Academic Freedom is not your right– it’s your responsibility.

From The Union Line, Spring 2010

We feel deserving of broad academic freedom in the classroom and in our scholarship.  We expect to use our many years of higher education to advance knowledge, to increase the beauty in the world around us, and to foster free and critical thinking in the next generation.  To do so helps us feel professionally and personally fulfilled. However, faculty governance and solid academic freedom does not just affect the professorate, and academic freedom is not only a professional right.  It is a professional obligation to defend it.

As a democracy, our nation depends on an educated population. Many of us became academics because we –at our core – understand the connection between advancing knowledge and ensuring that future generations can and will step up to the plate. History shows that individuals are most often targeted for expressing an unpopular idea if the idea questions what people with power need to be true, or if the individual expressing it is a bit odd or quirky, or if money and power are involved.  The merit of controversial ideas can eventually be settled by truth and reason if those who challenge the status quo is not successfully silenced. There was once strong opposition to the radical idea of “Germ Theory.” The idea was attacked partly because it questioned the views of prominent experts who favored the idea of spontaneous causes of illness. There were strong feelings, entrenched camps, and pressure to conform. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis insisted that the high death rate of newborns was caused by a contagious agent and that tiny substances carried by doctors after performing autopsies were causing the deaths.

Semmelweis was not totally correct of course (the primary source of such contagious agents was not always diseased corpses as he supposed), but the medical establishment refused to consider the evidence and discredited the whole idea that a disinfectant could ever make a difference in infant mortality. Even after the infant death rate dropped to 2% (which should have been at least somewhat persuasive), he was attacked and discredited for his ideas by the establishment, and it was suggested that he was lying about his research. What may have made matters worse for Semmelwies, is that he was a bit odd and some of his manners were quirky, maybe even offensive. Still, to discredit and attack information because it does not fit with one’s current world view is the antithesis of true science.  Those who accused and discredited Semmelweis were playing dirty, but they felt they had a right to do so.  Semmelwies essentially prevailed (although the stress may have taken its toll: he died in an insane asylum after marked mental decline).  Careful observation eventually proved that sickness can be caused by germs that can’t be seen at all (which led to wonderful advances in medicine as well as a finer understanding of how amazingly complex life is).

            In the 1950’s and 1960’s people were being acutely poisoned by mercury waste from Chisso chemical company in Japan.  Loss of vision, muscle weakness and coordination problems, difficulty talking, altered reflexes and full body convulsions were observed in many previously healthy adults. The scientists who discovered and proved the cause of the then-mysterious Minamata Disease were at first discredited and the research group that found the cause to be mercury from the Chisso chemical plant was disbanded by academic authorities the day following their report’s publication on grounds of research misconduct.  Public apologies that came decades later from the government and other authorities involved are some validation, but as a whole the case serves to underscore that attempts to corrupt the scientific process can and do exist. My point is this: not all debate participants are objective and in some instances their motives and self interest should be carefully considered.  Policies and procedures that make it too easy to halt research can bring real harm to the academy, to our students, to the citizenry, and to the hard won reputations of dedicated scholars.

According to the AAUP 1915 declaration, “Once appointed, the scholar has professional functions to perform in which the appointing authorities have neither competency nor moral right to intervene. The responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself and to the judgment of his own profession. . . His duty is to the wider public to which the institution itself is morally amenable.”  This means that the importance of academic freedom transcend the individual. The obligation to enforce the principles of academic freedom is to the public.

Recent cases suggest that controversial ideas are getting attacked with whatever weapons are available. Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj published a book in 2001 that engendered a firestorm of strong feelings and controversy related to the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.  A petition was circulated and then she was accused of misrepresenting her data.  It now seems clear that many of the accusations about her work were not factually correct1. The case has been described as a witch hunt and as an outside attack on the tenure process.  The effect on her life and her reputation are real – but more to the point:  will others now be reluctant to broach this controversial subject and take a non-approved stance?  Who among us would want to endure what she suffered through?    Professor Michael Bailey also broached controversial subjects related to sexuality and sexual orientation.  His theory was considered insulting by some.  However, he was accused of research misconduct.  After two years of accusations and investigations, Bailey was eventually cleared.  If anyone is tempted to think that this means the system worked, think again.  According to Dr. Alice Dreger, the key investigator of the misconduct, “What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field…. If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.” 2 Bailey has said it was the worst two years of his life.

Does research misconduct happen? Yes. An immunologist at the University of Texas admitted to spiking test tubes. He resigned.  My first year at UNI I had a “collaborator” in Ghana fake code the data he was supposed to collect.  I recalled the paper that was about to be published. At Texas A & M, a misconduct allegation was made against a faculty member, after years of investigations and wasted, bitter, angry years there was finally a guilty judgment and dismissal.  But not against the accused.  The accuser had been found to be the guilty one: guilty of both research misconduct and making false charges. Yes, they are unscrupulous bad people and some of them fake data—but some of them fake allegations.  Any procedure adopted to deal with misconduct must balance the two possibilities. 

As the long standing authority on academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors, states, “A university is a great and indispensable organ of the higher life of a civilized community, in the work of which the trustees hold an essential and highly honorable place, but in which the faculties hold an independent place, with quite equal responsibilities -- and in relation to purely scientific and educational questions, the primary responsibility.” 3 Educating youth, having an informed electorate and widening the light of knowledge is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Awareness of the connection between what universities do and what happens to our nation can at times be a burden; but it is a responsibility that we – the faculty -- cannot shirk.



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A university is a great and indispensable organ of the higher life of a civilized community, in the work of which the trustees hold an essential and highly honorable place, but in which the faculties hold an independent place, with quite equal responsibilities -- and in relation to purely scientific and educational questions, the primary responsibility.”