ISP and Academic Freedom

International Studies Perspectives and Academic FreedomOn Tuesday, I received the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, the International Studies Association’s journal that regularly assesses the state and direction of the political science and international studies disciplines.  Usually, I don’t give it too much attention, but this issue’s focus on academic freedom was just too interesting and important to me to pass up. 

While this issue is on just about everyone’s minds in the ivory tower since September 11, 2001, I find this debate to be particularly pertinent here in Chicago, where a number of high profile professors recently came together in a forum to "defend" academic freedom in response to DePaul University’s decision not to award Norman Finkelstein academic tenure.  Among the speakers were John Mearsheimer, Noam Chomsky, and Tariq Ali, an "auspicious" crowd indeed.  For the uninformed, Finkelstein wrote the controversial book, The Holocaust Industry, which accuses Jews worldwide of exploiting the Holocaust to extort "staggering" amounts of money from the world to support survivors and uncritically defend Israel’s human rights violations.

I find it more than overtly disturbing that such "fine" academics would come together to support such dreck, yet those familiar with the current state of the discipline also know this sort of discourse is becoming more and more acceptable in mainstream academia.  Even less surprising then, is that this issue of ISP is dominated by articles which claim that professors today are subject to greater and greater levels of censorship which limit their "academic freedom of speech."  In the pages of the journal, one finds largely uncritical defenses of people like Finkelstein and Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor who argued in class that the World Trade Center victims of 9/11 were "little Eichmanns" as technocrats serving the unjust American empire, coupled with alarmist claims that we are entering a new age of McCarthyism. 

After getting through the first fifty pages or so, I was thrilled to come across an article responding to these pieces by Richard Betts of Columbia University entitled "Freedom, License, and Responsibility".  His is a countercritique which is measured, reasonable, and better constructed and written than anything I have ever read in this area.  Both those who take issue and entirely agree with the belief that academia is being both censored and skewered by the political Right are strongly advised to take lessons from this piece.  Betts not only takes on the critics in an intelligent manner but highlights the implicit narrowing of the field of acceptable discourse to more "left-wing" perspectives.  This eight page piece is both quick and insightful and should be read by everyone who cares about the state of "freedom of speech" in academia. 

Below I provide the first two paragraphs of the article.  To read the rest, visit the ISQ – Blackwell Synergy website or drop in to your local university library.

Freedom, License, and Responsibility

  • Richard K. Betts, Columbia University

Contrary to the hand-wringing of some radicals, academic freedom in the United States is in very good shape. The test of this is not whether professors are vilified for their views by polemicists like David Horowitz, but whether professors are prevented from expressing those views or suffer material harm—such as losing their jobs—as a result of doing so. That has not happened on any significant scale in recent times, despite claims to the contrary. Aggressive criticism by those concerned with what they see as academics’ abuse of power in their instruction of students, or misuse of donors’ or taxpayers’ funds, does raise some tricky issues, but so far these sallies have done no damage at all to academic freedom properly conceived. There is no assurance that the security of genuine academic freedom will endure, however, if the definition of it demanded by our profession comes to be seen as academic license.

The difference between freedom and license is that freedom has limits, responsibilities, and standards to which its beneficiaries must be held. Defenders of the principle of academic freedom are credible if, and only if, they admit that the principle has limits, however hard it may be to agree on exactly where those limits lie or how to enforce them. To assert as some academics do that the rest of society has no right to exert any of its own checks or balances on our profession comes close to a demand for license. The reasoning behind such an assertion is antidemocratic. If professors press such a demand to the point that much of the rest of society notices (which it has not yet), democracy will turn and bite them.

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