Sunday, April 16, 2006

Horowitz and Academic Freedom

In my earlier post, "When Public Intellectuals Have Enemies," I promised a subsequent post critiquing Horowitz's view of academic freedom. Here 'tis.

The weakest section of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America is the section on academic freedom. It's a shame, because that's where the center of the argument should be, not in the arena of ad hominem nonsense between Horowitz and the likes of Ward Churchill. Unfortunately, much of the debate on all sides has been marked by intellectual dishonesty, rabid name-calling, and bad-faith arguments. So far, the only arguments I've seen that specific charges by Horowitz are false could be be characterized as extended efforts at gnat-straining and camel-swallowing. The asinine comments following this report are a case in point -- anyone who argues that academics are not primarily left-of-center is not a serious person. Now, one could argue that the leftist ideology of most professors is a good thing (that it reflects thoughtfulness, that it is preferrable for research/teaching, that it is more in line with the work of a university, etc), but to argue that such a tilt does not exist is like arguing that the Earth is flat.
I don't disagree with Horowitz on all the facts. Let's start with the points of agreement:

  • Most professors are left-of-center. Not even open to discussion in my view.
  • Some professors behave badly.
  • Because of the overwhelming leftward tilt of academe, professors who bully their students politically are more likely to be from the left (some have argued that per capita rightwing professors are more likely to be political bullies than leftwing professors. That hasn't been my experience, but let's allow that it is possible. Nevertheless, the sheer difference in numbers would make rightwing bullying much, much rarer).
  • Also because of the practical political consensus, leftwing bullies are less likely
    to face repurcussions from their actions. I think someone could reasonably
    disagree with this observation, but it jives with what I've seen.

OK, so I agree on all of the above. Where I think Horowitz goes wrong is in pinning the problem to academic freedom. My two main objections:

  • I don't think academic freedom is primarily about what goes on in the classroom.
  • I think academic freedom needs to be determined by the faculty.

Most of the discussion of academic freedom in his book deals with issues of the classroom. My understanding of the upshot of his Academic Bill of Rights is that students have the right to be free from political intimidation in the classroom, not that students have the right to be taught by professors who agree with them politically. Yet many of the public statements by the "dangerous" professors in his book are statements made in the public, non-classroom arena. The ideas expressed by the professors may be odious, but they do not necessarily represent a form of bullying. Of course, a student might read a professor's comments in the newspaper and worry about repurcussions for opposing ideas in papers, but professors do not give up the right to have ideas simply because they sometimes enter the classroom (indeed, the opposite is true). So, I would say that while it is fair game for Horowitz to call professors to task for their public statements, it is not always fair to say that they are bullying or intimidating their students.

Furthermore, this places the idea of academic freedom squarely in the classroom ... but academic freedom is just as much about research. In the realm of research, academics need to be able to go where their instincts or hypotheses take them. This need is not only, or even primarily, political. In some sciences, for example, there are pressures on scientists to engage in research that will likely end in patents for the university. While there is nothing wrong with such research, other basic research needs to take place. Since the private sector isn't likely to engage in research that won't result in profit-earning in the near future, that job is up to Academe. Even in fields in which there is little chance for a school to profit (my own field is among these), academic freedom often means the freedom to pursue some risky line of thought that mind not bear fruit at all. For example, I've often wanted to study Korean literature contemporary with medieval Europe, but in order to do that, I would have to spend at least a year working on my modern Korean (to be able to read the critical history), and at least a year working on reading medieval Korean. That would mean I would spend about two years publishing very little, and although what eventually came of it could be of intense interest to the medieval scholarly community, it could also receive a big yawn. I once asked a mentor about whether I should purse this, and he replied, "It's a great idea ... after you've got tenure." In other words, academic freedom means the freedom to pursue high-risk, low-profit research.

Not every academic uses their tenure well. Some who abuse it retire on the job, treating it as sinecure. Others (the focus of Horowitz), use it to pursue political agendas. Who, then, should judge whether academic freedom is being used properly?

Horowitz objects that academic freedom is whatever faculty says it is. I agree that this situation leaves room for cronyism and enforcement of political consensus. Yes, it conjures of metaphors of foxes guarding henhouses -- but it must be, however the situation changes, that judgments about the proper use of academic freedom are left to professors.

Why? Because professors are (or should be) at the forefront of the creation of knowledge. In the great majority of cases, non-academics are not competent to make that judgment, because they don't understand how knowledge is created. Yes, it sounds arrogant -- yet still true. Administrators need the existence of peer-reviewed journals, because the acceptance of one's peers (i.e., other professors) helps confirm for them that proper research is being done in the various specialties in a typical university. How is a provost that came out of business supposed to judge the merits of both faculty in the classical languages department and the physics department? Since no one can possibly be expert in enough fields to make competent judgments about them, administrators simply look for peer-reviewed publication, which is another way to express acceptance by other professors.

What are some legitimate ways one might try to reform the system? Policing faculty political statements in the classroom is the wrong way to go, I think. It does not recognize the value of a good example (I used to use the examples of Perot/Clinton/Dole to explain logos/pathos/ethos), it doesn't recognize the necessary political investment of some work (like much in political science departments), and it leads to "gotcha!" style culling through classroom lectures (by the same students who would be better served trying to master the discipline). A good reform would recognize the need for academic freedom, would allow faculty to be judged by other faculty in their fields, and would protect students from abusers. Some ideas might be to involve more scholars from other, comparable schools in the tenure & promotion process, so that the peers that are judging one's work aren't necessarily the same ones that are mad because you slighted them at some school function. Tenure and promotion might possibly even be moved outside of the universities altogether, such as with accrediting bodies.

