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
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
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.
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
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).
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
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
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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