“Academic Freedom” vs. Accountability

by | Dec 23, 2004

In The New York Sun’s editorial of December 10, 2004, you correctly note that universities like Columbia will take no action against professors whose outrageous positions are deemed a matter of “scholarly belief” [“The Bollinger Committee”]. But values besides academic freedom, you write, “are also important, even central. Like, say, truth.” Truth? Where did you […]

In The New York Sun’s editorial of December 10, 2004, you correctly note that universities like Columbia will take no action against professors whose outrageous positions are deemed a matter of “scholarly belief” [“The Bollinger Committee”]. But values besides academic freedom, you write, “are also important, even central. Like, say, truth.”

Truth? Where did you get that old-fashioned idea? Most academics don’t believe there is any such thing, at least as regards abstract, evaluative ideas. Hence their indignation at anyone who would claim to know any such ideas to be absolutely true.

The doctrine of “academic freedom” and its child, the tenure system, were designed precisely to make truth irrelevant. As long as a professor–at least one in the humanities–can formulate a rationalization couched in academic jargon, he is presumed to have integrity and no one can touch him.

“Academic freedom” means a guarantee that professors not be held accountable for their beliefs. For a university to fail to underwrite scholarship it finds objectionable is somehow supposedly a violation of freedom.

What freedom? The freedom of a professor to obtain the support of others as an entitlement, regardless of their judgment? As if boycott–the withdrawal of support–were not in fact a legitimate exercise of freedom, one fundamentally different from censorship–the forcible suppression of speech. As if thought and discovery had not flourished at universities for centuries before the invention of this doctrine in early 20th-century America.

One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of academia’s disdain for accountability than Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani’s essay drawing parallels between neoconservatives and jihadists [“Professor Links Neoconservatives, Jihadists,” December 15, 2004].

What parallels? They both have “global ambitions” and believe in “the efficacy of politically motivated violence.” One might as well say that Herzl and Hitler were essentially the same because they were both political leaders from Austria with dark hair.

It doesn’t take reams of academic writing to dispose of such nonsense thoroughly, decisively and to the satisfaction of any rational person. One need only point out the obvious fallacy of integration by nonessentials. Of course, no one in universities today is taught what the fallacy of integration by nonessentials is, nor how to properly identify essentials.

It’s not that truth doesn’t exist. It’s that academics increasingly don’t care about it.

A shorter version of the above article was published as a letter on December 20, 2004 in the New York Sun.

Paul Blair comments, “After the above letter appeared, I received a message from a retired professor who told me this story: At a meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (an organization that accredits universities), the mission statement was changed from “the pursuit of truth” to “the pursuit of knowledge.” When the authorities were asked why the change, they answered, ‘Truth is too controversial.’ “

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Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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