Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is there academic freedom in this controversy?

Stanley Fish warrants frequent mention on MoneyLaw for his wisdom on academic freedom. In a recent New York Times blog post, Fish helps us filter legitimate claims of academic freedom from a noisy backdrop in which that principle is too readily invoked and thereby too easily cheapened. Fish cites more comprehensive works — especially Matthew W. Finkin & Robert C. Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (2009) and Rodney A. Smolla, The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas That Have Shaped the American University (2011) — but his own summary is worth reproducing here:

Stanley Fish[A]cademic freedom is a useful notion only if it is narrowly defined. More things escape its ambit than fall within it. . . .

No one owns a course; no course has a right to be given; and no subject has a claim on university time and money. [Too many commentators] cry[] academic freedom whenever a university does something they don’t like, and by doing so, they cheapen the concept. . . .

[True academic] sin is to insist that a certain idea be discussed whether or not it has made its academic way because a few disappointed outsiders are willing to spend big bucks to get it inside. If, in the judgment of an instructor, “Atlas Shrugged” will contribute to a student’s understanding of a course’s subject, there is every reason to assign it. But if assigning “Atlas Shrugged” is the price for the receiving of monies and the university pays that price, it has indeed sold its soul. . . .

[A]cademic freedom issues legitimately arise . . . . when the university either allows its professors to appropriate the classroom for non-academic purposes . . . or allows itself to become the wholly owned subsidiary of another enterprise . . . .

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