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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Trigger Warnings & Academic Freedom II

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 20, 2014
English: The Forgetful Professor

English: The Forgetful Professor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay, I discussed the subject of trigger warnings. The basic idea is that a trigger warning is an explicit notification that what a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or trigger a post-traumatic stress disorder reaction.

Some universities (such as Oberlin College, Rutgers, the University of Michigan and University of California, Santa Barbara) have considered student requests for these trigger warnings. Oberlin briefly posted a guide urging professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”

I, as discussed in the earlier essay on this subject, believe that students have a right to know the contents of a class in advance and that I am, as a professor, still bound by the requirements of civility and compassion. As such, I do endorse the idea of professors informing students about potentially upsetting material within their classes. That said, I do have some concerns about the imposition of “guidance” upon faculty by, most likely, administrators.

One point of concern is that the sort of guidance suggested by Oberlin (which might not be representative of the things to come) would strike some as being a manifestation of a “politically correct” ideology that is “fixated” on sensitivity and –isms of various stripes. While claims about the dominance of political correctness in academics is overblown, the imposition of such guides would certainly not help the reputation of the academy in regards to the importance of ideological neutrality in the classroom.

An obvious counter to that concern is to contend that the guides are not politically correct impositions and to see them as such would be a manifestation of the overblown suspicion that preys on those of a certain opposing ideology. Another obvious counter is that such guidance is neutral in regards to ideology and merely aims at protecting students from emotional trauma. A third counter is that the classroom is a suitable place for the imposition of ideology onto a captive audience (though most would not put it quite this way).

While I agree that claims about political correctness dominating the academy are exaggerations, I do think that the sort of guidance presented by Oberlin do send a message about ideology that is not helpful to the reputation of the academic field. I am, of course, opposed to the view that the classroom should serve as a place of ideological indoctrination. As a philosopher, my objective is to teach students how to think and not to preach to them what they should think. Naturally, I do recognize the potential problem with instilling the principles of academic inquiry and learning (honesty, a respect for reason, valuing truth, tolerance, and so on) while maintaining the view that ideologies should not be imposed in the classroom. After all, it might be argued that this is an ideology.

A second point of concern is that while “guiding” faculty in regards to trigger warnings is not imposing a restriction on academic freedom (that is, it does not forbid faculty from including material) it does do at least two negative things. One is that it does make a value judgment of the material and implies that such material is not suitable for all students. As such, it seems to suggest that faculty should, perhaps, not include such material. Another is that it is the first trickle in what might grow into a stream that erodes academic freedom. To lay out the progression, it is not unreasonable to see guidelines gradually evolve into suggestions which then, over a few years, become actual restrictions. As such, it seems sensible to stop the trickle well before the possible flood.

The obvious reply to this concern is that it the feared evolution might never take place—that is, there would be no expansion from guidance regarding trigger warnings to “ism based” restrictions on what faculty are permitted to include in their classes. This is a reasonable point in that to simply assume that the slide must be inevitable would be to fall into a slippery slope fallacy. That said, there does seem to be a clear and reasonable path from guidance to actual restriction and thus this is still a matter of legitimate concern.

A third point of concern is a practical one, namely that students will find ways to exploit trigger warnings in various ways. As some examples, students might use trigger warnings as an excuse to skip classes, as excuses to avoid doing coursework or as a way to wheedle a higher grade (based on an appeal to emotional trauma). It could be rather difficult to prove that a student was illegitimately exploiting trigger warnings. There is also the concern since trigger sensitivity is linked to various –isms a professor who decided to question a student’s triggers could find herself accused of various –isms (such as sexism or racism). Professors also generally prefer to not delve too deeply into the emotional issues of students—we are, after all, generally not trained therapists or counselors and professionalism requires a certain emotional distance.

One objection is that students would not exploit such trigger warnings. The obvious counter is that some certainly would. Another objection is that a system could be created to verify triggers in order to ensure that excuses are legitimate. While this would be possible, this would entail more bureaucracy and still would not do much to deter exploitation.

A third objection is that allowing some students to exploit the system is an acceptable price to pay to allow students to avoid triggering material. This might be true—although it does raise the obvious question of whether avoiding triggering material is even a legitimate reason to miss class, etc.

