Can anyone play this game?

by Eric on April 21, 2008

Greetings from the edge of the American West, in the neighborhood of which friendly folks have been urging academics to brush up on how to fire each other.  In the midst of everyone scurrying around and reading rules and shouting, some of us noticed an article (not really online) in The New Yorker, which makes one wonder, is it maybe bad for academic freedom to have a free speech expert as university president?

In the middle of recounting the extraordinary brouhaha surrounding the tenure case of Nadia Abu El-Haj, Jane Kramer reports this go-round between the Columbia faculty and the Columbia president (and First Amendment scholar) Lee Bollinger:

A month after their meeting, de Grazia and her colleagues circulated an open letter to Bollinger…. charg[ing] that Bollinger had “failed to make a vigorous defense of core principles on which the university is founded”…. [H]e was more surprised and bewildered than mad.  When I saw Bollinger in December, he told me, “The faculty here have enormous freedom.  As a scholar, so do I.  I strongly believe that our profession is distinct from the political profession, and the attention span of the normal world is not always suited to the kind of discussions we have here.  Especially now, in a period of such heightened sensitivity.  You’ve seen the effects here.  But you deal with problems like these by enhancing judgment.  To me, the First Amendment means a robust marketplace of ideas that will, by definition, marginalize extremism.”

If Kramer’s report is accurate, you can see why the Columbia faculty got frustrated.  They wanted Bollinger to offer a traditional defense of academic freedom, which goes something like this:  Academic freedom predates free speech.  Although Prussia gave constitutional protection to Lehrfreiheit in 1850 (“science and its teaching shall be free”), academic freedom generally does not enjoy legal protection outside of contractual guarantees; rather, it rests on the authority and ability of a community of competent scholars to police their own discourse and on the willingness of universities to affirm this authority and ability.

In other words, the Columbia faculty seem to have wanted the Columbia president to say to Daniel Pipes—who describes himself here as “someone who has left the academy, meets a payroll, lives pretty much in the here and now”—buzz off:  this does not concern you, you have no standing to speak.  We want to hear what the community of competent scholars say.

Instead of saying something along these lines, Bollinger appears to have said, well, academic freedom = free speech + time.  Give it enough time, and the Daniel Pipes critique will fall short in the marketplace of ideas.

I can think of three reasons Bollinger might have said this, instead of offering the traditional defense of academic freedom.  

(1) He doesn’t know the history and sources of academic freedom.  This seems unlikely, though that phrase “surprised and bewildered” is worrying.

(2) He knows the history and sources of academic freedom, but he thinks it uncongenial to assert them in this anti-elitist day and age.  This is an old concern, going back at least half a century in AAUP bulletin dispatches that fret over the question of whether “the people at large … will resent granting special liberties to the teachers of their children,” to quote Fritz Machlup writing in 1955.  Maybe they will, and maybe Bollinger has this in mind.  This is understandable, if unfortunate:  as noted above, the preservation of academic freedom requires institutional affirmation.

(3) He knows the history and sources of academic freedom, but believes them superseded in the U.S. by First Amendment jurisprudence.  Which suggests that all manner of opinions will be heard—including Pipes’s, apparently—but he has confidence that the faculty of the relevant discipline will win out in the opinion marketplace.  This seems incredible, but that’s what the formula implies:  anyone can play this game.

{ 39 comments }

1

Aaron Swartz 04.21.08 at 6:48 pm

I’m not sure I quite follow you. Are you arguing that non-academics shouldn’t attempt to intervene in institutional decisions about who receives tenure? Or that academic freedom prevents non-academics from criticizing the work of academics?

2

Maurice Meilleur 04.21.08 at 7:20 pm

Aaron: it sounds like both. Or, less tendentiously, that academics are under no obligation to treat non-academic attempts to intervene in questions of academic freedom the same as academic attempts, and take them up only at their discretion.

3

abb1 04.21.08 at 7:25 pm

I don’t know what his reasons are, but between this and his Ahmadinejad performance this Bollinger guy sounds like a bit of a whore. Well, come to think of it, this is probably the only way to become the president of anything, really.

