University benefits from academic freedom

By Tom

In the Star Tribune’s December 8th and 9th series on the University of Minnesota, Norman Draper’s thoughtful conclusion is right on the money — where the pressure is.
Draper asks, “Can the true value of a university education ever be measured?” In answer he quotes a professor of law from Indiana University: “The education of an individual is a public good,” but “I don’t think that’s appreciated the way it used to be, especially by the people who are calling for more accountability. … How do you measure a love of learning?”
In response to Draper, you don’t measure it. But if you don’t care about learning and its values, you don’t have to; you can measure whatever you want and make whatever people you want to fall short and get out of the way of “progress.”
The University of Minnesota has been retrenched virtually every year since 1973, with faculty salaries eroding proportionately. By now the atmosphere of academic freedom is like what it was during the McCarthy era. Then, all thought to be Communists or “fellow travelers” were the witches, including the late, great Mulford Q. Sibley, a gentle socialist whose humanitarian views threatened none.
Today things are arguably worse, because the entire faculty is under attack from almost all directions, not just its freedom of thought. As support continues to decrease the attacks continue to increase, and if this state of affairs weren’t so negative in it would be absurd, an instance of the Vicious Dog Syndrome: see how that dog snarls and threatens to bite when you kick it?
It is somewhat encouraging that enough voters here are in favor of compassion, integrity, and vision to have elected Senator Wellstone to a second term, because among them, along with others, must be many who recognize the worth of a real university. But that is about as far as it goes, apparently, since all too many in positions of power want the University to be almost everything but what a university is supposed to be: they want a not-too-advanced vocational school where research is all applied and practical, and where programs and faculty members may be terminated at will whenever the winds of fashion change direction — and even when they don’t.
Probably the single most important issue in contention is security of tenure, which has so far generated much heat and little light. It is obviously not understood by some of the Regents, who tried to cripple it, and University graduate and State House Rep. Becky Kelso was quoted as saying that tenure is nothing but “a level of job security ‘that’s comparable to being on the U.S. Supreme Court, or the pope'” — where she presumably thinks it is a good thing.
Here she begs the question by ignoring the truly all-important issue of academic freedom, which is what tenure security is about.
Academic freedom is “the freedom of a teacher to state his positions openly without censorship, or without the fear of losing his position, etc.,” according to the greatest dictionary of the English language, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary 2. The first recorded use of the phrase, in 1901, was in “Every right-thinking man will stand firmly for academic freedom of thought”; we would now say “person,” but in 1901 that was understood. “Right thinking” is not politically-correct or currently fashionable thinking, but equitable and disinterested thinking that is a product of education, whether formal or self-acquired. It isn’t easily come by otherwise.
Without academic freedom, a faculty member is entirely at the mercy of the system, its administrators, and anyone else with power over the university. If all these were unfailingly “right-thinking,” there would be no problem; but they are at least as fallible and self-interested as faculty members are, and often more so. That is exactly why the special trust of academic freedom is needed — to insure the freedom of inquiry and expression of persons who have worked and often sacrificed to earn the necessary advanced degrees and have devoted their lives to advancing the frontiers of knowledge through their professional expertise and higher learning.
Academic freedom is needed no less in propagating knowledge and methods of inquiry by teaching in all its forms, so that professors may express their knowledge and intellectual convictions without the fear of losing his position, etc. Of course they are not above criticism, from within or outside the university, and some make mistakes. But if their expertise and their learning are to be tolerated only when these conform to popular opinion, administrative expediency, the personal feelings of power brokers in and out of the legislature, and contemporary fashion in general, where is wisdom to take a stand, and what can a university enterprise be honestly said to be about?
Indoctrination in politically-correct attitudes, and dabbling in the fashionable studies and desired cures of the moment, should be no more. In that way accelerating regression lies. And that is the course the University seems to have been forced upon at this very time. It is a bit early to say that something is rotten in the state of Minnesota where the University is concerned, but the scent is in the air, and it can be sniffed on campus.
Perhaps it is not surprising that academic freedom should be dismissed or just ignored. This is a time and place when freedom of expression is not greatly encouraged, especially when that expression affects vested interests, even if it is ethical and otherwise valuable.
A case in point — publicized nationally on 60 Minutes on December 8 — is WCCO-TV’s Don Shelby, who stepped out of his role as anchorperson to return to investigative reporting long enough to conduct an inquiry into the maintenance of its aircraft by Northwest Airlines. He found and reported on serious deficiencies. Subsequently, a citizens’ council voted 19 to 2 to censure him, and he said in response, understandably somewhat bitterly, that he would not be moved to undertake such efforts again. Who could blame him? But is that the kind of society we want? Tell an important truth that offends a higher power and be censured for it or worse. Conscientious journalists like Shelby deserve as well as require more liberty than that, and also the praise that should accompany distinguished performance. And University faculty members must have academic freedom if society is to have the benefits of their expertise, their learning, and their integrity. The price of academic freedom is security of tenure, a small enough price to pay for a commodity so precious and, once thrown away, not easily if ever to be recovered.
At this time, as Draper reports, “there’s a fear that bottom-line education might not be synonymous with … a primary goal of university education — to produce a well-informed citizenry with an appreciation for learning”.
These fears exist for good reason. Unenlightened bottom-line evaluation is an enemy to the lifeblood and even the spirit of higher education and civil society at large.
It may find latitude to encourage whatever it sees as practically productive and immediately gratifying, but it can have little sense of the beat of the heart of liberal education, which has been found for two-and-a-half millennia in the liberal arts, especially the humanities. But if these don’t compute, the attitude seems to be to close the departments and fire the professors. And the rest of you get “back to the mines,” or you’ll see your own turn coming sooner than you think.
Some of the University’s enemies qualify for Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, one who “knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Such persons need a real university as desperately as they do not know it. In today’s Minnesota, however, the prospect of the University’s remaining viable and valuable is at best uncertain. One thing is certain: if a balanced emphasis on fiscal accountability were complemented by a serious concern for ethical and, yes, intellectual accountability, the University would be seen to deserve as well as need a far higher level of support than it has received for many years. And, where myopia has only been able to see deficiency, it might even be warmly praised for what it has continued to do so well in spite of rising adversity.
Tom Clayton is a professor of English and classical studies.