On Student protests and academic freedom

by Eric Schliesser on June 11, 2024

In an earlier post (here), prompted by some writings by Jacob T. Levy, I defended the idea that student protests can fall under academic freedom. My argument for this starts from the fact that while many universities can have mission specific interpretations of the latitude and constraints on how they interpret academic freedom (non-trivially constrained also by local legal context), all universities share a mission in being committed to knowledge discovery, knowledge transmission, and preservation of knowledge.

That being so, student protests can play a two-fold role in furthering this mission in light of scarce resources (not the least time): first, they are a means of articulating what is worthy of academic attention and what ought to be the focus on discovery. Most student protests fit easily under this role. This fits quite naturally with Max Weber’s account of how to think about the philosophy of social science and the vocation of a scientist. Second, student protests can themselves be seen as experiments in living and as such they can have epistemic benefits to the academic community, and wider society. I won’t repeat the argument for these points here, but will modestly develop them below.

If this much is correct, then universities have a defeasible obligation to be respectful of students protests and, perhaps, even to facilitate student protests in light of their academic mission. It’s defeasible because the epistemic benefits of student protests may come in conflict with other projects on campus with non-trivial and potentially much higher epistemic benefits—say research labs or regular instruction. It’s also defeasible because some protests may be prima facie at odds with the particular mission of the university as such—in this way academic freedom is very unlike freedom of speech! So, ideally, a code that governs student conduct on campus recognizes the need to accommodate the possibility of student protests (without trying to regulate it in fine detail).

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