Thursday, October 02, 2014

Academic freedom is a big deal

I am continually surprised by the casual, almost irresponsible way with which academic freedom is dismissed as no big deal by sections of the academic community. As a former radical undergraduate at McGill University who fought for academic freedom in the late 1960s, I was saddened to read an article published in the Harvard Crimson earlier this year that praises students in the 1970s who sought to silence faculty members. Apparently, silencing the voices of those whose ideas offend is a small price to pay for upholding what the author characterised as ‘academic justice’.

The language with which the Crimson article framed the idea of academic freedom was shot through with contempt. Throughout the piece, academic freedom was constantly coupled with the term ‘obsession’.  The assertion that those who take academic freedom seriously are misguided fools was justified on the grounds that the principle of academic freedom has no real content. According to the author, this ‘liberal obsession’ is ‘misplaced’ since ‘no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication’. The conviction that academic freedom is an unhealthy obsession is by no means unique to the undergraduate who wrote this article. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a powerful current of cynicism towards the idea of academic freedom.

It has become fashionable to refer to academic freedom as a myth that bears little relationship to the reality of university life. This also serves as a prelude to calling into question academic freedom’s very legitimacy. As Joanna Williams noted in her review of The Imperial University: Academic Repressions and Scholarly Dissent, too many treat academic freedom as something which works to neutralise the genuine voices of dissent on campus.

At first sight, it is unclear why academic freedom has become the target of moralistic outrage. If it really is a myth with no reality on campus, why not just ignore it? Or better still, if there is no ‘full freedom’ of research – as the Crimson article suggested – why not seek to extend its influence? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what bothers the current critics of academic freedom is not its incomplete or limited scope but the very ideals of tolerance and openness. Academic freedom stands condemned not because it is a myth, but because its critics are intolerant of those who express ideas antithetical to their own worldview. That is the main impulse driving the current backlash against academic freedom. ‘If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?’, asks the author of the Crimson article. Intolerance towards research that contradicts ‘our goals’ is here depicted as a virtue.

Critics of academic freedom are careful not to go so far as to call for its abolition. The reason for their qualified critique is that while they are happy to deny academic freedom to their opponents, they fervently uphold their own right to academic freedom. The current case of Steven Salaita is instructive in this respect. Salaita has been at the forefront of the campaign to prevent Israeli scholars from participating in academic conferences and research projects in the US. He is in no doubt that the principle of academic freedom does not extend to his political opponents. However, when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign decided to withdraw its offer to employ him as professor in American Indian studies, Salaita and his supporters were outraged at what they saw as a violation of academic freedom. In this instance, at least, this ‘liberal obsession’, this ‘myth’ of academic freedom, was transformed into a sacred principle.

Double standards abound. From the perspective of Salaita and his supporters, academic freedom is an entirely negotiable commodity. Instead of seeing it as a fundamental principle governing academic life and scholarly research, they see it as a second-order value that may give way to more lofty concerns. This outlook was communicated in the Crimson article, which asserted that ‘academic justice’ is more fundamental than academic freedom: ‘When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.’

Since the rise of the modern university, there have always been attempts – particularly by external authorities – to curb or deny the right to academic freedom. Significant breakthroughs in intellectual and scientific thought inevitably challenge the prevailing order, which is why those who question conventions and challenge prevailing norms have frequently faced repression. This is why during the past century, academics were frequently at the forefront of advocating the free pursuit of scholarly research and the right to express their views. The experience of history indicates that academic freedom is not a desirable privilege that is open to negotiation – it is integral to the intellectual and moral foundation on which the pursuit of scholarly activity rests.

What’s interesting, and also deeply distressing, about the situation today is that the calls to police the freedom to pursue academic research originate not outside, but inside the academy. Calls to police disagreeable research and ideas regarded as offensive are testimony to the illiberal tendencies that prevail among influential constituencies in higher education.

Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination. These sentiments are not confined to the sphere of research. They also call into question the freedom to teach in accordance with one’s intellectual orientation.

