A post by one of the Harrys over at Crooked Timber asks, what’s the point of academic freedom. He articulates 4 spheres of autonomy usually understood to be protected by academic freedom, and argues they are subordinate to the demands of being a practicing academic:
- Professors controlling the content of courses they teach, and choosing the instruments of evaluation of students in those courses.
- Professors choosing the methods by which they teach students in a class, and being free to express their opinions on the topics addressed.
- Professors controlling the selection of textbooks in the classes they teach.
- Professors choosing what topics to research, and what methods to use in the pursuit of that research.
In effect, he is arguing that the sphere of autonomy protected by a principle of academic freedom is vanishingly small – and tends to involve interference from outside the department or university. The constraints of teaching the curriculum of courses required for the proper functioning of a department are simply too great. As might be imagined, things are getting heated in the comments.
Whatever the merits of his analysis of the teaching demands of academe, he has mis-formulated the important spheres of freedom. In particular, he has missed the area of concern which is often the most publicly debated – that academics be free to make contentious statements about things unrelated to the business of running a university department.
Consider the controversy about Shiraz Dossa, a political science professor at a St. Francis Xavier Univesrity. He made the poor choice of attending a globally condemned conference in Tehran seen by many to be an exercise in holocaust denial.
The St. F.X. university president issued a press release distancing the institution from the conference, and colleagues were quick to denounce Dossa’s participation as well. A national debate led to remarkably balanced statements by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Peter Mackay:
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, at the very least I would suggest that academics, anyone going there that has any representation of Canada or a Canadian university, owes a bare minimum to inform themselves of the subject matter for discussion.
While a voice of the Canadian government speaks of academics’ obligations (to whom or what?); the Canadian Association of University Teachers spoke of academics’ freedoms. In their own press release they give a good definition:
Academic freedom is to protect the right of academic staff to speak the truth as they see it without repression from their institution, the state, religious authorities, special interest groups or anyone else.
Spot on. This isn’t about protecting professors’ control over their teaching practices. It is about protected speech, and Harry has missed this important point.
Law schools provide an interesting test-bed for academic freedom. By their nature, they are a forum for discussion about controversial topics. But they are also a university department in which the professors appear to have a great deal of control over their teaching practices – although the weight of tradition and the requirement of a standardized first-year course selection may blunt this autonomy.
Additionally, some of the teachers are practicing lawyers who, as sessional instructors, engage students in some of the more practical areas of law. They do so on topics of professional interest to them, and in their own way.
All told, law professors appear to be free to teach topics of interest to them, and with their own methods. They also have remarkable latitude when it comes to criticizing the law, the legal profession, and judges, legislators, or other academics.
Is this unique to professional faculties, or to my own experience observing one Canadian law school? Have at it in the comments.