A Philosopher's Blog

Academic Freedom vs. Academic Justice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 26, 2014
English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sandra Y.L. Korn has proposed dispensing with academic freedom in favor of academic justice. Korn begins by presenting the example of Harvard psychology Professor Richard Hernstein’s 1971 article for Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Hernstein endorsed the view that intelligence is primarily hereditary and linked to race. Hernstein was attacked for this view, but defended himself and was defended by others via appeals to academic freedom. Korn seems to agree with Hernstein that the attacks against him infringed on academic freedom. However, Korn proposes that academic justice is more important than academic freedom.

Korn makes use of the American Association of University Professors view of academic freedom: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” However, Korn regards the “liberal obsession” with this freedom as misplaced.

Korn’s first argument seems to be as follows. Korn notes that there is not “full freedom” in research and publication. As Korn correctly notes, which proposals get funded and which papers get published is largely a matter of academic politics. Korn then notes that no academic question is free from the realities of politics. From this, Korn draws a conditional conclusion: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”

It might be suspected that there is a false dilemma lurking here: either there is full academic freedom or restricting it on political values is acceptable. There is not full academic freedom. Therefore restricting it on political values is acceptable. The reason why this would be a false dilemma is that there is a considerable range of options between full academic freedom (which seems to be complete freedom) and such restrictions. As such, one could accept the obvious truth that there is not full (complete) freedom while also legitimately rejecting that academic freedom should be restricted on the proposed grounds.

To use the obvious analogy to general freedom of expression, the fact that people do not possess full freedom of expression (after all, there are limits on expression) does not entail that politically based restrictions should thus be accepted. After all, there are many alternatives between full freedom and the specific restrictions being proposed.

To be fair to Korn, no such false dilemma might exist. Instead, Korn might be reasoning that because the reality is such that political values restrict academic expression it follows that adding additional restrictions is not problematic. To re-use the analogy to general free expression, the reasoning would that since there are already limits on free expression, more restrictions are acceptable. This could be seen as a common practice fallacy, but perhaps it could be justified by showing that the additional restrictions are warranted. Sorting this out requires considering what Korn is proposing.

In place of the academic freedom standard, Korn proposes “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

While Korn claims that this is a more rigorous standard, it merely seems to be more restrictive. There is also the rather obvious problem of presenting an account of what it is for research to promote or justify oppression in a way that is rigorous and, more importantly, accurate. After all, “oppression” gets thrown around with some abandon in academic contexts and can be a rather vague notion. In order to decide what is allowed and what is not, Korn proposes that students, faculty and workers should organize in order to “to make our universities look as we want them to do.” While that sounds somewhat democratic, there is still the rather important concern about what standards will be used.

While there are paradigm cases (like the institutionalized racism of pre-civil rights America), people do use the term “oppression” to refer to what merely offends them. In fact, Korn makes reference to the offensiveness of a person’s comment as grounds for removing a professor from a faculty position.

The obvious danger is that the vagueness of this principle could be used to suppress and oppress research that vocal or influential people find offensive. There is also the obvious concern that such a principle would yield a political hammer with which to beat down those who present dissenting or unpopular views. For example, suppose a researcher finds legitimate evidence that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by choice and is accused of engaging research that promotes oppression because her research runs counter to an accepted view among certain people. As another example, imagine a faculty member who holds conservative views that some might find offensive, such as the view that people should work for their government support. This person could be seen as promoting oppression of the poor and thus be justly restricted by this principle.

Interestingly, Korn does present an example of a case in which a Harvard faculty member was asked not to return on the basis of objections against remarks that had been made. This would seem to indicate that Korn’s proposal might not be needed. After all, if academic freedom does not provide protection against being removed or restricted on these grounds, then there would seem to be little or no need to put in place a new principle. To use an analogy, if people can already be silenced for offensive speech, there is no need to restrict freedom of speech with a new principle—it is already restricted. At least at Harvard.

In closing, I am certainly in favor of justice and even more in favor of what is morally good. As such, I do endorse holding people morally accountable for their actions and statements. However, I do oppose restrictions on academic freedom for the same reason I oppose restrictions on the general freedom of expression (which I have written about elsewhere). In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported. To explicitly adopt a principle for deciding what is allowed and what is not based on ideological views would, as history shows, have a chilling effect on research and academics. While the academic system is far from perfect, flawed research and false claims do get sorted out—at least fairly often. Adding in a political test would not seem to help with reaching the goal of truth.

