Academic freedom at the university level has recently been a hot topic for public concern and debate, bringing examples from both ends of the ideological spectrum to public attention.
In June 2007, former DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at the university solely based on his personal political views as expressed in his interviews, speeches, debates and scholarship. A much different example has come recently from Purdue University Calumet, where professor Maurice Moshe Eisenstein'sprejudice and racist remarks have permeated his classroom and the Web.
Despite the apparent dissimilarities of these two cases, there is a common theme that unites them: universities are having trouble separating what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior for their professors.
To really delve into this matter, one must understand academic freedom fully. To understand it fully, one must dissect this concept into its two main components. The first element, according to the American Association of University Professors, is professional autonomy. This means that a professor's peers and colleagues are the best judges of a professor's ability to deliver fully to their students—this component is created to block any outside interference.
The second component of academic freedom is the liberty of speech, as stated on theAAUP website, which can further be split up into two categories. An internal aspect suggests that a basic necessity while searching for the truth is liberty of inquiry. An external aspect implies that outside the classroom and university one should be free to speak their mind just like any other member of society.
Ironically and unfortunately, indulging in academic freedom carries real limitations. The first limit being, if you are in the department, you are free to say what you want to say as long as the school board approves your dissertation and your contract is renewed.
The second limit is the more complicated area of constraint. If the school board finds that you carry on in a manner that is so atrociously uncivil in your public life, it may be grounds for denying your deserved status in the academic world.
As Finkelstein stated in a speech last Monday, "There are moments that require breaking out of the constraints of polite discourse to sound the alarm that innocent people are being butchered as we speak due to the actions of our government."
Finkelstein was denied his tenure based on the fact that he was shedding light on the truth while others tried to veil it. It is no secret that a substantial amount of U.S. tax dollars go to Israel and yet the school found that intolerable. One of the major purposes of universities is to educate their students in hopes that they can be individuals, creating their own opinions. In the case of Finkelstein, his former university is silencing a great outspoken professor who taught his students to do just that.
In contrast, Eisenstein of Purdue Calumet made numerous remarks targeting various groups, particularly Muslims and Arabs. When several students expressed outrage about the professor's comments, he called one of them a "Jew-hater."
Eisenstein is a prime example of a professor who is worthy of the type of vitriol and condemnation akin to that experienced by Finkelstein. A professor who repeatedly degrades and insults his students is someone who should endure this kind of trial. Not only were his comments "atrociously uncivil," but they were said both on school grounds as well as off them.
Finkelstein's opinion is not an insult directed toward a particular group of people like Eisenstein's, yet he is treated in the same manner. While hundreds of students protest against Eisenstein, thousands applaud Finkelstein.
Is there truly a purpose for academic freedom laws, or is it a facade the elite use to advertise democracy in theory while refusing to apply it in practice?
Denying a person the right to teach because they repeatedly insulted their own students makes sense. However, to deny a person the right to teach on account of his or her un-popular political beliefs is unfair and undemocratic.