Spurred in part by the William Woodward affair from last year, UNH's Provost, Bruce Mallory, held a "Academic Freedom Forum" yesterday. With some trepidation, I attended. I was a little worried that we'd see the worst features of PC-Academe on uncontradicted display.
But instead I was pleasantly surprised. Provost Mallory's invited speakers were refreshingly non-ideological, well-informed, and even-handed. Even entertaining. Especially good was Mark Silverstein, a PoliSci professor from Boston U.
A large fraction of the presentations was devoted to the legal status of academic freedom, and how it relates to the First Amendment. This was enlightening; the definitive word seems to be that the Supreme Court has not really laid down solid precedent in the area, and lower courts (as Silverstein put it) are "all over the map" on the relevant issues. Anyone who pretends to say with certainty how Constitutional law applies to academic freedom is probably overstating the case. It's not even settled who owns the rights conferred by "academic freedom": does it attach to the professors, or to their institution? That's a really important issue, if you happen to be a professor.
But (of course) many "academic freedom" cases don't make it to the courts; certainly Prof Woodward's case never came close to that. And that was one weakness of the forum. For example. the AAUP "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure" states:
Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.Now, this phrase was quoted exactly, without caveats, by one of the speakers. (And good for them in doing so.) But there was no mention as to how that might play out, either in legal terms, or in terms of University regulations, or in terms of dealings between the University and (say) the Legislature. But that was arguably the relevant issue in the Woodward affair: why they heck is this 9/11 conspiracy mongering being promulgated in a Psychology classroom? What happens when that "controversial matter which has no relation to their subject" test gets triggered? What should happen?
I had to leave the forum before it was over, unfortunately, so perhaps this came up. But, apart from that quibble, it was incredibly encouraging to see a serious discussion of academic freedom here.
Interesting side issue: Provost Mallory mentioned that he'd recently been importuned by (unnamed) people to shut down a showing of the movie Obsession, a documentary describing "radical Islam's war against the West." (This showing was sponsored by the College Republican group here.) The Provost resisted; the movie was successfully shown here earlier this week. It's nice to see UNH easily pass a test of free expression that some other universities have failed badly.