As far as when academic freedom should be restricted, I also go with my general view of freedom of expression: when an action creates enough actual harm to warrant limiting the freedom. So, merely offending people is not enough to warrant restrictions—even if people are very offended. Actually threatening people or engaging in falsification of research results would be rather different matters and obviously not protected by academic freedom.

As such, I am opposed to Korn’s modest proposal to impose more political restrictions on academic freedom. As Korn notes, there are already many restrictions in place—and there seem to be no compelling reasons to add more.


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29 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on February 26, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Nice post. The Sandra Korns of this world may mean well, but they do a lot of damage.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 26, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      A person who sincerely means well can be very persuasive.

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 26, 2014 at 4:43 pm

        I wonder what Sandra would say about Robert Putnam’s research?

        IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

        But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.


        • apollonian said, on February 26, 2014 at 7:48 pm

          What dear, little Sandra would say?–u’re obviously racist scum, intolerant and old-fashioned; worst of all, u’re decidedly un-hip, not trendy, and u probably didn’t vote for Obongo, did u?–u’re hopeless, and as Oprah Winfrey says, u just gotta die….

        • magus71 said, on February 27, 2014 at 9:56 am

          High diversity almost always leads to a low trust society. Studies show that “high trust” societies function best. America used to be a high trust society, but no longer is except in local areas. . Japan is an example of a high trust society. I’ve developed a thesis for use in counter insurgency using sociological based questions used to measure a community’s trust level. This measurement can prove helpful in predicting crime and the chances that local communities are prone to help insurgents.

          • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2014 at 10:42 am

            There is very little critical thinking about “diversity” on the left. It simply “has” to be a good thing–science be damned.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 27, 2014 at 4:47 pm

              There is a confusion between enforced diversity and ensuring equality of opportunity. That is, ensuring that folks who desire to be there and can merit being there (such as in a job) can get there regardless of race, etc. Diversity, I think, is not itself a good (nor a bad)-but would be the result of a good system (that is, one that does not have institutionalized inequality and allows for success based on earned merit).

            • WTP said, on February 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm

              Mike is hiding behind vague wording again. Where in the US do we find institutionalized inequality? Not that he will answer my question, but watch for the excuse that people lack “access” due to funding ruse.

            • magus71 said, on February 27, 2014 at 6:01 pm

              Actually there is institutionalized inequality. It’s called the tax code, and it proves the opposite point the Left wants to make.

            • WTP said, on February 27, 2014 at 6:15 pm

              It’s called the tax code Yes, and it’s the inequality of the tax code that provides the “access” to universal equality.

              Though in the left’s defense, you don’t have to work so hard and/or be rich. Just quit your job and frivol away all your savings! Instant equality! Only when we are all poor will we achieve true nirvana.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2014 at 8:27 pm

              “There is a confusion between enforced diversity and ensuring equality of opportunity.”

              Mike, diversity and equality of opportunity are two completely different concepts.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2014 at 10:32 am

              Yes, that is why it is a confusion to consider them the same. The error I think that people sometimes make is thinking that enforcing diversity is good because it allows people to achieve success. However, the right and better thing to do is to remove unfair obstacles to success(such as racist and sexist policies/practices) and provide positive opportunities for success (such as education). To use an analogy, enforcing diversity is like handing out trophies after a 10K based on getting a proper diversity of race and gender, regardless of performance. Ensuring equality of opportunity is like making sure everyone starts at the same starting line, runs the same course, does not cheat and so on.

              While I seem to be cast as some sort of wacko-leftist, I am not for diversity for the sake of diversity. However, I believe that diversity will result from a system that is just, unbiased and fair. To use another running analogy, women used to be kept from competing in marathons-the thought was that women could not handle it. However, women can compete in marathons now and can do quite well. While the best male athletes will do better than the best women, the top women are still exceptional athletes and they beat the vast majority of male runners. To me, this is fair and just: people get to compete fairly and get rewarded based on what they accomplish.

            • WTP said, on February 28, 2014 at 11:28 am

              the right and better thing to do is to remove unfair obstacles to success(such as racist and sexist policies/practices) and provide positive opportunities for success (such as education).