I'm not calling for using any of the methods I've cited above; I just offer them as examples. Legislating change will not work -- we are already burdened by excessive legislation (particularly in the area of teacher education), yet none of it ever seems to improve either our teaching or our research. Instead, changing the academic culture is the surest way to bring about effective reform ... and culture is notoriously difficult to change. To that end, Horowitz's book is counter-productive. He makes famous the professors found therein; indirectly prompts others to heap accolades, book contracts, and speaking engagements on them; and offers legitimacy to the likes of Ward Churchill, who most scholars would have previously considered laughable, by positing him as the champion of faculty and their freedoms.

So, Horowitz, you want to change the academic culture to something more conservative? Create more conservative academic presses. Fund named chairs on campus. Invite conservative professors to give public addresses, and pay them honoraria. Give out grant and research money to the kind of faculty you like. Host conferences showcasing conservative ideas. Create credible academic journals to publish conservative thought. Believe me, if the research dollars, publication opportunities, and accolades started flowing from the other directions, a lot of scholars would throw away their portraits of Che Guevara and replace them with portraits of Ronald Reagan.


  1. Really good stuff Doc. I do have one small semi-difference. Although i do agree that the potential for bias in allocating repercussions for classroom "bullies" is more likely (due to the fact there are more liberal professors than vice versa) I don't believe this is generally the case. I believe that most people in the academic community are professionals and would conduct themselves as such in any given situation. Maybe I place to much faith in academic administration, but being that I am not a professor, faith and limited observation is what I have to go on. As far as your observations and analysis of academic freedom throughout universities I agree almost fully. The one point you make that MUST be recognized is the added legitimacy that Horowitz gives Churchill. I don't believe that very many people that actually listen to him talk would be swayed by very much he says, but Horowitz has effectively lifted Churchill from a peon to a martyr.

  2. Tal,

    I didn't mean to imply that most professors (of any ideological stripe) are bullies. It is also hard for students, sometimes, to understand what their professors' biases are, because they don't understand the full context of the professors' knowledge. And, of course, being a professor often means fairly presenting a view with which one disagrees, as well as playing the devil's advocate.

    To give a couple of examples, every couple of semesters, some student or another comes to my office to complain about my anti-Christian lectures. When I ask where they thought they saw an anti-Christian bias, they are upset because I talked about "Christian myth." What they don't understand is that in the context of literary study, the term "myth" is not a term of opprobrium, nor does it carry any value judgment either way about the historical accuracy of the text. In other words, something can be 100% historically accurate and still be a myth.

    And then, there was the student in Lithuania who complained to me that another English professor and I were failing him because he was one of the Russian minority. My response was, "You're Russian? Really?" and then to point out to him that the other professor was one of the Russian minority too ... and that the bias we had was against students who didn't study or turn in their work.

  3. I can certainly attest to the latter, but I think I am going to attempt to rectify that situation this fall. thanks for the post and reply.

  4. Anonymous11:13 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Because of a format problem it caused, I had to delete the previous comment. Below is the same comment, re-posted in my name, with the problem removed. No serious changes to content have been made:

    Anonymous said...
    Hey there,

    I was at the Churchill/Horowitz event at GWU and thought it got a little tedious watching these guys go at it from the extremes. Nonetheless, it was pretty interesting. Some commentary following the debate:

    Horowitz's Response:

    And Media Matters defends the chip off the scuzzy old block:
    At the bottom of the Media Matters piece, there is a chart comparing which of the professors "controversial comments" were made insdie versus outside the class room. Someone also asked Horowitz about this as the last question of the debate itself.

    Keep up the good work, teach.
    -Judas the fall guy

  6. Anonymous12:09 AM

    You may find this letter to the editor about Horowitz to be of interest. --Ben Bayer

  7. cappy9:02 AM

    "So, Horowitz, you want to change the academic culture to something more conservative? Create more conservative academic presses. Fund named chairs on campus. [...]"

    Ah, but it's just so much easier to complain about it, isn't it?

  8. It strikes me that there are plenty of well-funded conservative--or at least Right Wing--scholars: E. D. Hirsch, Alan Bloom, Charles Murray, John Yoo, Robby George, Eugene Volokh, and even Wiliam Bennett has a PhD and a Harvard Law degree.

    And those are just the major names off the top of my head. Then there are minor players like the neoconfederate Clyde Wilson, who's been in the history department of the U of South Carolina since the stone age. No doubt there are 100s others.

    These people are everywhere and there's tons of money for them from the Heritage Foundation, Regnery Press, etc. If the leftwingers stay in academia it's partially because the left and liberal thinktanks and media, partially by their very nature (i.e., they're on the wrong side of the class war), don't pay very well.

    I do like your approaches, RSN, to the problem. But I wish there were a way to talk about this without bringing Horowitz into the discussion, since the man is so disreputable and mendacious that he's made it virtually impossible to discuss these important issues in an atmosphere free of poison. It strikes me that you do a good job in pointing us in the right direction.