Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The academy’s first freedom fighters

Last year, the treatment of three academics ignited a public debate about academic freedom.

American academic Steven Salaita hit the headlines in the summer. He had accepted a position as professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois and resigned his existing post, only to find his job offer had been rescinded. Reports claimed Salaita’s appointment was overruled by institutional managers once they became aware of his proclivity for sending anti-Semitic tweets. A recently published internal investigation criticised ‘the use of civility as a standard in making hiring decisions’. Salaita’s case is still under review and the university is attempting to reach a financial settlement with him.

In the UK, Thomas Docherty, a professor of English and comparative literature, and a renowned critic of government higher-education policy, was suspended from his post at Warwick University for nine months over allegations of insubordination towards his head of department. He stood accused of sarcasm and inappropriate sighing in job interviews. Docherty has since been reinstated and, although he’s faced with a hefty legal bill, all charges against him have been dropped.

In Australia, Barry Spurr, professor of poetry and poetics at the University of Sydney, was suspended for sending racist and sexist emails. These emails, sent privately to around a dozen senior academics and officials within the university, but considered newsworthy because of Spurr’s appointment as a consultant to the federal government’s national English curriculum review, were then published in the Australian magazine New Matilda. Students subsequently launched a successful campaign to have Spurr removed from the university. The cases of Spurr, Salaita and Docherty have prompted a debate about the meaning and importance of academic freedom in today’s universities.

This discussion needs to continue in 2015, a year that marks the centenary of the first formal declaration of the principles of academic freedom. On 1 January 1915, several academics gathered at the Chemistry Club in New York for the inaugural meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Those present elected the philosopher and educationalist John Dewey as its president, and established the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This led to the publication later that same year of the Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom. The signatories demanded freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action. The significance of this declaration can be seen in the fact that, a century later, it continues to act as a benchmark in discussions of academic freedom.

The establishment of the AAUP, and its subsequent focus upon academic freedom, was triggered by several high-profile incidents in which professors had either resigned or been dismissed from their universities for espousing political or religious views that contradicted the stance of their institution’s financial backers. In 1895, Edward Bemis, a professor of economics and history, was dismissed from the University of Chicago after his sympathy with the cause of striking workers was reported in the press. The sociologist Edward Ross was dismissed from Stanford University in 1896, after he criticised the university’s sole benefactor, Jane Leland Stanford, in his teaching. Other Stanford professors resigned in solidarity with Ross; these included the economist Arthur Lovejoy, who would later play a crucial role in forming the AAUP.

The AAUP was not established specifically to defend academic freedom but instead to enhance the status and autonomy of professors by professionalising academics and subject disciplines. Academic freedom was just one element of the demand that authority in the university should lie with scholars rather than administrators. Founding members argued that the principle of tenure and the professional autonomy for scholars to teach, research and manage their own affairs as they saw best were essential for maintaining academic standards.

Then, as now, interest in academic freedom was often a pragmatic response to defending individuals at risk of losing their jobs. The first task of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure was to respond to one particular incident: the dismissal of four professors (and the subsequent resignation of 15 others) at the University of Utah for expressing views which ran counter to those of the institution’s trustees. The report into this investigation led to the Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom.

Although pragmatically driven, the AAUP declaration has stood the test of time because it stands for far more than just a defence of individuals’ jobs. That broader principles were at stake can be seen in the number of professors who resigned rather than compromise their beliefs. The president of Brown University, E Benjamin Andrews, resigned his post in 1897 rather than meet the demand of the trustees that he ‘exercise forbearance in expressing his views’ in order to secure a sizeable institutional donation from Rockefeller. Andrews claimed he could not comply ‘without surrendering that reasonable liberty of utterance… in the absence of which the most ample endowment for an educational institution would have little worth’.

Central to the AAUP declaration was recognition that working in academia was unlike other forms of employment in private business, and that scholars served a social role in relation to knowledge which lent them a duty to ‘impart the results of their own and of their fellow-specialists’ investigations and reflection, both to students and to the general public’. In order for them to carry out this role, they needed to work ‘without fear or favour’ so that, ‘in the interest of society at large, that what purports to be the conclusions of men trained for, and dedicated to, the quest for truth, shall in fact be the conclusions of such men, and not echoes of the opinions of the lay public, or of the individuals who endow or manage universities’.

The AAUP declaration is of its time; it is steeped in the aspiration to take knowledge out of the hands of amateurs and to professionalise its pursuit within the academy. Nonetheless, its central tenets relate not to the particular conditions and preoccupations of those working in higher education in 1915 but to the less historically specific principles regarding the liberal scientific method and Enlightenment ideas about the nature of knowledge. Former AAUP president Cary Nelson suggests the declaration ‘relies on the scientific method as a model for the ideal exercise of academic freedom. In a broad, multi-disciplinary context, that means rationality, willingness to test hypotheses against evidence, openness to counter claims by peers, and so forth.’ The reason for the AAUP’s longevity is the relationship drawn between academic freedom and the fulfilment of the scholarly ‘calling’, which Dewey described as ‘none other than the discovery and diffusion of truth’.

When academic freedom is evoked today, it is all too often portrayed as a matter solely for individuals, especially those with a fondness for social media. It can appear to be taken for granted until a ‘get out of jail free’ card is needed by academics suddenly apologetic at having ‘misspoken’. In 2015 we need a reminder that the principles of academic freedom, so eloquently defined a century ago, are about the collective goals of scholarship as much as they are about defending the jobs of individuals. Academic freedom is fundamental to the purpose of a university and integral to the pursuit of knowledge.