4

Maurice Meilleur 04.21.08 at 7:25 pm

Though I hasten to add that ‘prevents non-academics from criticizing the work of academics’ in Aaron’s comment should be read as ‘does not obligate academics to consider’ such criticisms. People can criticize anything they want as much as they want, but they don’t get to expect universities to grant their criticisms the same office or authority as those of academics.

‘Should’ someone criticize academic work they dislike if they are not an academic? Of course. But only academics get to choose who gets and keeps tenure. ‘Elitist’ or not, I don’t much like the alternative.

5

CJColucci 04.21.08 at 7:43 pm

Whatever the explanation, (3) isn’t it. Although I haven’t been much impressed by Bollinger’s academic work on the First Amendment, he surely knows the basics, and it is basic that the First Amendment has no application to private universities. He may prefer First Amendment rhetoric to academic freedom rhetoric for any of a number of possible reasons — your (2) suggests some possibilities — but that is just a “framing” decision.

6

Jeff Rubard 04.21.08 at 8:04 pm

Does Lee Bollinger live in Prussia? Do I live in Prussia? (Sometimes I’m not sure.) American research universities are American institutions answerable to American law; they’re going to be the go-to resource for Lee Bollinger qua lawyer and administrative showman. But the idea that special powers granted by the venia legendi are what is in play in the Yoo affair is disingenuous.

Yoo’s disgraceful conduct came when he was a government employee. Academic or no, bureaucrats had goddamn better not have special “liberties” exceeding Constitutional protections — they are rightly held to a more restrictive standard. Gross misconduct as a civil servant is ethical trespass, not a matter of “dangerous ideas”: I don’t see anything wrong with pillorying Yoo for it (and I’m not sure I don’t mean literally).

Please save us from a race of Henry Kissingers who are “scholars” one moment, enabling torture and death the next; and if you won’t, the public is entitled to exert public control over academics whose actions damage the public life of the republic.

7

bernard Yomtov 04.21.08 at 8:22 pm

it is basic that the First Amendment has no application to private universities.

True. But in the case of major American research universities the distinction between public and private is not as clear as we tend to think.

A place like Columbia enjoys lots of government largesse. State schools get lots of money from tuition and private donors. Whether this is relevant to the First Amendment issues I don’t know.

8

Laleh 04.21.08 at 9:24 pm

Or 4, he knows the history of academic freedom, of free speech and everything else, but is too much of a coward – vis-a-vis the donors, vis-a-vis city officials who were about to grant Columbia the right to expand into Harlem (or withhold permission from a plan that controversially dispossesses loads of Harlem residents), and most importantly vis-a-vis pressures from hysterical defenders of Israel (i.e. the David Project people with their usual accusations of antisemitism, anti-americanism etc.).

The academics at Columbia were frustrated because during the exact same time, the administration at Princeton, quietly and firmly batted off the irritating interventions of a similar kind, defending the rights of Princeton academics. I think the argument went, “if Princeton can do it, why can’t we?”

9

Laleh 04.21.08 at 9:26 pm

Oh and by the way, funnily enough (or cynically enough), the same Bollinger that hemmed and hawed in defending HIS OWN academics’ freedom, two days after the British academics passed the motion to DEBATE (not even institute, but just debate) the academic boycot of israel, was so outraged on this “attack on Israeli academic freedom” that paid for an ad in NY Times, asserting that Columbia should be considered an Israeli university!

10

Eric Rauchway 04.21.08 at 10:16 pm

Are you arguing that non-academics shouldn’t attempt to intervene in institutional decisions about who receives tenure? Or that academic freedom prevents non-academics from criticizing the work of academics?

Aaron, I’m pointing out that as a matter of course and tradition, non-academics don’t take part in the routine decisions that determine the content of scholarship. Journals and university presses do not consult non-academics about what to publish, and departments do not consult non-academics about whom to tenure. And academic freedom rests on this way of behaving, on the practice of having a community of inquirers with similar concerns determine what’s good and what isn’t.

Free speech means of course that non-academics should say what they please. But public opinion doesn’t carry any weight in the normal procedures of producing scholarship. If it did, evolutionary biology (to pick an example) might look a lot different as an academic discipline.

11

John Emerson 04.21.08 at 10:55 pm

I think that almost all university Presidents are sort of whores.

