Building a Left/Right Coalition for Academic Freedom
The recent Harvard University faculty vote of “no confidence” for university president Lawrence Summers and the call for the resignation of University of Colorado’s Ward Churchill point to a return of censorship from both the right and the left on college campuses.
In January, Summers was asked at a closed meeting to pose some provocative thoughts about controversies in higher education. Obliging the request, Summers speculated on the reasons why women might, in general, have less aptitude at the higher ends of achievement in science and math than men. The reaction by the feminist left to these remarks was swift and strong, culminating in the “no confidence” vote on Summers. That the faculty of America’s most renowned university considered the enforcement of a politically correct viewpoint more important than respect for free thought and the honest pursuit of truth speaks volumes about the status of free speech and academic freedom in higher education.
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Robert L. Campbell - 4/3/2005
I agree with Bill that there are serious questions about the mission and direction of universities that the faculty guilds (normally, the departments) aren't well equipped to handle. So they are made instead by legislatures or governing boards or upper administrators... and none of these constituencies has a particularly good track record.
The situation at the University of Southern Mississippi is unusual precisely because the upper administration is so inept and so malicious that it has united virtually the entire faculty in opposition to it.
There needs to be some serious experimentation with institutional forms in higher education... otherwise, all institutions are going to eventually become administrative universities, as the guilds yield more and more to the upper bureaucracy.
Robert L. Campbell - 4/2/2005
Term-limiting academic administrators would have its benefits... including making it harder for administrators to view themselves as members of a class superior to the faculty, and one more necessary to the functioning of the institution.
But if an institution has serious internal problems, hiring upper administrators from within may serve to perpetuate them, or make them worse, because the internal hires often owe political debts to various bad actors. Even worse is the case where the bad actors themselves become the president or the provost.
Shelby Thames could not have become the president of any other university besides Southern Mississippi, where has spent his entire career (minus the 4 years during which he was working on his PhD). And when elevated to the presidency, with the help of movers and shakers in Hattiesburg politics, he'd been out of administration for 16 years.
Steven Horwitz - 3/31/2005
We have mostly internal folks here as well, which is a good thing. Our last three DeanVP-AAs have been internal and all our Assoc. Deans are internal. We have 3 year terms and the general practice is limiting that to 2 terms. No current Dean, Assoc Dean or Director in Academic Affairs has been in the position longer than 5 years. David is right that this is really important.
William Marina - 3/31/2005
Internal hiring tended to be the policy at FAU for the first decade of so after 1964. Then shift came in hiring more from the outside. I always thought one coould move up from Chair, to Dean,, etc., in say five year terms.
David Timothy Beito - 3/31/2005
I agree. One useful reform might be to enforce rigid term limits for administrators and require that they be hired from within the ranks of the faculty. This might break the power of professional administrators. The University of Chicago has such a system.
William Marina - 3/31/2005
Prof. Downs piece is certainly an excellent description of the deteriorating situation regarding Academic Freedom within American universities, and it is past time that faculties across the nation confronted the issue.
At the heart of the controversy, however, at Harvard, and elsewhere, is the entire question of University Governance, indeed, of the fundamental definition of just what is a University, anyway?
For sometime now "greatness" at American universities has been officially defined as 1) research monies brought in (increasingly influenced by government grants) and 2) the number of doctorates granted.
Faculty senates tend to debate lower level operational issues, while major ones are decided by legislatures and/or boards of trustees. Even the notion of a "Faculty" is questionable as the reality is that it is composed of guild/fiefdoms known as departments or professional disciplineswhich draw the real, if at all, allegiance of many teachers.
These fundamental questions were raised by some scholars such as William James and Thorstein Veblen over a century ago, just as the American University based on the German model was emerging as an integral part of the rising American Empire, even as Albert Einstein was leaving Switzerland, lured by Max Planck, to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.
Things have hardly gotten better since, in what one book has described as The Moral Crisis of the University. By all means, let us defend Free Speech, but my own view is that, unless these broader issues are confronted, we may just find that in the 21st century, the idea of a university, as a relevant institution within society, is a conception whose time has passed.
Ralph E. Luker - 3/30/2005
Thanks for the citation, David. I'm working on it!
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