              Again, where in America do racist and sexist policies/practices exist? Or does “practices” refer to limitations in the real world and not created by man, e.g. most women soldiers’ inability to do the same number of chin-ups as the men, etc? The policy barriers to education are the limitations imposed (mostly) on the poor by the educational establishment, teachers unions, etc. in regard to school choice.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2014 at 3:06 pm

              “However, I believe that diversity will result from a system that is just, unbiased and fair.”

              But why would you believe this? Look at the NBA.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2014 at 8:08 pm

              Are you saying the NBA has too many black people? Or too many tall people?

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2014 at 8:23 pm

              Either way, a “system that is just, unbiased and fair” does not produce a diverse outcome–but it does produce excellence in basketball.

              Similarly, there is no a priori reason to expect other meritocratic endeavors to produce diverse outcomes.

            • magus71 said, on February 28, 2014 at 8:24 pm

              Don’t forget males in the NBA vs women. It has the number of men, blacks and tall people that it should have, because those are the people that are best at putting a ball through a ten foot hoop. This is because people actually care about NBA games, as opposed to what happens in our wars, thus we want women to do when male Marines in the infantry do, even though they can’t. But as I said, basketball is more important.

          • WTP said, on February 27, 2014 at 10:50 am

            In regard to diversity of human interactions, yes. There is an engineering principle that you should keep your interfaces between parts/systems/whatevs as simple and predictable as possible. A component can work efficiently, inefficiently, or by any mechanism necessary and it should not affect the functioning of the system as a whole (excluding performance, of course). AIUI, when the Space Shuttle Challenger accident occurred, the crew compartment broke free of the rest of the airframe due to it only being attached to said airframe at four critical parts. This was to reduce heat transfer between the vehicle, where greater swings in heat were not as much of a concern to surrounding parts, and the crew compartment where temperature tolerance was limited by human habitability and similar factors. So long as people behave amicably in their personal and business interactions, what goes on behind closed doors or within organizations or in regard to how they conduct their personal lives, has limited impact on the rest of society.

            Not saying that societies should be engineered, just that certain principles work for a reason. You can even see by this example that quality engineering has many self-imposed limitations.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2014 at 12:01 pm

              Also see Bucky Fuller on why overspecialization can lead to extinction. Probably some analogy can be made as to why diversity (of thought, at least) can make societies more resilient and maybe even anti-fragile.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2014 at 10:34 am

              Diversity of thought can be useful-unless the thinking is merely diverse in its badness.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2014 at 12:05 pm

              WTP–pretty good “argument from engineering” for a libertarian society.

              Why did you score so high on the fascist test?

            • WTP said, on February 27, 2014 at 1:57 pm

              TJ, don’t recall exactly what some of those questions were. Though I suspect my law-and-order attitude toward those who break the laws that matter didn’t bode well for scoring libertarian points. I want fewer laws, but those laws that remain should be strongly enforced. Also, while I believe that it is absurd to believe it is better to allow 1000 men to go free than to wrongly convict one innocent man, a ration of 5:1 or 10:1 is more rational. Depends on the severity of the crime as well. But such rationalism does not satisfy the puritans. I object to puritanism in practically all forms, be it libertarian, conservative, leftist (of course), religion, etc. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, moderation in all things and this includes moderation.

              Recent news I found interesting in this regard…not sure the details of the law (weak kneed politicians always fall back on the excuse that proposed legislation was conceptually good but flawed as drafted), but my observation on the “Religious Freedom” bill that the AZ governoress vetoed yesterday is problematic for such puritanical tests. I support the rights of gays to marry, etc. yet the intent of this bill was FBM. People, and by extension businesses, should have the right to refuse service to anyone. I think I related the story of my former barber who was constantly being harassed by a woman who insisted that he cut her hair. His fault of course for having a sign in the window “For Men Only”.

            • magus71 said, on February 28, 2014 at 6:11 am

              WTP didn’t score exceptionally high. He scored the same as me. We were middle road.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 27, 2014 at 4:43 pm

          Interesting. I noticed that he was careful to take into account other causal factors, which is rather important to such a causal claim. Has there been any follow up from this 2007 article?

          What is also interesting is speculating on what the fix would be for this. Would you suggest that people form more homogenous communities? Or something else? Or nothing at all?

  2. magus71 said, on February 26, 2014 at 9:46 am

    “In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported.”

    Precisely. Korn makes no argument as to if Hernstein’s study or arguments are in fact valid?

    Is the fairly well known idea that blacks run faster and jump higher than whites, on average, also to covered over? Or is it only ok to publish research in which the findings are positive for minorities?

