Academic Freedom or Vocational License?

April 2003

In recent months, there has been rising concern over the use of university classrooms and other facilities by some instructors to promote their personal political agendas by propagandizing their students. It's not just university students who are subjected to propaganda in the classroom: CNN reported recently that certain Maine grade school teachers had been creating anxiety among students-some of them the children of National Guardsmen called up to duty for possible action in Iraq-by condemning U.S. policy toward Iraq. And a letter by a 10th grade student in The London Free Press on February 27 complains of teachers using their captive student audiences to present an "unbalanced" condemnatory picture of U.S. policy toward Iraq. Concern over teacher conduct was also highlighted recently when South Florida University fired a faculty member because of his alleged use of the university's facilities and name to conduct activities in behalf of Middle East terrorist groups.

The rationalizations for use of the classroom to conduct propaganda activities are often couched in terms like "academic" freedom or "freedom of speech," but never as vocational license - which may be a more realistic description of such conduct. Vocational license is the unjustified arrogation of power and privilege by a paid employee for personal benefit. And what is mendaciously called "academic" in such cases has nothing to do with scholarship but everything to do with its antithesis, bias and propaganda.

University teachers using the classroom as a venue for propaganda may include such material in lectures and assignments, course outlines and personal web sites that are linked to the course. Moreover, instructors may cancel scheduled classes, exhorting students instead to attend meetings that promote the instructors' politics in place of classroom instruction for which they are paid. But class time, facilities and university web sites that students are required to consult for course information are not the personal property of the instructor. They are university property.

Students often bitterly resent enrolling in a course advertised in the calendar as one thing only to find out that they are being subjected to an onslaught of non academic personal exhortations and inflammatory propaganda that have a tenuous, contrived relationship to what was advertised-or none at all. Yet the student, ever conscious that the instructor conducting the course will be assigning him or her a grade, feels intimidated and hesitates to appeal to a departmental chairman or dean. And with good reason, for the chair may be on the same wavelength and a protector of the teacher or may lack the courage to investigate the complaint.

School administrators, who should be aware of grievous violations of academic norms, all too often prefer to devise ways to ignore them - even in the face of impassioned complaints by students. This may be because they themselves believe that academic freedom is a grant of vocational license or perhaps are fearful they will be subject to protests from noisy campus mobs who themselves agree with the ideology of the abuser. As well, they may not themselves understood the limits of "academic" freedom.

All too easily forgotten is the classic statement on the true limits of academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." This is clear enough: there is a distinction between "academic" freedom and vocational license.

I would hope that universities - perhaps under prod-ding from their public and academic constituencies - pay more attention to that distinction and stop permitting abuse of what has been a traditional safeguard of legitimate scholarship. For the real threat to academic freedom does not come from reasonable expectations by reasonable people but from those who would, as Judy Genshaft, president of South Florida University said, "hide behind the shield of academic freedom."