will not surrender to those who are taking offence.” (“Academic Freedom versus the Intrusive University” in Sharon Kahn and Dennis Pavlich, Academic Freedom and the Inclusive University (Vancouver: UBC Press 2000) 77 at 82.)

Academic freedom does not mean that people should not work together in a constructive and cooperative environment. Just as tall fences make good neighbours, clear jurisdictions make good colleagues. A university is a community, but it is not a community of like-minded individuals. Professors with different educational perspectives and convictions should be able to work together in an environment of mutual respect and tolerance. The only value that the members of such a community need hold in common is the belief in the necessity for such tolerance, for without it a free inquiry of ideas is not possible. Collegiality does not mean congeniality; nor does it mean that people must agree or reach consensus. Instead, it means that fundamental disagreement may exist amongst professors in an environment of acceptance and cooperative independence.

Academic tolerance is most important when it is most difficult. Academic diversity is easy to espouse but difficult to deliver, for it calls upon professors to give colleagues space in moments of strongest disagreement with matters of academic judgment. Because there are profound differences of opinion on every conceivable subject, doing so is essential to the well-being of the university. Rigorous observance of academic freedom requires highly intelligent people to refrain from interfering when they are certain that they are right.