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Heterodox Dialogues

Part I | Heterodox Dialogue: Rethinking Academic Freedom

Jonathan Marks, Michael Bérubé December 13, 2022

This blog is part of our “Heterodox Dialogues” series, which models constructive disagreement among authors who hold opposing or conflicting views on topics. Through an exchange of essays, authors refine their perspectives, find constructive compromises, and offer new solutions. 

Part 2 of this dialogue can be read here.

Michael Bérubé’s Take

Rethinking Academic Freedom — and Academic ‘Fitness’

Earlier this year, Jennifer Ruth (Portland State University) and I published It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. The book opens with us asking, “Does academic freedom extend to white supremacist professors?,” and the short answer is, “So far, yes, but we think it should not.” The longer answer — which I hope this exchange will help clarify — is more like “We think it should not, but it is very complicated, because it brings up all kinds of questions about whether academic freedom should extend to research and teaching that has no legitimate intellectual basis whatsoever, and what kind of research and teaching that might be — and also, oh yes, we need to explain what we mean by the term ‘white supremacist.’”

For the record, we did try to explain that. From the introduction:

[W]e are not, for the purposes of this book, considering as “racist” things like opposition to affirmative action or advocacy for restrictions on immigration (unless that advocacy is demonstrably grounded in white nationalism or western-civilization chauvinism, as it is for [University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy] Wax). Affirmative action and immigration are subjects about which there can be legitimate political disagreement. But when it comes to the assertion that Black people are biologically or culturally less capable of self-government than others, for example, we are drawing a line in the sand. Such beliefs have poisoned so-called Western culture for over five hundred years and arguably reached an apex in the early twentieth century, when pseudoscientific racism laid the groundwork for eugenics and genocide. It is past time for them to go the way of beliefs in phlogiston, the philosopher’s stone, and the efficacy of human sacrifice.

In the October 4th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Joan Wallach Scott claims that Jennifer and I “leave aside a number of disturbing issues, among them how to decide what does and does not constitute racism.” This is a bizarre claim, since we explicitly made it clear that we are talking about beliefs in the biological or cultural superiority of white people to nonwhite people — and not “racism” in general, however anyone chooses to define it. And we argued that white supremacism is disqualifying not because it does harm (though it certainly does), but because it deserves to be thrown into the pile of beliefs that no rational person should espouse and that no professor should profess.

Jonathan Marks, in his review of It’s Not Free Speech on the website The Bulwark, takes a different tack: He opens with the argument that there aren’t enough white supremacist professors to warrant concern. Drawing on the most recent survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), Marks notes that a mere 0.4% of the professoriate identifies as “far right” and concludes, “White supremacy in the academy wouldn’t seem to merit book-length alarm.”

There are two problems with this argument. I’ll take the broader one first: It is true that conservatives have long been outnumbered at universities. Three decades of HERI surveys confirm as much. But over those three decades, the meaning of “conservatism” in American politics has changed so radically as to call into question any survey relying on self-identification. The party of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, limited government, and free markets is now increasingly the party of Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, QAnon, and election denialism, and responsible conservatives like Professor Marks know this well — and lament it, as Professor Marks did in his September 28th Chronicle of Higher Education essay on right-wing student organizations such as Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA.

The more pointed problem with the demographic argument is that this discussion shouldn’t be about demographics at all. It’s not a question of whether we trip a wire when white supremacists make up more than X% of the faculty. Presumably, white supremacists are a subset of that 0.4% of those faculty who identify as “far right,” but that’s not the question. The question is whether there is any legitimate intellectual basis for the belief in white supremacy.

That is why Jennifer and I spend a chapter discussing “fitness,” and why we extend our argument to professors of all political persuasions who have nothing to do with white supremacy, like anti-Semitic propagandist Joy Karega, Sandy Hook truther James Tracy, and all-purpose 9/11–Sandy Hook–COVID conspiracy monger Mark Crispin Miller. We believe that academic freedom must entail a standard of intellectual rigor, and that none of these people meet it. We note in that chapter that Professor Marks disagrees with us as to whether Karega should have been fired. We believe her firing was substantially and procedurally sound, and I’ll say more about procedure in closing.

