Some may believe academic freedom is absolute. Quite frankly, it is not. Tenure is hardly a green light for faculty to do anything in their classes that they deem "scholarship." For proof, one need merely look to Columbia's Faculty Handbook. At the same time, such academic freedom absolutists criticize the "irresponsible" actions by students who, with grievances ignored by the University, went to the media instead. Without a clear list of student rights and responsibilities, though, what exactly is responsible student behavior anyway?
Columbia certainly respects academic freedom. As Section 7 of our Faculty Handbook reads, "The University is committed to maintaining a climate of Academic Freedom, in which officers of instruction and research are given the widest possible latitude in their teaching and scholarship." As the Handbook adds, "At the same time, it imposes certain obligations on the faculty in order to realize its instructional mission." In other words, as the Handbook notes, "the freedoms traditionally accorded those officers carry corresponding responsibilities."
Far from being absolute, then, academic freedom is limited to scholarly rights and "Instructional Responsibilities" listed in Columbia's Faculty Handbook. Every professor, for instance, has the "freedom to determine the content of what they teach and the manner in which it is taught." At the same time, the Handbook notes, "In conducting their classes, faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own. They should confine their classes to the subject matter covered by the course and not use them to advocate any cause." In other words, if a professor in a class like Frontiers of Science would show picture slides of monkeys alongside President Bush and turn a mandatory science course into a platform to advocate certain political beliefs, that might cross the line.
Yet what are the rights and responsibilities of students? Some, of course, can be gathered from the responsibilities placed on faculty. If "faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions," then it can be inferred that students have a right to be taught accurate information, to dissent, and to have their dissent respected. Yet beyond such extrapolations, there is no handbook that defines student rights and obligations.
The real magnitude of what that means did not strike me until I attended the SGB "Columbia University Grievance Forum" on April 4, an event which featured speakers including Provost Alan Brinkley and Ad Hoc Committee Chairman Ira Katznelson. When asked about whether students should have a bill of rights of their own, Provost Brinkley said he would welcome student efforts to express those rights even if those rights were not codified. When asked later a question along similar lines about whether student rights should be codified alongside those of professors, Ad Hoc Committee Chairman Katznelson stated his opposition to this idea. His response echoed the final paragraph of the committee's report, which reads "In general, what we believe is most needed at this point are not further formal rules or regulations to codify behavior or sanction specific categories of action so much as the reassertion of certain norms. We need to reaffirm that sense of collective responsibility which is vital for the well-being of every community of scholars, and to nurture the mutual respect required to sustain us in our common quest for the promotion of learning and the advancement of knowledge."
With all due respect to Professor Katznelson, far from being the report's best paragraph, it instead shows the hypocrisy of the Columbia's policies that led to the MEALAC controversy in the first place. After the protests of the 1960s, it seems inconceivable that students would not have a written recognition of their right to learn and dissent from prevailing orthodoxies—and yet they don't. Instead, they are at the mercy of professors and administrators to determine what those "norms" are. As a result, while faculty have written guarantees of their rights and responsibilities, students lack one of their own.
The first step for any community wanting to "nurture ... mutual respect" is for all parties to acknowledge the legitimate rights of others. The second is to provide an effective means for concerned parties to seek a redress of grievances when they believe those rights have been violated. Without such means, those concerned tend to work outside the system instead: just ask Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
The University has no right to expect students to act "responsibly" when it refuses to codify exactly what student rights and responsibilities are. After all, rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand. In the end, only when academic norms include mutual and codified recognition of both faculty and student rights and responsibilities will they be academic norms worth keeping.