The Limits of Academic Freedom

Steven Novella at Neurologica has written a thoughtful essay on where the limits of academic freedom should lie in light of the firing of Ward Churchill based on allegations of plagiarism and research falsification. Of course, many believe that calling 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns” might have had something to do with it as well.

Novella considers the current standards for protection of academic speech and brings up a good point. Academic freedom is not meant to protect professors from the consequences of lying and incompetence.

The purpose of tenure is to protect academics from being fired because of their political views or the nature of their research or other academic pursuits. Originally it was designed to protect them from influences outside the university – namely trustees or donors who would try to use their money or influence to block or fire academics they didn’t like or disagreed with. However, it was never intended to protect professors from discipline from their colleagues within the university. Such discipline is necessary to maintain standards, which every institution has a right, and some even a duty, to do.

At present the guiding principles state that a tenured professor can be removed for, “professional incompetence, neglect of duty, insubordination, conviction of a felony or any offense involving moral turpitude… or sexual harassment or other conduct which falls below minimum standards of professional integrity.”

This is a good point, and one that the denialists and cranks of the world hate, and that is “standards”. Novella makes an excellent case for the ability of universities to deny tenure, or remove professors for the teaching of baloney:

To take an extreme example, a history professor should not be able to make up their own history from scratch and then pass it along to their students as knowledge. I should not teach medical students incompetent and substandard medical practice and then defend such teaching with cries of personal academic freedom.

The gray area here is the distinction between, on the one hand, content that represents an unpopular minority opinion, a politically, socially, or religiously “heretical” view, or a cutting edge claim, and on the other hand nonsense and intellectual rubbish. In making such distinctions it is possible to dismiss the merely unpopular as nonsense, or to defend rubbish as if it were truly innovative or politically inconvenient.

Also, when in doubt, which side should get the benefit? Should maverick academics be considered visionary until proven to be quacks, or charlatans until vindicated? The system we have now seems to favor the former.

Personally, I think we need to take the “innocent until proven guilty” approach, but should not set the standard of proof so high that any nonsense can thrive without check. For example, intelligent design is simply not science, and this has been established to such a degree that we can forbid biology teachers from teaching it as science without violating their academic freedom. The same is true for holocaust denial, and for 9/11 conspiracy theorists?

I think that question mark is a typo, but anyway, he’s dead on. Academic freedom should never mean you can say whatever the hell you want, whatever the proof, whatever your methods.

The perfect example? Medical students and CAM:

The area where I think the system has broken down is with so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Here, ideas that are anti-scientific, disproven, intellectually bankrupt, and sometimes just utter lunacy are making their way into academic medicine under the banner of freedom, multi-culturalism, openness, and political correctness. Because medicine is a profession and a trade (not just an abstract academic pursuit) the standards for quality control are far more important and should be given greater consideration.

As I said above, I should not be allowed to teach medical students incompetent medicine or substandard care – and neither should anyone else, no matter what you call it.

Novella makes a great case. Examples of denying tenure to people promoting nonsense aren’t about maintaining a party line, they’re about maintaining standards. Academics who say that evolution is false, the holocaust didn’t happen, oregano cures cancer etc., aren’t just exercising their free speech, they’re failing their students. This isn’t an issue of rejecting minority views, it’s about the responsibility of academics to adhere to basic principles of honesty and integrity in their intramural pursuits.