Yes, the Obama Administration Really Does Want to Redistribute Teachers

Politico has finally picked up on a story that School Reform News reported for you months ago: The Obama administration isn’t kidding in its demands that states figure out how to redistribute the best teachers. But there are several logistical problems:

*    A state can’t force good teachers to move to high-needs schools. And the factors that influence teachers’ decisions – such as salary, support and working conditions ‒ are made locally, not at the state level.

*   The federal government’s influence is also limited.

*    The U.S. Department of Education hopes to use public pressure to prod states to take action: It plans to publish updated state equity profiles every two years, but it doesn’t have much other leverage.

Another problem: The way the federal government labels teachers “high quality” depends on credentials that essentially say nothing about a teacher’s actual quality. States will spend taxpayer dollars generating Rube Goldberg plans to do the impossible using bad data related to the problem – if there is one. It sounds more like a federal education scheme all the time.

The article mentions, but ultimately skates past, a genuine impediment to getting quality teachers to high-need positions and schools: One-size-fits-all teacher pay schedules. Many districts cannot offer a potential hire more money for a proven track record or for filling a high-need position. A Los Angeles Unified School District official told Politico the same story one hears from district leaders across the country: They have a terribly difficult time finding special-needs teachers, especially for the most disabled children, as well as chemistry and physics teachers.

Money is a communication device. Higher pay for higher-demand work communicates what jobs society needs done more than others, inducing people to move outside their comfort zones and fill them. Perhaps some enterprising state could write that into its compliance proposal.


The Cross Examined College Prep Course

Mike Adams

I am pleased to announce that next summer I’ll be embarking on a new adventure with my friends Frank Turek and J. Warner Wallace. We’ll be touring churches across America with a one-day college prep course that is designed to help parents and children prepare for college so they will not lose their faith while they are there. Take a few minutes to go on to Frank’s website and see what we’re up to and how you can bring us to your town.

Frank and J. Warner are world-class apologists. They will supply rich substantive information on defending the truthfulness of the Christian worldview. They will also provide guidance to those who will be dealing with attacks on Christianity from secular professors. My presentation will be a little different. I will actually spend two hours laying out a ten-step plan that will help young people (and their parents!) get prepared for the college experience.

The first hour of my presentation will cover five steps needed to prepare for college before actually arriving on campus. The second hour will cover five steps needed to survive college after you get there. A brief summary of the ten steps follows:

    1.The One-Book-A-Month Regimen. I’ve been a professor for twenty-two years. During that time, I have seen a steady decline in student writing skills – especially over the last decade or so. I am convinced that the principal reason for this is that most students no longer read on a regular basis. Some of that may be due to the fact that students have to work longer hours to pay for school. But some of it is just due to laziness. So parents need to make sure their children get into the habit of reading at least a book a month by the time they are sixteen. This will improve their vocabulary and thus sharpen both their writing and oral communication skills. This will make them more likely to succeed in college.

    Getting teenagers into a regular reading regimen will also help to implement the fifth point of the ten-step plan, which we will get to later. The best way to get started is to tie your teenagers allowance to a monthly reading assignment or perhaps increase that allowance by adding a monthly reading assignment to their existing monthly household chores. Also consider requiring a written report to make sure they do their reading. If that’s not possible, arrange a time at the end of the month to discuss the reading. This may seem like a lot of trouble but it’s worth it. Trust me (and keep reading).

Note: This does not mean your teen has to start off reading heavy material on politics and religion. If he is into sports then let him start off by reading twelve sports biographies in a year. Just get him reading something that interests him.

    2. Worldview Training. Having a teenager explore books and accumulate knowledge on his own helps to foster a sense of intellectual independence and curiosity. That is a good thing but it’s not enough. At some point, a teenager must learn that there are limited options when it comes to developing a comprehensive view of the world. Attending a respected worldview camp can be the best way of sorting through the options.

    In my completely biased view, the best worldview camp out there is Summit Ministries, based in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I’ve been teaching out there all summer long over the last five years. My fellow Cross Examined College Prep Course instructors Frank and J. Warner teach there, too. We encourage you to go to www.Summit.org to get a better idea of what happens during their two-week summer worldview training camps. I would encourage parents to get their kids into one of these training camps by the age of seventeen. The investment is worth it.

    Another Note: Parents are sometimes willing to spend an extra $120,000 on a college education by sending their kids to a $40,000 per year Christian school instead of a $10,000 per year secular school. This is done in the hopes of keeping their kids from losing faith. This can be unwise for a couple of reasons: First, the so-called Christian school still might fill your kid’s mind with nonsense. Second, for $1200 (this is a limited-time price so see the website) you can send your kid to Summit and ground him so solidly that he might end up going to that secular school and making a real difference with his peers.

    3. FIRE Prevention. What good is it if a teenager learns how to defend his faith and then goes off to a college that won’t let him do it? Indeed, there is wild variability in the extent to which secular universities limit free speech. Given that a) much of the censorship is on the grounds of “offensiveness” and b) the Gospel is highly offensive, Christian students need to know what they are getting into. The university policies most limiting of free speech have been well documented by a group known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. (See www.TheFIRE.org). In fact, they rank hundreds of universities using a green light, yellow light, and red light system. In addition to giving green lights to the universities most respectful of free speech, they actually publish a list of the top ten free speech campuses in America. Schools like the University of Virginia, Arizona State, and my own alma mater Mississippi State have been recognized in recent years. Perennial losers have included Bucknell University and Brandeis University.

    Taking the time to peruse the FIRE website will help eliminate some really bad choices from your list of potential colleges. I’ll write another installment with some more advice on how to shorten the list even further … and how to survive when you finally make the transition to college life.


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