I have to admit that when DeLong quoted Kantorowicz on academic freedom I became convinced that to him it was a precious feudal privilege, and that he probably didn’t think that commoners should be allowed to testify in court against noblemen either.

12

christian h. 04.21.08 at 11:12 pm

As has been pointed out, Bollinger is a coward and a sell-out. That’s enough explanation for me.

13

Bloix 04.21.08 at 11:12 pm

The question of whether the first amendment applies to Columbia is irrelevant. Bollinger is not arguing that El-Haj or any other faculty member is protected by first amendment rights. And he’s not saying that academic freedom is affected in any way by first amendment principles. Pipes et al are permitted to say whatever they want in the marketplace of ideas. Aside from being obviously true, this is not a literal first amendment claim; it’s an argument from the principles that underlie the first amendment. The faculty wanted him to make a public pronouncement of the role of academic freedom in the university, and his response appears to be, why do I need to justify our tenure process to outsiders? As long as they don’t bias tenure decisions, they can say whatever they want without affecting academic freedom.

I would guess that what Berringer did (or didn’t do) was actually in the best interests of the faculty, but being academics and not politicians they don’t realize it. Obviously Berringer can’t shut Pipes et al up. The Pipes of the world live for a fight. They have no other job. They don’t do scholarship or teach. You can’t beat them with the sort of front-page-worthy event that a condemnation from Bollinger would have given them.

Of course, Bollinger can’t possibly believe that faculty opinions will “win out in the opinion marketplace.” But he does appear to believe that the faculty can be trusted to have the courage to make the right tenure decision even in controversial situations, which is what happened here. His recourse to the argument that a robust marketplace of ideas will “marginalize extremism” is the best he can do, since he has no power to shut down the critics and any effort he might make to do so will only amplify their voices.

You can read the faculty letter here. www2.nysun.com/article/66314.

14

Bloix 04.21.08 at 11:17 pm

I had a professor named Berringer and obviously one name is crowding out the other in the pea-sized object that rattles around inside my skull. Bollinger.

15

Delicious Pundit 04.21.08 at 11:20 pm

Well, the article, as you note, isn’t online, but as far as I can see Bollinger’s politic response (and I agree with Emerson, this guy has many masters) doesn’t preclude the other, more priestly response.

As to the casus belli, my personal opinion is that Pipes et al. have things exactly backassward; a great way to get people to hate a point of view is to make it required.

16

seth edenbaum 04.21.08 at 11:30 pm

There’s so much that’s skewed here it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, the academy is not separate from society any more than law is separate from politics, but each is a subset with its own prerogatives. Those serve a function and should be respected, but they’re not Platonic absolutes.
In re: John Yoo. Though I seem to be the only one so far to bring this up, a lawyer outside the academy and in public life is a licensed professional. An engineer who builds a bridge that collapses under its own weight will lose his job. Historians and professors of comparative literature, even of jurisprudence, don’t run that risk. Street lawyers do.

It would also be good to remember that academic freedom is not freedom of thought, it’s freedom of thought for those who’ve been accepted into a club. To think that this exclusivity is a good idea is not to think it justifies excess self-importance.
“Academic freedom predates free speech.”
“After all, even the King…” I wouldn’t call that something to be proud of in a democracy.

2 decades ago as a 21 year old I read Gravity’s Rainbow and a fragment of it became a touchstone of my intellectual life. It’s the parallel description of two acts of self-destruction: the mass suicide of the Herero in Südwest as a last act of refusal and denial of the authority of their masters, and the same act by the Schwarzkommando as the an act of purest nihilism. Preempting claims of what geeks call Godwin’s Law, the significance of my memories does not concern Naziism but values and context. Academic freedom historically has been tied to general freedom of thought and to democracy, but now it’s linked to institutional privilege and defended with references to monarchy. I support it though preferring to think of it as “academic independence” but I would strongly suggest that academic specialists stop pretending their shit don’t stink.

The classic defense of the free market is that its openness and vulgarity act as an astringent, testing and tightening thought what would otherwise risk becoming arid blather. But now that the market has reached the academy it wants to escape its roots. So we have an academy predicated not on the hopes of the humanities and of democracy but on the technocratic logic of reactionary schoolmen. Welcome to the 14th century.

First and foremost Yoo was and is jobbing lawyer. Lets see what his fellow tradesmen say.