It could also be countered that the avoidance of trigger material would not provide a legitimate excuse for missing class, avoiding certain coursework, etc. While this is certainly possible, this would cause one to wonder about the value of trigger warnings—that is, there would seem to be something odd in acknowledging that something is potentially traumatic enough that people must be warned while also holding that students are not excused if they elect to avoid the potential trauma. It could be countered that the purpose of the warning is not to allow avoidance but to allow students the chance to be prepared for the incoming trauma. This could be good enough, although it does invite a debate about the value of trigger warnings.

In closing, I do agree that students should be informed about course content and that a professor should be polite and compassionate in regards to letting students know about potentially traumatic material. However, I do have concerns about administrators imposing guidelines and mandating trigger warnings.


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Trigger Warnings & Academic Freedom I

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 18, 2014
Cover of "Things Fall Apart"

Cover of Things Fall Apart

A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. While the idea of warning people about potentially disturbing content is certainly an old one, the intellectual foundations of trigger warnings lie in the realm of feminist thought.

Some universities (such as Oberlin College, Rutgers, the University of Michigan and University of California, Santa Barbara) have considered requests from students for such trigger warnings. Oberlin briefly posted a guide to this on the college web site: professors should warn students about anything that would “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma.” The guide also urged professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”

As a concrete example, the guide used Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe as an example. While noting that it is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” the guide warned that it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” At Rutgers, a student has proposed that the Great Gatsby be labeled with a trigger warning because of “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

While I am staunch supporter of academic freedom, I do have sympathy to the notion that faculty should inform students about content that might be traumatic, offensive or disturbing. This, however, does not stem from any commitment to what some might call political correctness. Rather, I base it on two principles. The first my view that students have a right to know ahead of time what is in a class so they can make an informed choice as to whether they want to take the class or not. That is why I make my course material readily available and routinely respond to emails from students inquiring about content. I am not worried that my course content will shock or traumatize students—I tend to use readings from thinkers such as Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Wollstonecraft, King, Plato, Locke, and Descartes. Hardly traumatic or shocking stuff. While I think students should leave their comfort zones, I also believe that students should do this as a matter of conscious choice and not by being ambushed in the classroom because they have no idea what the course contains.

It might be countered that students should be forced out of their comfort zones and that keeping them ignorant of class content is a legitimate way to do this. In reply, while I think education should force students out of their comfort zones, the correct way to do this is not by keeping the students ignorant of what they are getting into. After all, they do have the right to select their classes based on an informed choice.

Obviously enough, telling students what is in a class in terms of content is distinct from providing explicit warnings about the content. For example, letting the students know that the class will include a showing of Deliverance would not inform those ignorant of the movie that it contains a rape scene and violence.

It can be contended that students who have special concerns would need to be proactive about checking the content and that the professor’s obligation ends at listing the content. To use an analogy, food labels should list ingredients but it is up to the consumer to do a little research—especially if they have allergies. As the Oberlin guide notes, professors might have no idea what might trigger someone—and warning about the unknown can be challenging.

The second is my personal commitment to politeness, civility and compassion. While my classes do not contain material that could be sensibly regarded as potentially traumatic, if I were to include such material I would be obligated to warn the students on the grounds of politeness and compassion. To use an analogy, when I have people over for dinner and do not know whether they are vegetarians or not, I am careful to indicate which dishes have meat and which do not. I also inquire about possible allergies. While I have no food allergies and I am an omnivore (with some moral exceptions, like veal), I recognize that this is not true of everyone and being a good and civil host requires considering others. As such, if I taught a class on morality and war and decided I needed to include graphic images or film clips for valid intellectual reasons, I would certainly let students know ahead of time.

It might be countered that a professor is exempt from the normal rules of civility on the grounds that they have a right to push students out of their intellectual comfort zones (as a coach can legitimately push athletes). This does have some appeal—but I tend to think that civility is consistent with presenting an intellectual challenge to the students.

