A Philosopher's Blog

Academic Freedom & State Schools

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2014
English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic freedom is a longstanding and generally well-supported right. In terms of its underpinnings, the obvious foundation is freedom of expression—the right to express views and ideas without being silenced. In the case of academic freedom, the expression is (obviously enough) in an academic context. It is typically taken as being more than just protection regarding making specific claims in that it is supposed to provide fairly broad protection in such matters as selecting books, developing curriculum and so on. It is also supposed to protect professors (tenured professors at least) from being fired or punished for expressing their views (in legitimate ways—it is not a license to say anything without consequences).

Stereotypically, defenders of academic freedom are seen as leftists. However, in somewhat recent years, some conservatives have come forth to accuse “the left” of restricting the academic freedom of conservative thinkers in accord with the doctrines of political correctness. While such matters are overstated in the usual hyperbole of politics, there are enough incidents of faculty being punished for holding views that are regarded as politically incorrect. For example, Mike Adams was apparently denied promotion to full professor on the basis of his political engagement rather than a legitimate lack in his qualifications. There have also been proposals to use a standard of academic justice to replace academic freedom. While the idea of justice certainly sounds nice, the proposal is to substitute an ideological test in place of the general right—in short, academics could research what they wished, provided that it is consistent with the specific ideology. As might be suspected, I have written at length in opposition to this proposal. There have also been proposals from “the left” regarding trigger warnings and these proposals also provide a potential threat to academic freedom—a subject I have also written about.

While I am typically cast as being on “the left”, I take a consistent position regarding academic freedom—namely that I support it. Since I am consistent, this support extends to fellow professors whose views I disagree with—while I think they are wrong, I hold that they have as much right as I do to express these views. Even when (or especially when) they are regarded as “politically incorrect.”

One interesting problem of academic freedom arises for state colleges and universities. While even for-profit schools receive money from the government, state schools receive funding from the state—as decided by the state legislature. While academic institutes, they are subject to the control of the state government. To use a concrete example, Florida’s state legislature recently passed a law changing the general education requirements for all state schools, thus requiring faculty and administrators to implement the changes.

Given that the state government is (in theory) acting in accord with the “will of the people” and that the schools are funded with state money (that is, the people’s money), it is not unreasonable to believe that the state has the right to impose a degree of control over the schools. A rather important question is the extent to which the state should impose on academic freedom. As might be guessed, people answer this question based largely on their ideology.

As noted above, some of the loudest voices crying out for academic freedom these days are coming from the right. Somewhat ironically, one of the harshest impositions on academic freedom in recent years has come from that same right. To be specific, a senate panel of the Michigan senate banned courses at public schools “that promote or discourage organizing efforts.” The penalty for doing so is $500,000.

The University of Michigan was accused of breaking this rule because it offers courses on the history of labor. State Rep. Al Pscholka (who chairs the house panel controlling higher education funding) said, “I believe in academic freedom, and you’re going to have difficult subjects that you’re going to cover at any university. But this is a case where I think we’re almost encouraging labor disputes, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.” Interestingly, Pscholka praised the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby case as a victory for religious freedom.

This view of liberty is hardly surprising. As Mill noted in his classic work on liberty, people tend to not operate based on a consistent principle regarding what should be allowed and what should be restricted. Rather, people decide based on what they like and dislike. As such, it is hardly a shock that folks on the left and right praise freedom when it is protecting something they like while being quite happy to restrict freedom when it involves something they do not like. But, as one might say, the law is the law and consistency of principle seems to lack legal weight.

That said, there is still the question of whether the state has the right to make such an imposition. As noted above, one avenue of argumentation is that since the state provides the funding and the schools are public institutions, then the state government has the right to dictate to the universities in regards to the content of their courses.

If this line of reasoning is strong, then this would be a general principle and not one just limited to the Republicans of Michigan wanting to keep courses on labor off state campuses. So if a state legislature passed laws forbidding teaching business courses or courses in religion, then that would be acceptable under this principle. It would also be acceptable for a law to be passed banning the teaching of Western history, Western values, anything that is seen as endorsing “the patriarchy”, and anything that is positive about white males and so on. That is, this principle would allow the state to impose the ideology of the day onto the state schools.

I think it is obvious that Pscholka and the others who support the rule in question would be adamantly opposed to the ideology of their opposition setting the content for public schools. As such, it is probably fair to say that they do not actually have a general principle regarding the degree of state control over state schools but rather do not like the idea of the schools teaching about labor. In short, the “principle” is that the school should not teach what they do not like—which is hardly a principle.

I would also be opposed to a leftist agenda being opposed onto state schools, but on the basis of a principle of academic freedom—in this case that the state should not impose ideological restrictions (left or right) on public schools.


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