17

JP 04.21.08 at 11:52 pm

Hey Eric, could you post a short bibliography on the history of academic freedom in general, and in different parts of the world in particular?

18

salient downs 04.22.08 at 1:12 am

But you deal with problems like these by enhancing judgment. To me, the First Amendment means a robust marketplace of ideas that will, by definition, marginalize extremism.

Some questions that occur to me:

1. Is Bollinger’s goal to marginalize extremism? If so, what are the characteristics of ‘extremism’ as opposed to ‘unpopular’ research?

2. In this silly metaphorical marketplace of ideas, who are the buyers, and what is their criteria for preference?

3. Enhancing judgment? Who is doing the judging, and who is doing the enhancing?

I suspect these rather mundane answers: Bollinger doesn’t aim to marginalize extremism generally, whatever that would mean; he’s merely suggesting that Daniel Pipes will be automatically marginalized by the academic community because he’s an outlier in the spectrum of public opinion. The marketplace is intra-university, and scholars will/should dismiss outliers like Pipes out of hand. The 1st Amendment allows people with no credentials and weird opinions to voice their criticism, but this is rendered irrelevant by the decision-makers who will inevitably “enhance their judgment” by considering the source of such criticism and its (ir)relevance to their decision.

If that’s what Bollinger meant, he sure could have said that more clearly… Defending academic freedom in cases like this is unnecessary, because competent scholars at this university know to disregard folks like Daniel Pipes when making responsible tenure decisions. Mr. Pipes has a 1st-Amendment right to voice his opinion, and the faculty at Columbia University have a right to weigh its legitimacy and dismiss it.

19

seth edenbaum 04.22.08 at 2:27 am

“Academic freedom predate[d] free speech.” in the past for the same reason it’s predating free speech today in the PRC.
It’s a both a pressure vent and a distraction, and technical advancement is important.

20

Bruce Wilder 04.22.08 at 4:37 am

“departments do not consult non-academics about whom to tenure”

That’s simply not true. I was consulted on tenure decisions, in my area of expertise, including the case of a Professor at MIT, and I have never held an academic position.

21

Eric Rauchway 04.22.08 at 4:59 am

Sorry, Bruce, I should have said, “as a general rule.” I do, though, have confidence that your area of expertise qualified you to comment on the scholars you were asked to judge, such that you could be considered part of the community of competent inquirers.

22

Eric Rauchway 04.22.08 at 5:10 am

Ralph Luker emails to say the article is here.

23

Roy Belmont 04.22.08 at 5:25 am

“The stress is on seeing the difficulty of things, of being prepared to live closer than we are emotionally inclined to the harsh reality that we live steeped in ignorance and mystery, of being willing to undermine even our common sense for the possibility of seeing something hidden. To be sure, this kind of extreme openness of intellect is exceedingly difficult to master, and, of course, in a profound sense we never fully do. Because it runs counter to many of our natural impulses, it requires both daily exercise and a community of people dedicated to keeping it alive (which is why, I believe, universities as physical places will continue to thrive in a world of electronic communication). But we all know what I have just described from personal experience: the extraordinary, unique thrill of thinking about a subject one way until you feel there cannot possibly be another valid perspective, and then beginning with another line of thought and feeling the same certainty settle into our minds, all the while watching in amazement as it happens.
[…]
In a speech to the Federal Bar Association, Learned Hand offered a simple parable about the kind of intellectual capacities required in a democracy, and why democracies fail when these capacities are absent. He compared a democracy to a group of children at play, confused about how to organize their games and deferring to an older, more experienced peer for direction. But that solution satisfies no one, as each child is unhappy to be bossed about by another, and eventually confusion reigns again — until, Hand wrote, “in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with another, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can.”

Bollinger, Cardozo Lecture on Academic Freedom
That extraordinary, unique thrill.
If Bollinger and Pipes were Black academics and/or journalist/pundits, if they had that commonality, the discussion wouldn’t even be taking place.

24

Dan Simon 04.22.08 at 6:18 am

Although Prussia gave constitutional protection to Lehrfreiheit in 1850 (“science and its teaching shall be free”), academic freedom generally does not enjoy legal protection outside of contractual guarantees; rather, it rests on the authority and ability of a community of competent scholars to police their own discourse and on the willingness of universities to affirm this authority and ability.