But there’s another reason the numbers don’t matter. Payton Gendron, the young man who killed 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo earlier this year, cited in his 180-page manifesto (much of it copied and pasted from the manifesto of New Zealand mass murderer Brenton Tarrant) a 2013 Investor’s Business Daily article by University of Notre Dame professor John Gaski, “A Discussion on Race, Crime, and the Inconvenient Facts.” (Read it now. It is an extraordinary document.) Presumably Professor Gaski will not be listing that citation in this year’s Faculty Activity Report under “Impact of Published Work,” though he did issue a statement that expressed his concern that his brave truth-telling about Black criminality was taken as grounds for mass murder, professing himself “appalled and deeply distressed that the information I provided is associated in any way with this young man’s horrific actions.” More recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on former Cleveland State University professor Bryan Pesta, a “racial hereditarian” professor from the business school, concluding that “how Pesta got fired, and why it took so long, shows that racist pseudoscience can go unnoticed and unchallenged on a campus for years, even as it makes the rounds among lay readers.”

Jennifer and I didn’t discuss Gaski or Pesta. The reason? We didn’t know about them. Nor did most people in academe. It turns out that very few faculty members respond to HERI surveys about political beliefs by identifying themselves as white supremacists.

I have to say that I have seen this movie before. In 2006 I published What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education, which contains a couple of chapters on David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights campaign. In a review, libertarian economist Tyler Cowen pooh-poohed my discussion of Horowitz, claiming that because I apparently believe “that David Horowitz is a very powerful man,” I unwittingly provide evidence of “why so many college students have turned to the so-called ‘Right.’” Daniel Drezner and Mark Bauerlein did the same thing, the former claiming not to know much about this Horowitz fellow and the latter saying, “I don’t want to come off as renouncing David Horowitz, because I think that beneath the polemics and tactics lies a warranted criticism of the intellectual condition of the campus.” But there’s a very straight line from Horowitz to Charlie Kirk, and bonds of steel linking Horowitz to acolytes such as Ron DeSantis and former presidential adviser Stephen Miller, both of whom cite him as a major influence. The lesson? Never doubt that one dedicated, hardworking person can change the world.

Last but not least: Professor Marks’ review summarily dismisses our book’s central proposal: namely, that elected faculty committees should adjudicate the question of intellectual legitimacy in these matters. We argue, for example, that Karega’s firing was justifiable not only because of her beliefs but because the decision was made by her faculty peers. Professor Marks is having none of it: “It is hubris to think that faculty committees are competent to assess the historical and political circumstances, then measure the harm to democracy that might result from a colleague’s article or tweet.” Perhaps. But right now, as Jennifer and I point out, those assessments are being made instead by central administration or by offices of human resources or diversity, equity, and inclusion. We think our proposal is the worst available option for faculty — with the exception of all the others. If Professor Marks has any better ideas about how to proceed in such cases, I’d be grateful to hear them.

Jonathan Marks’s Take

A Response to Bérubé — Academic Freedom: Two Rethinkings

When we ask, “Does academic freedom extend to white supremacist professors?,” Michael Bérubé says, we don’t also need to ask if there are many white supremacist professors. We need to ask only, “Is there any legitimate intellectual basis for the belief in white supremacy?”

If Bérubé and his co-author, Jennifer Ruth, had written their book to pose a merely theoretical question, I would agree. To borrow one of their examples, we might clarify our understanding of academic freedom by asking if it extends to believers in the “efficacy of human sacrifice.” If, confronted with this question, we were to demand a list of faculty human sacrifice advocates, we’d be missing the point.

However, Bérubé and Ruth write to persuade us to “rethink academic freedom” and to adopt a “new practice.” They acknowledge that there are “real dangers” to leaving the “traditional understanding” of academic freedom behind. They think these dangers are worth risking because that traditional understanding has failed marginalized groups and been “weaponized” by “right-wing provocateurs.” The provocateurs Bérubé and Ruth focus on are a “white supremacist professoriate” whose abiding presence suggests that change is needed. I’ll get to the specifics of Bérubé and Ruth’s proposals. For now, I want only to claim that in assessing a proposal, confessedly risky, that is designed to address a problem, it’s sensible to ask how big that problem is.

Bérubé is right that the tiny percentage of professors who identify themselves as “far right” on anonymous surveys doesn’t tell us how many white supremacist professors there are on campus. He’s right, too, that what it means to call oneself a conservative today differs from what it meant in 1980. But I doubt that means that white supremacist professors, defined as those who accept assertions like “Black people are biologically or culturally less capable of self-government than others,” are anything but marginal in the academy. There is some evidence that, over the past decade, racial attitudes have changed little among Republicans but have grown much more liberal among Democrats. If so, it hardly seems likely that the dwindling percentage of conservatives on our campuses hides more white supremacists than it once did or that white supremacist ideas are regaining, rather than continuing to lose, traction among professors. Bérubé and Ruth, both far better informed than most about these matters, give few examples of academic freedom being used “as a refuge for white supremacists,” even though whether it’s being used as such a refuge is the question whose “yes” answer prompts the rethinking they urge and undertake.

