To the class of 2013, Columbia University's recent public trials over academic freedom may seem like ancient history, discussed only on occasion in University Writing classrooms or encountered by accident while exploring next semester's course schedule and Googling professor Joseph Massad. But for faculty and administrators, the debates are indubitably fresh. In 2002, The David Project, an organization dedicated to "educating and inspiring voices for Israel," produced "Columbia Unbecoming," a film in which professors from Columbia's Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department were accused of antagonizing Jewish and Israeli students in class. The film attracted media attention, spurred a number of public figures to publish impassioned articles on the subject (former provost and dean Jonathan Cole and conservative author David Horowitz among them), and even led to political outcry—Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) encouraged University President Lee Bollinger to fire professor Joseph Massad in order to protect free academic inquiry in Columbia classrooms.
Seven years later, Massad is still here—and the debate over academic freedom hasn't travelled far. Last Wednesday, the Heyman Center showcased an impressive selection of academia's glitterati in a conference titled "What is Academic Freedom For?" For four hours, invitees Robert Zimmer, David Bromwich, Rick Shweder, and Judith Butler, with moderators Jonathan Cole and Akeel Bilgrami, alternately captivated and confounded the audience.
First to speak, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer suggested that the ideal climate for academic freedom is a university that takes no political stance but offers itself as a stage for diverse political debates among students and faculty. In light of various pressures that might dismantle that stage, he said, "Each university must ask itself what other values may intercede, what can trump academic freedom as a value." Unfortunately, Zimmer didn't outline what those values may be or what universities should do in light of challenging situations. His paper was a safe, administrative perspective which trumpeted the University of Chicago's model of operation and advocated institutional neutrality. When Cole asked him to identify what some of the counteracting values universities faced when balancing academic freedom might be, Zimmer evaded the question. Later, an audience member challenged Zimmer's postulation that most threats to academic freedom came from political or ideological forces, instead suggesting that economic forces now had the power to govern research initiatives. In response, Zimmer claimed that the University of Chicago simply didn't have that problem.
Another representative from the University of Chicago, Richard Shweder, from the school's department of comparative human development, also expounded on the history of his university's relationship with academic freedom. He discussed in detail the Kalven Report, a foundational charter for the practice of academic freedom at the University of Chicago, which forbade the university from taking political or moral stances and instead encouraged students to engage in open debates and discussions. But when a student noted that the University of Chicago was one of the first institutions to allow women on its campus, and suggested that those actions had a political tenor in their temporal context, Shweder circumvented the question by responding that within the context of the report, intra-university decisions, like admissions, were not considered political stances.
Yale University literature professor David Bromwich audaciously argued that "academic freedom is the category of political freedom applied to those more likely than most to use that freedom," outlining the way in which "academic freedom" and the application thereof seems to purify and limit the scope of free speech allowed to professors. While others can speak freely simply as citizens, Bromwich argued that professors' speech is often restricted to the area of their academic expertise and that a real way to uphold academic freedom would be to grant professors the rights of citizens in a democracy.
The last speaker brought a refreshing and expectedly insightful perspective to the debate. Although ironically juxtaposed with administrators like Zimmer and Cole and speaking within the context of an Ivy League university, philosopher Judith Butler challenged the literal grounds of academic freedom itself—the university. "The right to academic freedom," she said, "is always conditional." She claimed academic freedom expects and depends on the funds the university obtains from government and private sources while simultaneously trying to prevent funders from meddling in academic affairs; faculty are always dependent on the very structures from which they claim independence.
While engaging and insightful, the nature of this conference raised a question: For whom were these dialogues intended, and to what end? The literal answer, needless to say, would be attendees of the conference—many faculty members with a sprinkling of students among them—and therein lies the problem. The stage for these debates—academic journals and conferences such as these, populated by those sympathetic to the subject of inquiry—caters often to studied intellectuals and not "the government," "the media," "ideologies," and "corporations," often antagonized as the threats to academic freedom experienced by the university. While they are doubtless important discussions to have, their exclusive medium and stylized rhetoric render them inaccessible to a large portion of the public whom they might endeavor to engage and educate.
Furthermore, these debates often exclude a critical viewpoint: that of the student. This isn't to say that students never share their reflections on academic freedom—they often channel those thoughts via the Internet or some other independent mechanism—but the inability of the university to institutionally incorporate those views is detrimental. The privileging of administrative and established academic voices—while logistically convenient and experientially justified—is still the continuation of the institutionally ingrained academic privilege that many attendees wished to challenge.