Restricting academic freedom
from David Ruccio
Stanely Fish wants to restrict the meaning of academic freedom—and then sweep everything else under the rug.
I actually have no problem with Fish’s restricted definition of academic freedom.
The pursuit of truth is what is done in classrooms and laboratories and that is why those activities should be protected from outside interference. Truth cannot be pursued if constraints in the form of political or ideological preferences block the search for it. Other activities not in the pursuit-of-truth business merit no such protection because there is no specifically academic value to their being allowed to occur without constraint.
So, yes, academic freedom can and should cover what goes on in the classroom and in research activities. And it covers a wide range of issues, from the “sexual exhibition staged for a valid educational purpose” at Northwestern University to the “controversy at Florida State University over a gift given to the economics department in 2008 by a foundation funded by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers.”
But then Fish wants to sweep everything else under the rug, such as CUNY’s decision to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, students’ ability to invite speakers to campus, and the teaching of courses. I agree: those aren’t academic freedom issues. But they are university governance issues.
The problem with Fish’s analysis is he takes the governance of the new corporate university as given. Faculty members teach and do research, and they’re covered by academic freedom. Students buy an education and are they to be alternately taught and entertained. And academic administrators run the place, without interference from students or faculty.
What Fish fails to understand is that the idea of the university is governed by a number of principles, including but not restricted to academic freedom. Shared governance is also an important principle, since it protects and enriches the idea of the university as a space of critical thought. Critical thinking is not only what happens in the classroom and in research but is also reflected in honorary degrees, invited speakers, and what courses are taught.
Sweeping those issues under the rug in an attempt to restrict the meaning of academic freedom just serves to reinforce the new corporate university and to undermine the idea of the university.