    “There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites,” said researcher Edward Jones, who researches adolescent obesity, nutrition and body composition at Howard University. “These are real patterns being described here. Whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian, most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa.”


  3. apollonian said, on February 26, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Real Justice Means Getting Rid Of Thought-Control And Public Edjumacation, For Goodness Sakes

    Allow me to simplify things so as to aid in the understanding.

    First remove “academic justice” and simply understand there’s only justice, pure and simple.

    And so Korn wants this “justice” which is the fascist justice of arbitrary oppression and suppression based only upon political expedience–at least she’s HONEST.

    Dear prof. Mike then tells us, well gee, but political expedience shouldn’t be tooooooooooo “expedient” and whimsical, but otherwise gives us no clear principle by which to judge.

    For note basis of public edjumacation is ultimately, simply political expedience. A private college–which is the ONLY place u’ll find real education–can and should do whatever they consider appropriate to their interests.

    So, in conclusion, we see the concept of “justice,” as it’s used here by Korn and others, is sheer fiction at best, a sham and fraud–it’s only a certain KIND of “justice,” under certain circumstances which must be understood.

    Same goes for academic “freedom”–just a sham and a fraud–a sad joke. But freedom can be seen as an end in itself, though we see it CANNOT withstand a basic socialist, tyrannic-oriented “public-edjumacation” and its necessary “justice” of expedience, mob-rule, thought-control, etc.

    So Korn actually stands-up for the fascist interest, insisting they have the right and duty to oppress whatever convenient victims. And the advocates of “academic freedom” are merely bluffers who strive to embarrass Korn, challenging Korn for how far she dares to push her fascism, mob-rule, etc.

    U want real freedom?–GET RID OF public-edjumacation which is just putrid thought-control and indoctrination–look at the gross damage it’s done to our poor Prof. Mike, for goodness sakes.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 1, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    For example, you, as a professor working for a state university, cannot say you believe homosex is immoral behavior. You would lose your job.

    • apollonian said, on March 1, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      Noble Lie Of “Good-Evil” Essence Of Fool’s Paradise

      It’s actually worse than that, AJ, Mike thus preaches a “moralism” of Pharisaism, whence one pushes or defends hubris of “good vs. evil” Pelagianism based upon hubristic, perfectly “free” human will like and equal to God’s will.

      Thus Mike pushes Platonist, Kantian, subjectivist “noble lie” (good-evil) against objective, monist, determinist, strict cause-effect, “good” as end in itself, vs. good as mere means to honest, straight-forward self-interest.

      Mike thus preaches Cartesian-type “dualism,” as he admits, imagining this is defensible in reason, a contradictory, determinist world of material substance existing at same time, in same place as subjectivist “free” will of thinking substance–a kind of Zoroastrianism and yin vs. yang.

      Thus Mike actually holds to, preaches, and defends MYSTICISM against reason and true philosophy–this is the pass to which things supposedly “civilized” and corrupted edjumacation has fallen, thought-control and the dumbing-down of the students of whom only the very best and brightest can see-through the propaganda.

      For note that “good-evil” Pharisaism holds guilt as a good thing, a virtue–which is why white, Christian folk nowadays are so oppressed w. anti-Christianity, the mass-media encouraging blacks to murder whites, as we see, Jews to continue mass-murdering gentiles, etc.

      Thus Mike typically poses and pushes the false analogy–without even realizing he does so, evidently–of comparing homosexual “marriage” w. heterosexual marriage, failing to see the culture of homosexualism being intrinsically corrupt and doomed to degeneracy in Spenglerian “Decline of the West,” ObongoCare death-panels and AGENDA-21 “population-reduction” genocide right in front of his very eyes, yet he not even blinking.

      Yet Mike continues on, not caring or even knowing he lives within a bubble (subjectivist) reality, not realizing it’s all going to disappear soon, gone w. the wind–much like the old Roman civilization vanished, finally, never to return.

      Does Mike’s sort of “philosophy”–a subjectivist mysticism–really serve?–only the satanist rulers win over the hubristic slaves. And even the rulers will suffer when the slaves are eventually exterminated, though the rulers don’t care, living as they do in their “fool’s paradise” of good-evil Pharisaism–such is the culture-of-death-worship as Ayn Rand wrote about, all within the empire-of-lies, the lies merely glorified as “noble” and “good.”

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