Review of Jennifer Lackey, Ed., Academic Freedom

September 2019

Jennifer Lackey (ed.), Academic Freedom, Oxford University Press, 2018, 224 pp., ISBN 9780198791508.

The book, which is part of Oxford’s Engaging Philosophy series, provides philosophical discussions of current issues regarding academic freedom. It contains eleven papers sorted into five parts. In the first part, Lackey gives a useful overview of academic freedom and introduces the other papers. I will comment on several of the papers and then give my overall view of the book.

The second part of the book deals with the rationale of academic freedom. In “Is There a ‘Safe Space’ for Academic Freedom?” Michele Moody-Adams examines the claim that academic freedom should be restricted to provide students with spaces that are free from ideas and images that may upset them or treat them unfairly. Some proponents of safe spaces argue that, when lecturing, faculty should warn students of potentially traumatizing triggers such as sexual violence, racism, sissexism and sexism. Some proponents also contend that universities should remove statues, crests and building names that are associated with slavery, imperialism and other types of oppression that may offend students or threaten their dignity. In response, Moody-Adams provides an interesting and detailed evaluation of the proponents’ arguments and considers when, if ever, the reasoning justifies the proposed changes. She contends that when the arguments are compelling, “it is because they convincingly identify some artifact, image, or name with the potential to limit or greatly endanger an institution’s capacity to provide the appropriate assurance” of respect to all members of the institution’s community (p. 48). This is, I think, a reasonable criterion for determining when change is required. Moody-Adams uses the criterion to comment on several well-known cases. She claims, for example, that in 1971 West Point was right to refuse Nixon’s request to erect, on campus, a Confederate monument. She also claims that in 2015, safe-space advocates at Yale were wrong to reject the academic freedom of faculty “to express a Millian preference for meeting the stigmatizing messages embodied in some students’ Halloween costumes with ‘more, and better’ speech, rather than with censorship” (p. 50). Moody-Adams concludes that while universities must give students physical security, safety and the appropriate respect, they should do so without protecting the students from uncomfortable ideas and experiences, since these two things help students become morally conscientious citizens.

The third part of the book examines the parameters of academic freedom. In “Freedom of Research Area”, Brian Weatherson asks what amount of freedom academics should have when choosing their research areas. This is an important question, if only because of its significance to tenure decisions. Should research freedom be limited and, if so, in what way? Weatherson discusses three alternatives: Freedom of Research Area, which gives academics unrestricted freedom of choice, Freedom of Research Area within Department, which limits academics’ choice to areas that are within the boundaries of their home department’s discipline, and his own “Elbow Room” principle, which requires that academics stick to those areas that are either the same as or close to what they were hired to research. He rejects the first alternative on the grounds that new hires should not have the freedom to ignore plans for developing departmental programs. He rejects the second alternative mainly because it places too much importance on the vague boundaries of disciplines. This leaves the Elbow Room principle.

Although I agree that faculty research should, for the most part, be fairly consistent with the agreements faculty members have made with their departments or universities, I suggest that more be said about the role of agreements and the fact that faculty can often make new agreements with their departments that are in keeping with changes in the needs and interests of both the faculty and their departments. This leads to my second suggestion, which is that research freedom should vary partly in accordance with the main stages of a scholar’s career: being hired, receiving tenure and being promoted to full Professor. When determining the new hire’s research agenda, the department doesn’t need to justify its plans for program development. This lack of leverage usually changes, however, when academics receive tenure, and changes again when they are promoted to full professor. One could argue that full professors have earned a substantial say in what they research and that departments need very good reasons for providing any opposition. On this view full professors deserve a lot more elbow room than do junior faculty.

The last two parts of the book deal with applied issues, including silencing, political correctness, microaggressions, protests, civil disobedience and denying platforms to speakers and potential speakers. In “Beyond Just Silencing: A Call for Complexity in Discussions of Academic Free Speech”, Jennifer Saul provides a framework for discussing free speech and points out that this freedom can be violated by what faculty are compelled to say (i.e. additional speech) or prohibited from saying (i.e. silencing). Sometimes silencing is acceptable: it depends on whether it is pernicious or non-pernicious, and the criterion for this is whether or not the silencing conflicts with the faculty members’ legitimate goals and duties as educators. Requiring that faculty not lie to students is non-pernicious silencing, as is asking students to stop talking so that a lecture can begin. Additions of speech are also acceptable or unacceptable, and again this depends on whether the required speech conflicts with the legitimate goals and duties of faculty. Given this criterion, requiring faculty to inform students of academic policies regarding plagiarism is perfectly fine, but requiring them to mislead students about assignment deadlines is not.

