The End of Academic Freedom?

Weekly Read

November 7, 2016

The End of Academic Freedom?

Inside Higher Ed reports on the case of an untenured NYU assistant professor of liberal studies, Michael Rectenwald, who has taken paid leave after he posted strongly worded complaints on Twitter (under the handle “Deplorable NYU Prof”) about safe spaces and trigger warnings. A trigger warning is a statement included on a professor’s syllabus indicating that some material presented in a course might cause discomfort or distress. In an  interview with NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News, Rectenwald describes the danger identity politics poses to academic freedom:

“What happens is that the left presents its needs to the administration in universities, and the administration seizes on these opportunities to produce power and control to actually discipline the subjects under them. They don’t care what ideologies — whether it’s right, left, center. My dean two years ago — I mentioned the words trigger warning, and he snickered out loud, as if it was some foreign concept. Then last year, towards the end of the semester when we had a colloquium, he was floating the idea that they would be required on the syllabi. This is what happens. Once the administration gets it, it becomes a tool — an instrument — for them. Then they are able to compute to have more leverage and control over the curriculum, which should be faculty controlled in every university.”

Two days after this interview was published, a letter to the editor written by members of NYU’s Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group was published in the same paper. The letter condemns Professor Rectenwald’s “incendiary rhetoric,” his efforts to “gaslight those who would disagree with him,” his “straw man fallacies,” “circular arguments,” and “hasty generalizations.” The letter closes with this indictment: “But as long as [Rectenwald] airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas.” On the day of the letter’s publication, Rectenwald was asked to meet with a dean and a representative from human relations, and concern was expressed about his mental health. Soon after, he contends, it was “strongly suggested” that he take a medical leave of absence. An NYU spokesperson later claimed that Rectenwald’s leave had “absolutely zero to do with his Twitter account or his opinions on issues of the day.”

NYU’s contention that Rectenwald’s tweets had nothing to do with his having to leave the classroom seems disingenuous. The narrative appears to suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, the hectoring op-ed that directly preceded his leave bases much of its condemnation on the “illogic” of Rectenwald’s public statements–their circular arguments and straw-man fallacies. But logic is hardly a sound criterion for judging hyperbole—the rhetorical mode Rectenwald brandishes on social media and interviews. That Rectenwald’s classes were cancelled and his students deprived of the opportunity to learn from him and he from them, and perhaps engage in conversations about free speech, diversity, and academic freedom validates Rectenwald’s contentions about identity politics and academic freedom. “I’m afraid my academic career is over,” Rectenwald told the New York Post. “Academic freedom: It’s great as long as you don’t use it.”

Rectenwald’s fate—whether he is out of a job or just temporarily on leave while his “mental health” issues are resolved—is uncertain. What is certain is the fragile state of academic freedom itself. Let’s recall what academic freedom means. Briefly put, academic freedom is “the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of inquiry.” The pursuit of truth, a bedrock value of academic freedom, is generally taken to be hugely beneficial to a democracy and a necessary condition for a full expression of human nature. For scholars in public institutions, academic freedom is also a First Amendment right. A crucial condition of academic freedom is tenure: tenure ensures a scholar may pursue truth—if pursued with academic integrity–without fear of losing a job.

Different forces seem to be rendering academic freedom obsolete—or, at the very least, diminishing its presence and undermining its integrity. One force, the conversion of most colleges to a business model of governance, means casual labor does most academic work: for scholars hired on a contingent basis, academic freedom is a dream and pursuing the truth or “following the argument where it leads” (as Socrates puts it) is perhaps not worth the risk of losing a job. With the bulk of academic work being plied by academics who can be fired almost at will, truth is a victim of institutional or administrative priorities—whether these be compliance with Title IX or the need to cater to local business interests by hijacking curricula and turning colleges into training sites. Whether you agree or not with Professor Michael Rectenwald’s views, you should wonder whether his untenured status at NYU made him vulnerable to being taken out of the classroom.

We should note, one esteemed university, the University of Chicago, has done away with trigger warnings and safe spaces altogether.  In a letter to all incoming students sent out this past August, the following was announced: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The end (i.e. the goal) of academic freedom: the right to pursue the truth, without fear of reprisal, without fear of giving offense, without fear of causing discomfort. In this election cycle, where lying is a form of political currency and a sign of authenticity, nothing is more vital.

Tim Strode, PhD, AAUP/NCC Executive Commmittee

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