Ah, yes, that academic freedom: the freedom to pledge absolute fealty to the consensus of the “community of competent scholars”, on pain of exclusion from the academy. Is that really what you think academic freedom is?

I’m reminded of the controversy over government funding of the arts: arts funding must be directed by experts, because the boundaries delineating art are so narrow and fine that only experts are qualified to judge it–and the experts must be allowed to direct their funding at even the most bizarre, pointless, obscurantist art because art is a universe of possibilities without boundaries. Likewise, the “community of competent scholars” has absolute authority over which scholarship is acceptable, and if they choose to elevate bizarre, pointless, obscurantist scholarship–well, individual scholars must have the freedom to follow where their research leads, after all.

There are two concepts involved here: that of academic freedom, and that of peer review. They are in constant tension, because academic freedom requires that a scholar be able to buck even the consensus of the scholarly community, and peer review requires that an idea’s rejection by the scholarly community suffices to discredit it. Managing this tension is not easy, but people of good faith can do a reasonable job of it.

Needless to say, wishing away the tension by redefining academic freedom as the freedom of the “community of competent scholars” to exercise absolute power over its individual members through peer review, does not reflect good faith, but rather scholarship redefined as mere groupthink.

25

abb1 04.22.08 at 10:19 am

@23 The ‘community of competent scholars’ may or may not provide reasonable opinions, but how do political hacks help here?

26

Barry 04.22.08 at 11:43 am

He’s just sh*tting in the punchbowl.

27

CJColucci 04.22.08 at 2:22 pm

bloix (#13) may be right. That’s a possible reading of what Bollinger is up to, and bloix makes a good case that it’s what Bollinger should be up to, but Bollinger is often woolye. If he’s doing what bloix suggests, deliberate obscurity may be called for, but because Bollinger can’t always help being obscure, it’s hard to be confident.

28

lemuel pitkin 04.22.08 at 2:43 pm

There are two concepts involved here: that of academic freedom, and that of peer review. They are in constant tension, because academic freedom requires that a scholar be able to buck even the consensus of the scholarly community, and peer review requires that an idea’s rejection by the scholarly community suffices to discredit it. Managing this tension is not easy, but people of good faith can do a reasonable job of it.

This is a good analysis.

Even more than usually, this seems liuke a question calling for *judgement* in weighing competing values, as opposed to one that can be resolved within a single coherent set of ideas.

29

abb1 04.22.08 at 3:18 pm

This is a good analysis.

A good analysis of what – whether a bunch of political hacks should be involved into the tenure process? How’s that?

“Academic freedom” in this context is a simply phase describing the concept of academic world’s independence from the outside world, that’s all. And Dan Simon in 23 is pretending that it means something else.

30

Dan Simon 04.22.08 at 4:13 pm

Since I’m banned from commenting on Henry’s postings, I’ll just say here that my above comments make essentially the same point as he does, although I think it’s still useful to distinguish the concept of “peer review” that we’re describing from the concept of “academic freedom” that he uses to label it.

I’d also add that the conflation of these concepts in the case of Nadia Abu El-Haj is particularly telling. Abu El-Haj is hardly a lonely voice in the wilderness, adamantly defending highly idiosyncratic ideas. On the contrary, her work has been widely praised by her peers, and stands squarely in the mainstream of her field. The criticism directed at it, claiming that it’s nothing more than political polemic masquerading as scholarship, is therefore implicitly directed at the field as a whole.

Now, had this work been politically unpopular but intellectually unassailable–say, a brilliant biological study that happened to provide powerful evidence for evolution–the field’s scholars would no doubt have defended her on the grounds Henry outlined: that peer review is the best available arbiter of the long-term value of scholarship in technically difficult, highly rigorous research disciplines. That those scholars instead fell back on Eric’s defense–the absolute freedom of the “community of competent scholars” to impose completely arbitrary standards on its members, outside critics be damned–speaks volumes about the field’s confidence in the defensibility of its value to those not drawing a salary from it.

31

lemuel pitkin 04.22.08 at 4:38 pm

A good analysis of what

Of the fact that academic freedom and the tenure system exist specifically to support a particualr mode of scholarly inquiry, and are not simply instances of more general rights to free speech and job security.

