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Heterodox Dialogues

Part 2 | Heterodox Dialogue: Rethinking Academic Freedom

Jonathan Marks, Michael Bérubé December 15, 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. 

Read Part 1 of the exchange between Michael Bérubé and Jonathan Marks.

Michael Bérubé’s Response

I want to focus on two moments of Professor Marks’ response. The first is his prudent caveat that “in assessing a proposal, confessedly risky, that is designed to address a problem, it’s sensible to ask how big that problem is.” I agree. My response in round one was that the bigness of the problem should be understood not in terms of the numbers of white supremacist professors but in terms of the intellectual illegitimacy and toxicity of white supremacist thought. Jennifer Ruth and I have tried to make that case not by relying on a snapshot of the professoriate in 2022 or 1972, but in terms of the long shadows cast over our intellectual enterprise by phenomena like eugenics or the Confederate apologetics of the Dunning School of American history.

In a negative review of our book, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder has observed that our understanding of the limits of academic freedom introduces an element of consequentialism into our argument, and he is not wrong; for example, we explicitly endorse Paul Campos’ argument about Amy Wax. “If Amy Wax were, say, a Maoist, or a proponent of the divine right of kings, I wouldn’t pay any attention to her,” writes Campos. “One of the costs of tenure is that sometimes people will use their academic positions to push intellectually bankrupt, morally noxious, off-the-grid points of view. The problem of course is that Wax’s views, while intellectually bankrupt and morally noxious, are the opposite of off the grid.” This is indeed consequentialist. So where does that take us?

Right now, it takes us to the other moment I want to highlight in Marks’ response, in which he suggests that we have “reconceived” the connection between scholarship and democracy by (1) making “furthering democracy” a criterion for academic freedom committees reviewing controversial faculty members and (2) extending Robert Post’s idea of “democratic competence” (his basis for academic freedom) by proposing that such committees evaluate scholarly competence “in standard disciplinary terms and also in its democratic valence.” Marks rightly points out that we don’t demand standards of peer review that ask whether John Mearsheimer’s work gives aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin (it does), or whether it’s OK for someone to argue that democracy isn’t the best form of government. On the latter count, we would say that Jason Brennan’s critique of democracy is in the clear, as are the critiques of Adrian Vermeule on the right and Jodi Dean on the left: Though all are deeply skeptical of democracy, they are not actively trying to destroy this one. (Some people have tried to do that, but we will have to leave for another time a discussion of the American Association of University Professors’ 1956 response to the McCarthyite purges, “Academic Freedom and Tenure in the Quest for National Security.”)

But John Eastman is another matter. When he held a faculty position, he really did seek to overthrow a duly elected government of the United States. And so, as we were finishing our book in the wake of the January 6, 2021, insurrection, we were trying to take the “democracy” invoked in “democratic competence” seriously. That was why, in the passage flagged by Marks, we relied on and revised Tracy Fitzsimmons’ post-insurrection appeal to ideas that promote “a commitment to bettering humanity.” We were not trying to institute a standard of academic freedom in which all knowledge must serve the greater interests of the People’s Republic of Bérubé and Ruth; we were trying to put some necessary pressure on the idea that academic freedom is supposed to serve “the common good,” as the AAUP has claimed since its founding.

The common good is a lot like critical thinking: Everyone invokes it enthusiastically with the understanding that no one will ask precisely what it entails. But there is no sense in which John Eastman’s coup plotting or Scott Atlas’ peddling of medical misinformation in a pandemic served any common good, and much the same could be said of David Legates or the late Patrick Michaels’ years of climate-change denialism. Jennifer and I like to think we have a capacious sense of what serves the common good — including cosmology and medieval French literature and avant-garde theater and any number of things that don’t have an obvious democratic valence. But we are trying to say that some ideas really are indefensible and do not deserve the protection of academic freedom. We do not imagine that we have the final word. We invite our colleagues to improve on our efforts — in the service of the common good.

Jonathan Marks’ Response

Let me try to get at where Bérubé and I disagree.

First, we disagree about how to answer this question: Does the influence of white supremacy in today’s academy warrant a rethinking of academic freedom?

Bérubé urges us to think less about a “snapshot” and more about “the long shadows cast over our intellectual enterprise by phenomena like eugenics or . . . the Dunning School of American history.” Perhaps “culture of poverty” arguments are inextricable from racism. Perhaps “evolutionary psychology” is a pseudoscience that reinforces sexism. To argue in that way for the importance of white supremacy in the academy, Bérubé and Ruth need not parade professors in Klan robes. They need only to persuade us that universities have never been immune to prejudices and that such prejudices, long after they are disowned, remain embedded in the principles and methods that guide some fields.

Yet the test of that proposition is how well a field’s principles and methods withstand scrutiny. And the traditional understanding of academic freedom not only permits but also insists on that scrutiny.

It’s frustrating when “zombie ideas” persist. But that doesn’t demand that we rethink academic freedom any more than the persistence of unjust legal outcomes demands that we rethink trial by jury, due process, and other principles. It might, but only if it can be shown that adhering to those principles generates the unjust outcomes and that new principles will improve matters enough to offset the risk of weakening the old ones.

Second, we disagree about how universities serve the public. In accordance with traditional defenses of academic freedom, I think that universities serve the public indirectly. Rather than doing what the public wants, scholars propose and scrutinize ideas, some of which are “distasteful to the community.” The university is an “intellectual experiment station,” which, like any such station, often offers tentative support for bad ideas, which, if implemented, do harm. One tolerates an intellectual experiment station, judging not that good ideas always drive out bad ideas but that our best chance of harnessing the power of self-correction is “complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.” That freedom doesn’t mean that everything gets published. But publication decisions depend on the relative importance of a result to my field and the integrity of the procedure by which it was obtained.

Bérubé and Ruth think that the standards we have traditionally used to judge academics should be supplemented by the standard of “democratic valence.” In his most recent response, Bérubé clarifies that he and Ruth don’t mean that research, teaching, or extramural speech that is deeply skeptical of liberal democracy will be judged wanting. They mean that those who are “actively trying to destroy” this liberal democracy shouldn’t be able to hide behind academic freedom. Perhaps universities need not serve the common good directly most of the time. But they can’t harbor traitors.

Yet Bérubé and Ruth don’t otherwise limit themselves to those who, like John Eastman, may be disbarred or prosecuted for seeking to overturn an election. What we should do about bad ideas depends on our estimate of their possible consequences, not on whether the purveyor of those ideas is actively engaged in wrongdoing. It is enough for Amy Wax’s ideas to promote discrimination, whether Wax discriminates or not. Bérubé and Ruth may have meant to capture only John Eastmans in their “democratic valence” net, but I don’t see what in the logic of their argument suggests so narrow an application.

Even if we think of Bérubé and Ruth’s democratic valence argument in a “break glass in case of emergency” way, there’d be reason to question it. Scholars aren’t uncommonly good judges in emergencies. After the United States entered World War I, the same professors who championed academic freedom just a few years before concluded that there was no place in the academy for antiwar professors, at least if they insisted on stating their opinion.

Universities may depart from their missions in times of emergency. In a war on the home front, for example, we might choose to shut down classes and research programs to help tend to the wounded. That would constitute direct and commendable service to the public. But we would not be acting as a university. I think that Bérubé and Ruth, in seeking to do what they take to be their duty as citizens in a troubled time, neglect the distinct institutional role universities play in our democracy.

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