That said, I do acknowledge an obvious problem: what I might regard as non-traumatic and within the realm of civility might be regarded as traumatic or impolite. However, one of the responsibilities of being a professional is being able to make judgments about proper content. I admit that I can err in this—obviously. However, if I am competent enough to teach a class, then I should be competent enough to be able to distinguish what I should warn students about and what I should not. Admitting, of course, that I could get it wrong. While I am willing to seek guidance in this matter from others, I am opposed to such “guidance” being imposed. I will write more on that in another essay.


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Michigan & Affirmative Action

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2014
Michigan State University wordmark

Michigan State University wordmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The matter of affirmative action once again hit the headlines in the United States with the Supreme Court upholding Michigan’s civil rights amendment, which had been overturned. The amendment specifies that:


(1) The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

(2) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.


On the face of it, these two things seem to be exactly what civil rights laws should state, namely that discrimination and preferential treatment of the sorts specified is forbidden. As such, it might surprise some that the amendment has faced opposition from civil rights supporters and liberals. The main reason is that the amendment is aimed at ending affirmative action in public education and public sector jobs. Before the amendment, race could be used as a factor in college admissions and in hiring when doing so would address perceived racial disparities.

Despite being often cast as an academic liberal (with all attendant sins), I have long had a somewhat mixed view of affirmative action in education and employment. As an individualist who believes in the value of merit, I hold that college admission and hiring should be based entirely on the merit of the individual.  That is, the best qualified person should be admitted or hired, regardless of race, gender and so on. This is based on the principle that admission and hiring should be based on earning the admission or job and this is fairly and justly based on whether or not an individual merits the admission or job.

To use a sports analogy, the person who gets the first place award for a 5K race should be the person who runs the race the fastest. This person has merited the award by winning. To deny the best runner the award and give it to someone else in the name of diversity would be both absurd and unfair—even if there is a lack of diversity in regards to the winners. As such, the idea of engaging in social engineering at the expense of the individual tends to strike me as wrong.

However, I also am well aware of the institutionalized inequality in America and that dismantling such a system can, on utilitarian grounds, allow treating specific individuals unjustly in the name of the greater good. There is also the matter of the fairness of the competition.

In my 5K analogy, I am assuming that the competition is fair and victory is a matter of ability. That is, everyone one runs the same course and no one possesses an unfair advantage, such as having a head start or being able to use a bike. In such a fair competition, the winner fairly earns the victory. Unfortunately, the world outside of a fair 5K is rather different.

Discrimination, segregation and unjust inequality are still the order of the day in much of the United States. As such, when people are competing for admission to schools and for jobs, some people enjoy considerable unfair advantages while others face significant and unfair disadvantages. For example, African-Americans are more likely to attend underfunded and lower quality public schools and they face the specter of racism that still haunts America. As such, when people apply for college or for state jobs they are not meeting on the starting line of a fair race which will grant victory to the best person. Rather, people are scattered about (some far behind the starting line, some far ahead) and some enjoy unfair advantages while others unfair burdens.

Interestingly, many of these advantages and burdens involve employment and education. For example, a family that has a legacy at a school will have an advantage over a family whose members have never attended college. As such, affirmative action can shift things in the direction of fairness by, to use my racing analogy, pushing people backwards or forwards to bring everyone closer to the starting line to allow for a fairer competition.

To use a somewhat problematic analogy, 5K races divide the trophies up by age and gender (and some have wheelchair divisions as well). As such, an old runner like myself can stand a chance of winning an age group award, even though the young fellows enjoy that advantage of youth. The analogy works in that the 5K, like affirmative action done properly, recognizes factors that influence the competition that can be justly compensated for so that people can achieve success. The analogy, obviously enough, does start to break apart when pushed (as all analogies do). For example, affirmative action with trophies will never make me as fast as the youth, whereas affirmative action in college admission could allow a disadvantaged student match those who have enjoyed advantages.   It also faces the obvious risk of suggesting that the competitors are actually inferior and cannot compete in the open competition. However, it does show that affirmative action can be squared with fair competition.

In closing, I do believe that a person of good conscience can be concerned about the ethics of affirmative action. After all, it does seem to run contrary to the principles of fairness and equality by seeming to grant a special advantage to some people based on race, gender and such. I also hold that a person of good conscience can be for affirmative action—after all, it is supposed to aim at rectifying disadvantages and creating a society in which fair competition based on merit can properly take place.


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