The boundaries of academic freedom

by Alex Amend

Former University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett’s new book, “Truth Jihad: My Epic Struggle Against the 9/11 Big Lie,” is due out this month. The work, a culmination of Barrett’s now infamous class and his personal journey hitherto, is the most recent reminder of a higher education sore spot: academic freedom.

Barrett’s introductory class on Islam involved a two-week study on the events of Sept. 11, including a look into conspiracy theories held by groups like the 9/11 Truth Movement, of which Barrett is a member.

The ensuing uproar in Wisconsin, from calls in the government for Barrett’s resignation to an academic defense of diversity of ideas, raised a question: Does a line exist?

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents’ definition states, “Academic freedom is the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint.”

If a case like Barrett’s were to occur at the University – an internal investigation found Barrett competent and unbiased – the result would be similar. The University of Wisconsin backed Barrett and made a point of not allowing political pressure to inhibit the movement of ideas, however unpopular.

Nevertheless, Barrett’s case didn’t settle the controversy.

A comprehensive 2004 report on academic freedom at the University of Minnesota outlined a number of threatened areas with varying levels of defenses.

Unfettered scientific research, most notably in regards to stem cell research, is particularly susceptible to pressures, including laws, bearing ethical and moral concerns.

The report also mentioned matters – like Barrett’s case – of controversial topics that may be considered hazardous to national security.

The report referenced that the American Association of University Professors published all its major documents on academic freedom in the context of war in 1915, 1940 and 1975 and that the current war on terror fits the template for increased pressure.

Stanley Fish, a law professor at Florida University International and prominent writer on politics of the university, made two distinctions in the battle over academic freedom in a July 2006 New York Times opinion piece.

Fish posits that the true measure of academic freedom pertaining to a particular subject is only its availability to academic inspection and analysis, not the content per se.

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For more information, view this report.

If the study yields insight into academic and intellectual interest, whether the subject is black magic or intelligent design, it should be allowed.

“Academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis,” he writes.

More importantly, Fish distinguishes between studying and proselytizing. When the area of study is no longer subject to serious analysis and only serves to encourage a certain viewpoint political, theological or otherwise, the freedom of inquiry enjoyed under the tenets of academic freedom is nullified.