Saul next discusses content warnings. Since she puts these warnings in the category of additional speech, their acceptability depends on whether they conflict with one’s educational goals and duties and, of course, on whether they are required or merely suggested. (Suggestions can be ignored and so don’t violate academic free speech.) Saul contends that there is as yet no adequate evidence to justify requiring faculty to distribute content warnings, but that it is entirely appropriate to provide warnings to students who show the need for them. She then discusses content warnings that are not merely suggested but, as Saul puts it, suggested coercively. (I think that ‘coercive suggestion’ is an unfortunate choice. The words ‘demand’ and ‘request’ fit better with ‘coercive’ and Saul herself uses ‘coercive demands’ more than once.) Since, as she states earlier, there is as yet no adequate evidence to justify requiring faculty to issue content warnings, most of the requests need not be granted; however, since the requests usually come from students and student complaints can damage the careers of the vulnerable faculty, such as those who are untenured, Saul thinks that universities should reduce or eliminate the coerciveness by giving less weight to course evaluations and student complaints when making hiring decisions. Just to be clear, she is not saying that complaints and evaluations are unimportant, but only that complaints based on faculty members’ refusal to provide unwarranted content warnings should not count against the faculty. She makes the same point regarding silencing and the calling out of microaggressions. Saul’s final conclusion, which certainly merits attention, is that in this context the most important threat to academic freedom is “the precarious employment structures of the modern university” (p. 133).

In “No Platforming”, Robert Mark Simpson and Amia Srinivasan discuss the practice of preventing people from speaking at universities. This usually happens because the speakers’ views are thought to be so unacceptable, either morally or politically, that they should not be heard. The views may, for example, be regarded as racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic or transphobic. Organizations such as student unions try to block “unacceptable” individuals by placing them on don’t-invite lists or, if the individual is already invited, by pressuring the relevant university administrators to withdraw the invitation. The danger, of course, is that speakers will be denied an opportunity to speak for no good academic reason.

The authors ask whether blocking a speaker can be justified in the context of liberal politics, with its concern for toleration, free speech and diversity. They begin by examining use of the harm principle, that is, the claim that speakers should be blocked if this would avoid harming or the risk of harming members of the university or the community at large. They present several problems with this approach, the main one being that it is often impossible to show that giving speakers a platform will cause an unacceptable amount of harm. Not only is the harm principle an inadequate basis for rejecting speakers, but it mischaracterizes universities by treating them as public squares that are open to all. The authors contend that a much better approach is to appeal, via the notion of academic freedom, to the claim that the proposed speaker will present views that oppose disciplinary expertise. For example, those who publically claim that the planet is only 7,000 years old should be prevented from speaking simply because experts have shown that this claim is false. The same applies to holocaust deniers and to those who deny that humans have played a significant role in global warming. Giving these people a platform undermines the status that universities have as centres of expertise while at the same time giving credibility to those who don’t deserve it. The authors are less sure of what should be done when experts disagree, as is often the case in matters of value (e.g. the morality of abortion). Given the significance of these matters, and the fact the experts haven’t yet reached a consensus, or perhaps even sorted out who the experts are, perhaps the authors should reconsider using the principle of harm as a source of guidance. They should definitely reconsider putting so much emphasis on truth as determined by experts when choosing speakers. While truth is remarkably valuable, the views of powerful, influential people also matter. It was good that Columbia University invited Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak in 2007, even though some of his views were demonstrably false. (I thank Andrew Irvine for this point.)

Toward the end of their paper, Simpson and Srinivasan state that while denying a platform is justified when doing so protects universities as centres of disciplinary expertise, most attempts to block speakers come from undergraduates, who lack this expertise. The authors contend that undergraduates should, nonetheless, have a role in selecting speakers. Although I agree with this conclusion, I would find the authors’ reasoning more persuasive if they had not made disciplinary expertise their primary standard.

Academic Freedom is a well-edited book that does a fine job of discussing new and important questions about academic freedom. It is recommended for experts in the field as well as for those who want a scholarly introduction to the material.