32

abb1 04.22.08 at 4:44 pm

the absolute freedom of the “community of competent scholars” to impose completely arbitrary standards on its members

Um, Dan, the word ‘arbitrary’ doesn’t mean what you think it means. Standards imposed by a community (or even “community”) can not be arbitrary (let alone “completely arbitrary”) by definition. For better or worse they are the standards of that community, that’s all.

33

seth edenbaum 04.22.08 at 5:02 pm

” ‘Academic freedom” in this context is a simply phase describing the concept of academic world’s independence from the outside world, that’s all. And Dan Simon in 23 is pretending that it means something else.”

It can mean many things. To friends of mine it meant channeling their education and dissertation subjects towards aspect of their fields that were likely to get them the tenured positions they now have. They worked very hard to conform, and now spend a large part of their careers playing one school against another, Stanford against MIT against the University of Chicago, to further their own advancement. As one of them says matter-of-factly: “research support and partnership it’s all is pretty much quid pro quo.” They had no “freedom” in their choices. Careerism is not the definition of free thought.

As I’ve said more than once, including in the comment that didn’t make the grade on this post, it takes more than rules to make a system work, it takes a minimal level of trust. The defense of independent autonomous specialized bubble cultures in the arts and humanities (a legacy of post war rationalism and sputnik) is not healthy. The art world bubble, the academic bubble, the journalistic bubble, the military bubble, the born again bubble, the American political cultural bubble, none of them are healthy, politically or intellectually.

34

abb1 04.22.08 at 5:15 pm

Well, first of all, Seth, I believe you that it’s all fucked up in academia, but it’s not obvious to me that it’s the result of too much “academic freedom” (aka independence); it can be the result of too little of it.

And second, being able to ignore outside pressure in the tenure process doesn’t necessarily create a bubble.

35

seth edenbaum 04.22.08 at 5:40 pm

I’m a defender of academic independence abb, but not of academic indifference. Society is more than rules and laws but rules and laws are all that’s being discussed.

And as far as the arts go and Karen Finley a second rate cabaret pornographer bursting into tears when she didn’t get a government grant: try to imagine Hugo Ball getting miffed when the Swiss Government refused to pay his bills. And remember be had a cabaret act too. There’s a difference between politics and the politics of pretension.
The culture of the soi-disant.

36

mikesdak 04.22.08 at 6:09 pm

I think it is worth noting that, while academics need not necessarily consider outside opinion with regard to tenure, granting tenure to someone who has published or expressed controverisal opinions or ideas will send a message to the public, sometimes directly. From then on, if that person should ever appear anywhere to defend his ideas, he will be introduced as a professor at that university, thus conveying, as far as the public is concerned, an implied endorsement of his ideas by the university. Such assumptions by the public,valid or not, will have an effect on the university’s reputation, and possibly it’s efforts to recruit future students and faculty.

37

abb1 04.22.08 at 7:01 pm

but not of academic indifference

I agree, but that’s a different topic. I suppose one could say that they are affected too much by power institutions and individuals and not enough by the powerless. But that’s just natural, if not tautological.

38

seth edenbaum 04.23.08 at 12:36 am

“But that’s just natural, if not tautological.”
It’s only natural if everyone assumes it to be true, but academic indifference is based on assumptions of academic exceptionalism. And self-awareness itself is considered tautological!

Meanwhile on the next thread the good liberal Professor Henry Farrell Ph.D is trying once again to codify the necessary and necessarily informal obligations of democracy as rules. I’d post there but I’m banned. And by the way my first comment on this one is still in moderation limbo. I wish it were better written but it stated the obvious. Let’s see if it makes it past the guard.

39

seth edenbaum 04.23.08 at 9:37 pm

Henry Farrell

“I’ve suggested that academic freedom is a good thing on pragmatic grounds, but also made clear that it fundamentally depends on public willingness to delegate some degree of self-governance to the academy. If the public decides that academic freedom isn’t working out in terms of the goods it provides, then too bad for academic freedom.”

If the public decides that democracy isn’t working out in terms of the goods it provides, then too bad for democracy.

No understanding of academic freedom, of the need for tenure, or even of democracy.
Amazing

Comments on this entry are closed.