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Confusion About Academic Freedom September 23, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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Commentary by Eric Rauchway on two recent events involving the University of California exhibits some confusion about academic freedom.

Liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky was hired as Dean of UC Irvine’s law school. However, the offer was rescinded, apparently because of political pressure from outside the university, after he published an op ed article highly critical of then Attorney General Gonzales. UC Irvine’s action was widely criticized for being a violation of academic freedom and Chemerinsky has since been reinstated.

UC Irvine was wrong to rescind their offer to Chemerinsky (and I am pleased he has been reinstated) but not because it was a violation of academic freedom.

Deans should be hired on their merits–according to their ability to govern their schools–not on the basis of their political views. Chemerinsky’s political views were well-known before he was hired and they were apparently judged irrelevant until outside political pressure forced a change. Thus, UCI was guilty of corruption in allowing external political pressure to subvert their hiring process. But deans, even if they are former scholars, do not have academic freedom. Once they are hired as an administrator, their primary responsibility is no longer the pursuit of truth. They have a weightier obligation to their institution, which can be damaged by the expression of controversial political positions.

The Chemerinsky case bears a superficial resemblance to recent action by the UC Regents to disinvite former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who had been scheduled to speak at a board dinner.

Summers was fired from his position as President of Harvard because of remarks he made suggesting that women may have less scientific aptitude than men. Although this is a topic of debate among cognitive scientists, Harvard was right to fire Summers because, as an administrator, he has no business casting doubt on the abilities of the highly qualified women scientists who work under his leadership. The academic freedom Summers enjoyed as an academic economist was forfeited when he became Harvard’s President.

However, the regents did violate standards of academic freedom when they disinvited Summers from their board dinner because of pressure from UC faculty. Since Summers is a scholar no longer obligated to Harvard, he should not be precluded from speaking on controversial issues. That is his obligation and right as a scholar. Of course, the faculty who protested his appearance have every right to their protest as well.

As Rauchway’s article points out, although Summer’s views may not be well supported by the full range of scientific evidence as we understand it today, the question of whether men and women have different capacities is a legitimate and important inquiry that should not be stifled by political agendas.

On handling invitations, the University of California is batting 0 for 2 this month.

Thanks to Jonathan McLeod for bringing this to my attention.

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Comments»

1. Thea - September 28, 2007

I think that the Summers issue is complex. He wasn’t invited to speak to students or one of the colleges. He was invited to a private Regents dinner. It sounds to me that certain members of faculty were threatened by this and concerned about further implications, such as the Regents developing a relationship with Summers that could potentially culminate in offering him a UC post. So, it’s possible that the faculty could have been protesting such a consideration, if (I can’t believe I’m writing this) rumors had substantiated such a fear. If that was the impetus behind the protest, then it makes sense that the concerned faculty would attempt to nip the relationship in the bud.

According to the press, this was the statement that the petitioners presented to the regents:

“Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the University community and to the people of California,” the petition reads.

Such a statement alludes to a difficult history between women faculty and the UC. Therefore, the disinvitation situation would probably best be viewed within the context of that history and not as if it is an isolated, innocent invitation.


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