In British universities, new colleagues are frequently socialised into an ethos of teaching where intellectual ideas and principles are trumped by a pragmatic desire not to rock the boat. For example, back in 2005, it was revealed that a circular issued to arts and humanities lecturers at Durham University indicated that they would have to obtain approval from an ethics committee if they wished to offer lectures and tutorials on topics that might offend students. Abortion and euthanasia were cited as examples of such potentially offensive topics.

At the time, numerous colleagues reacted strongly against this circular’s call for academic self-censorship. But, despite this reaction, the premise advanced by this circular is now widely accepted and institutionalised by higher-education bodies on both sides of the Atlantic. The infantilising message that ‘the student must not be offended’ has been internalised and in many cases codified in numerous institutions of higher education. Indeed, the culture of insulating students from offensive or disturbing ideas has become so pervasive that it has been unthinkingly embraced by sections of the undergraduate community. The infantilisation of undergraduates has succeeded to the point that sometimes it is the students themselves who demand protection from disturbing thoughts.

On many campuses, it was student advocates, and not insecure campus administrators, who were at the forefront of promoting the recent calls for trigger warnings on class syllabi. The recent suggestion by a Rutgers University sophomore that the alert for The Great Gatsby should say ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’ captures well the spirit that motivates the self-appointed campus censor.

If disturbing and offensive ideas must now come with a mandatory health warning, how long before they are deemed inappropriate for discussion on campuses altogether?

There is little doubt that academic freedom can make life uncomfortable for teachers and students alike. Often the pursuit of the truth leads in unexpected directions and calls into question cherished beliefs and conventional wisdom. And, of course, words and the ideas they express can offend. But the flourishing of higher education needs individual risk-takers who are ahead of their time and prepared to search for the truth, wherever it may lead them and whomever it may offend. The serious higher-education institution does not seek to limit academic freedom, but to affirm it. It regards academic freedom as a non-negotiable value that underpins the genuine pursuit of intellectual and scientific clarity. It teaches its members how not to take hateful views personally and how not to be offended by uncomfortable ideas.


Female students are not damsels in distress

Sex has never been such a hot topic of discussion – but not in a good way. On Twitter, the #EverydaySexism project has prompted scores of anecdotal and heartfelt testimonies from tweeters, sharing personal stories about everything from rape and sexual harassment to catcalling and just plain flirting.

Much of the debate about sexism online centres on female students’ experiences at university. Last week, with freshers’ week looming, the National Union of Students (NUS) launched a ‘Lad Culture National Strategy Team’, which is to be headed up by #EverydaySexism founder, Laura Bates. Prior to that, online student magazine the Tab published an article requesting the cooperation of men in the fight against the ‘gauntlet of potential assaults’ against women that they claimed would be accompanying freshers’ week.

Though it may seem positive that this new generation is seemingly more comfortable speaking openly about these issues, the discussions currently raging about sexism are extremely reductive and anathema to anything resembling feminism. There are three distinct problems with the idea that university is rife with sexism.

The first is the way these campaigns conflate simple ‘cat-calling’ with genuine sexual assault. It is fundamentally wrong to claim that being called ‘babe’ or even made to feel uncomfortable by a catcall is sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are violent crimes which are committed by people who mean harm to the victim. There is a difference between a man who shouts ‘nice tits’ across the street and one who rips your top off. Any claim to the contrary undermines the severity of sexual assault and blurs the lines between ignorance and intent.

The second problem is in the positioning of women as vulnerable and men as predatory. We seem to have a generation of women comfortable with thinking of themselves as damsels in distress and men as the enemy – leaving the position of the hero to be filled by either a students’ union or an online campaign. This degrades young women’s resilience while simultaneously undermining free speech. All women should be encouraged to confront and deal with forms of speech they disagree with. Sure, a lonely road at 3am isn’t the best place for a woman to take on a man double her size in a debate about what does and doesn’t make her uncomfortable, but in the public domain of the university women should stand up for themselves rather than reverting to bans and clampdowns on speech they don’t like. Long before the NUS launched its laughably named anti-lad taskforce, students’ unions had been banning everything from ‘lads’ mags’ to leery pop songs in the name of tackling sexism. All they’re doing is reinforcing the idea that women are vulnerable.

