Lecture Hop: Academic Freedom

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Bwog lecture hopper Pierce Stanley reports back on the Heyman Center’s discussion on the limits and applications of academic freedom.

So it appears that with the exception of Methods and Problems of Philosophical Thought, Akeel Bilgrami, the suave and erudite former Rhodes scholar is bringing his A game to Columbia these days. The Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and Heyman Center for Humanities director should be given full credit for the assembly of all-stars he brought to Columbia last night to appear on a panel to discuss the topic “Freedom and the University.” An impassioned discussion between five preeminent leaders in their respective academic fields who are also key players in the contemporary debate over academic freedom at the university, it was easily the best event of the day that no one knew about.

Introduced by Columbia’s own Provost Emeritus and academic freedom expert, Jonathan Cole, the event brought together Yale Law professor Robert Post, Joan Scott of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, UChicago International Relations theorist John Mearsheimer of Israel Lobby fame, and his quirky colleague, historian Peter Novick to debate, discuss, and joke about the state of the academic enterprise today. While the professors all seemed to generally be in agreement about the freedoms of research and speech by professors at the university, one was left wondering why a more dissenting voice was not included in the discussion, a la Columbia’s own favorite David Horowitz.

Nevertheless, the panel embarked upon the tough task of determining the current state of academic freedom in American universities, at a time when it is widely perceived to be under the biggest threat since 1950’s McCarthyism’s crackdown on university professors. Mostly an attempt to determine the role that a professor’s outside views should play inside the classroom, the three of hours of discussion flew by, they spared no breath in discussing everything from the intricate rules that a professor must follow according to the 1940’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure constructed by the American Association of University Professors, to the influence of the Israel Lobby on determining what professors say and do. They touched upon the commonplace understanding that most professors in the university system today are of a liberal persuasion, followed by a debate over the appropriateness of several high profile professor firings and tenure decisions, and even a discussion about the six different definitions of the word “motherfucker” that appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Robert Post kicked off the night with a highly specific legal interpretation of academic freedom, touching upon four different points that included: indoctrination vs. education, the injection of irrelevant materials in the classroom, claims that faculties are unbalanced politically, and challenging the idea that modern professors create a hostile environment in the classroom. Post noted that academic freedom should extend to what professors say in class and research. He argued that in reality students have no claim to academic freedom. While students are afforded freedom of speech in the classroom, academic freedom is a highly specific term used only to describe the way university professors operate. Post noted that academic freedom should always take precedence because by “watching a professor be independent, it makes students think for themselves and develop a mature independence of mind.” Moreover, he argued that we should “never confuse people and ideas” when discussing freedom in a university setting.

John Mearsheimer, arguably the father of modern realist international relations theory followed by reading a rather dry discussion of the Israel lobby that he seemed to have lifted from straight from his recent book. Nevertheless his quips about the “New York Sun watching Columbia like a hawk” and jabs at David Horowitz kept the audience in the game. Mearsheimer laid bare for the audience his fear that Pro-Israel lobbies are increasingly involved in the hiring and firing of professors. He cited the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University as an example of the heavy hand that Israel lobbyists have in the hiring of professors. The soft spoken Mearsheimer argued that the case for continued unconditional US support for Israel is weak, as 78 percent of the population say that the US should support neither side in Israel/Palestine debate. Moreover, he noted that the Israel lobby is dangerous because it typically conflates religion and ethnicity in the promotion of its cause.

After the blasting of Israel lobbyists, women’s studies pioneer and former AAUP chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Joan Scott offered a behind the scenes look at academic freedom today and suggested that the classic definition of academic freedom needs to be restored. She cautioned listeners of the increasing demands for moralism in academia today. Referring to the David Project scandal at Columbia, she warned of the increasing trend towards a focus on identity politics by critics of academic freedom.

Peter Novick, who apparently thinks its cool to wear New Balances with a suit, was the star of the show not only because of his one-liners that seemed to fly out of nowhere but because of the unique “black box” interpretation that he offered up. Novick, in a flurry of constant hand waving, suggested that academic freedom is like a black box in which an input goes in and we get a different output but with no transparency to see what happens inside. That way, we are always at some point blind in the debate over hirings, firings, and tenure, ensuring that no decision is entirely perfect. Novick brought up clever anecdotes about academic fraud, asking, “How much academic fraud is too much?” and he even suggested that plagiarism is not that bad because it is essentially a victimless crime.

Q & A was a chance for Jonathan Cole to jump into the mix and offer his own fifteen-minute diatribe about academic freedom, all while touting the upcoming release of his most recent book. While it was also a good chance to really flesh out the arguments forwarded by the speakers in their opening speeches, in the end, the Q & A turned out to be a chance to see how quirky and quickly these professors’ minds worked as they spoke about specific tenure decisions, told jokes and anecdotes, and even reminisced about their own trials and tribulations with tenure proceedings.

Last night was a brilliant night of debate with five superb scholars who passionately enjoy what they do and are willing to fight for a freedom that is necessary in the proper functioning of the university today. The Heyman Center event offered a real glimpse into the role of the academic in society, while putting on display a very real enthusiasm for the intellectual life. The only damper of the night: it was a shame more students weren’t there to enjoy it.

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  1. what debate

    what a joke. 5 people with similiar-ish ideas fellating each other with an audience willing to lap it up.

    That's some fine discourse there lou.

    • *Sigh*  

      "Mearsheimer laid bare for the audience his fear that Pro-Israel lobbies are increasingly involved in the hiring and firing of professors."

      I see that the Elders of Zion haven't gotten around to silencing Mearsheimer yet. I'm sure we'll get around to it...as soon as we finish dictating the next 48 hours of US policy. Speaking of which, I better get back into the conference room for roll call!

  2. Akeel Bilgrami

    is singularly responsible for dismantling the last bastion of old Columbia and college education in the Heyman Center and turning it into a slaughterhouse of postmodern crap where undergraduates are not welcome.

  3. Nadia Abu El-Haj

    If the Pro-Israel lobbies aren't in my tenure process, then why the hell do many of you even know who I am?

  4. Elders of Zion  

    Of course we're in your tenure process. You're so crazy and discreditable that we're letting you get tenure anyway.

  5. well

    Meantime you don't even mention Abraham Foxman's speech. I guess I should have predicted that.

  6. mb  

    i love the reflexive "anti-semitism defense" which pops up the second anyone talks about israeli influence in the united states. it's gotten to the point where any sober discussion of the topic is impossible, whether in an academic environment or not. congratulations, my friend.

  7. attitudes

    According to Quinnipiac, by the way, 65.9% of Americans view Israel as a friend or ally of the United States.

  8. love

    I love the reflexive "academic freedom" argument that pops up the second ivory-tower liberals are confronted with opposing opinion.

  9. media

    If they knew more about Israel, they would support it more. And are you kidding me, btw? Pro-Israel media bias? Maybe on Fox.

    • lol  

      Right, because Palestine has such a loud voice in US media today. Why don't you compare the way BBC and other International news networks cover Israel-Palestine and compare it to the way US media networks do, and you'll see what I mean.

  10. better title

    The event should have been titled "Leftist Conformism and the University."

  11. BBC

    I know how they cover it there. That doesn't mean that the coverage in the media here is pro-Israel.

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