Bérubé and Ruth propose two ways to rethink academic freedom. The first isn’t  really a rethinking. According to the traditional understanding of academic freedom, universities serve the common good by housing the “free search for truth and its free exposition.” That service requires wide latitude in research, teaching, and even “extramural” speech — a physicist’s tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. It requires academic freedom. But academic freedom,  Bérubé and Ruth say, isn’t freedom of speech. A professor, charged with teaching a course in calculus, cannot teach Celtic folk music instead. A historian, even if she is tweeting on her own time, can expect to have her professional competence investigated if she indulges in Holocaust denial. A producer of shoddy research should not expect to be tenured or promoted. Few, if any, deny this. But Bérubé and Ruth identify “an excessively libertarian conception of academic freedom” that sets the bar for holding tenured professors to their obligations so high as to render such obligations nearly meaningless. Despite warranted attention to the censoriousness that can take hold of universities, Bérubé and Ruth are right that a live-and-let-live attitude, which conveniently shields all professors from scrutiny, can let consequential professional lapses slide, including those of the occasional white supremacist professor.

I don’t object in principle to the proposal that “elected faculty committees should adjudicate the question of intellectual legitimacy.” Promotion and tenure committees do that, and faculty members, whether elected or appointed by elected faculty committees, should also be involved in post-tenure challenges to a professor’s competence that could result in discipline. Rather, I object to the standard by which Bérubé and Ruth think such committees should operate, which brings us to the second and more controversial rethinking. Such committees should assess “competence” both in “standard disciplinary terms” and in terms of “democratic valence.” To put it another way, in judging, for example, a tenure case, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to whether a social scientist advances the investigation of questions significant for her field in a manner meeting that field’s standards for distinguishing between strong and weak arguments. We should look also to whether her work reflects a commitment to “furthering democracy.”

That’s novel, not because it sees a connection between scholarship and democracy but because it reconceives that connection. Since the American Association of University Professors first articulated its understanding of academic freedom in 1915, that understanding supposed that democracies needed an “intellectual experiment station” that considered, rigorously, ideas that might be “distasteful to the community.” We scholars have relied on that justification when the public, or trustees, or our colleagues have demanded that universities serve democracy more directly, by purging its ranks of antiwar or Communist professors, for example. We have argued against weighing, in tenure or promotion decisions, whether a political scientist’s understanding of how nations operate gives aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin, or whether a philosopher’s arguments might persuade others that democracy isn’t the best form of government. We haven’t thought that the question of whether such a philosopher or political scientist is as shrewd a tactician as David Horowitz is relevant to our judgment of his scholarship. And we’ve tended to view retreats by professors from this conception of academic freedom in the name of the common good, as during World War I, as lamentable betrayals, rather than laudable rethinkings, of the purpose of the university.

What we have tended to do isn’t necessarily what we should continue to do. But let me conclude with the “danger” Bérubé and Ruth acknowledge in their rethinking: that the university’s enemies will “exploit whatever erosion” the ideal of academic freedom might “undergo at the hands of the left.” It’s prudent to be concerned about one’s enemies, but defenders of traditional academic freedom aren’t governed mainly by that prudence. Housing unpopular intellectual experiments also puts a weapon in the hands of the university’s detractors. Instead, they think the university’s claim to freedom is undermined not only in practice but also in principle when it dismisses its own aspiration to be, in accordance with the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration, a “non-partisan institution of learning” in which “impartial investigators” join in a “quest for truth.” Politicians will find reasons to assail the independence of universities, whether or not scholars learn to deride, with Bérubé and Ruth, the “fetishization of a mythically neutral pursuit of truth.” But when faculty committees with no special expertise in — and quite possibly idiosyncratic notions about — democracy subject teaching, research, and extramural speech to a “democratic valence” test, politicians might reasonably, and not merely strategically, wonder why the independence of universities warrants the uncommon deference that respect for academic freedom signifies.

Stay tuned for part two of this Heterodox Dialogue, publishing on December 15th, 2022.

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