Lastly, the problem of sexism runs far deeper than the whingers of #EverydaySexism make out. Sexism is built into the fundamental structures of our society, which promote the idea that women’s natural role is in the home and that the mother plays the most important role in a child’s life. But the likes of #EverydaySexism and the NUS don’t seem to be interested in these issues; instead they are expending all of their energy telling young people how to speak, drink and shag in the most PC way.

The uproar about ‘twerking’, ’Blurred Lines’, ‘lad culture’ and a ‘corrupted generation’ stifles any wider debate on real, structural inequality. By clamping down on speech, by telling students that certain language is ‘sexist’ and therefore unacceptable, modern feminists are stopping discussion, not fostering it. And in the process, they are degrading men and women. The implication often made that all men are predisposed to be pigs is pathetic and untrue. Sexism is not about simply being ‘nasty’ to women, and feminism is not about being sympathetic to women. The way to deal with the broader problems, which go far beyond petty squabbles over language, is to debate and discuss them freely. If there are really people out there who today believe that the coarse comments of a few drunk lads are the real problem, then things are far worse than we thought.


The Kafkaesque clampdown on campus hook-ups

American college students arriving for the Fall term will find a very different climate on campus. In addition to the usual rituals of moving into their rooms, buying their books and registering for classes, many will be attending mandatory workshops on sexual violence and the meaning of consent.

Though workshops like these are not new, they have acquired a greater emphasis and urgency since April when the US Department of Education announced a federal investigation of 77 colleges and universities over their handling of complaints of rape and sexual assault.

The investigations come hot on the heels of the release of the Not Alone report issued by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault on Campus. If students take away nothing else this year, they will at least have a heightened awareness of the problem of sexual assault. On the face of it, this is no bad thing. But a closer look shows that the authorities’ crusade is riddled with problems.

For a start, it is based on questionable research. The Campus Sexual Assault Study 2005-2007 claims that a shocking 20 per cent of female students experience sexual assault during their time on campus, a figure repeated throughout the official literature. But the study suggests this figure is anything but robust. The data comes from a survey of students conducted at just three Southern universities. The small and potentially self-selecting nature of the sample is troubling – but even more problematic is the fact that these sexual-assault figures were calculated on the basis of the researchers’ interpretations of incidents, often in direct contradiction to what women themselves thought.

The strategy for dealing with this alleged crisis is equally problematic. The White House administration is using Title IX legislation, intended to ensure equal access to education for women, to pressure colleges and universities into establishing and maintaining a parallel but vastly inferior system of justice. Unlike the real criminal-justice system, in which those accused of crimes have rights, campus authorities follow a list of recommendations as spelled out by the new Not Alone guidelines, which fall far below acceptable legal standards.

In this parallel system, campus functionaries investigate and prosecute potentially serious crimes in secret tribunals. Not only are colleges ill equipped and unaccountable, there is no guarantee that due process – the legal standards that ensure proceedings are fair, especially to the accused – will be upheld.

On campus, there is no presumption of innocence. There may be no right to representation; no right to know the exact nature of the allegations made or who made them; no right for the accused to present evidence in his defence; no statute of limitations; and no right to appeal. There need not even be an accuser. Colleges may act on a complaint explicitly against the wishes of the person who made the complaint, as Yale University did earlier this year.

We could add to these concerns the shifting understanding of what constitutes a crime. In the criminal-justice system, ‘the crime of rape’ has become a subcategory of ‘sexual assault’ in order to capture acts beyond forced intercourse. The Obama administration has gone much further than this on campus. ‘Sexual assault’ has become a subcategory of ‘sexual violence’ and ‘sexual violence’ has in turn become a subcategory of ‘sexual harassment’. Sexual harassment is defined as ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, including sexual violence’. It includes ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature’.

The unintended consequence of this extension of the category of inappropriate behaviour is the expansion of what may be considered a crime. Thus, rape, attempted rape and molestation are now on a par with unwanted kissing or rude comments. This, coupled with a definition of sexual assault that emphasises consent and the capacity to provide consent over the intentions and purposes of both parties has led to at least one Kafkaesque situation at the University of Missouri, where the very act of asking someone to engage in sex is considered unacceptable behaviour that ‘will not be tolerated’.

But of all the reasons to be critical of these new measures, the impact on women and their relationships with men may be the most worrying. In a climate in which almost any unpleasant, or ambiguous encounter – especially those fuelled by alcohol – can be interpreted as sexual assault, a generation of women is being encouraged to view the normal missteps and awkwardness of college sex as potentially life-ruining violations.

Take this incident reported on the Middlebury College ‘It Happens Here’ website:

‘E started talking dirty to me. I jokingly said something about E getting me aroused when I already said no, and I felt a hand between my legs. Whatever physical state I was in, E assumed it meant I had changed my mind and started touching me more. I should have said no again; I didn’t say anything. I had an overwhelming feeling like I wasn’t allowed to say anything. I let E do exactly what E wanted to do so it would be over and we could go to bed.’

This is typical of ‘survivor stories’, which are mostly unreported incidents posted on websites as part of the It Happens Here Project. A handful of these first-person accounts describe incidents in which women were drugged without their knowledge, or forced into sex or molested - incidents that clearly merit official investigation.

The majority, however, are tales of naiveté and disappointment, of having trusted someone who turned out to be a jerk. Sex with a jerk is then, retrospectively, labelled a violation. Reported incidents are much the same.

This allegation, made by a student at Swarthmore College and featured in Philadelphia Magazine, is a good example:

‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you”… And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything – I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’

Such tales make painful reading. They remind older, more experienced adults of just how messy, sordid and cringey sex in college can be. They also leave the unsettling feeling that a profound loss of perspective has occurred.

The sexual revolution has always been double-edged. The freedom to experiment with multiple partners without stigma means that we all have more sexual experience. This is no bad thing, especially for women whose sexuality was variously disregarded or even demonised in the past. But the experiences that pave the way to sexual and emotional maturity are sometimes, and perhaps inevitably, unhappy ones. It is a rare person who has no embarrassing skeletons in the closet marked ‘sex in college’. We must, as the saying goes, kiss a lot of frogs.

But if these experiences are not particularly worthy or edifying, the freedom to exercise our judgment, to take risks and to make mistakes, is liberating in and of itself – even in cases when that choice is not to have sex outside marriage, as some people do.

With this in mind, the call to end sexual assault on campus is less about justice than it is a thinly veiled demand for less freedom, a plea for protection from one another and, especially, from ourselves. As with so many discussions of human relationships today, the focus on sexual assault expresses a deep anxiety about intimacy and an obsession with risk.

According to this view, the world is a dangerous place and people are not to be trusted. Instead of acting on our desires, in the moment with our person of choice, we must be nudged to think and think again about our feelings every step of the way.  Are we still sure about consenting? Is our partner? There is no room for ambiguity and no stage at which remorse is pointless. Men are seen as particularly suspect, as if violence were one point on the continuum of their sexuality. They therefore require education to teach them not to rape. All-male institutions like sports teams or fraternities must be highly regulated or, better still, dissolved lest they magnify or intensify the masculine culture of sexual violence.

Where once feminists railed against strictures against ‘dangerous’ female sexuality, they now seem perfectly content to portray male sexuality as inherently problematic. Indeed, there is an almost evangelical zeal to campaigns like Ring the Bell or Men Against Violence Against Women, in which men ‘take the pledge’ to the breathless applause of the feminists for whom so-called hyper-masculinity is the root of all evil.

No one wants to minimise the seriousness of sexual assault, and yet if we do not distinguish between ordinary sex and a serious crime in which sex is used as a weapon, this is precisely what we are doing. Surely victims of assault and those accused of it deserve to have their cases dealt with seriously and systematically, with all the professionalism and attention to detail we demand from the criminal-justice system? More importantly, isn’t it time we started trusting in the capacity of men and women to emerge from unpleasant intimate encounters unscathed, stronger and wiser as a result?


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