Real Academic Freedom
by Ari Armstrong
[This article originally appeared in the December 4, 2003 edition of Boulder Weekly.]
"If higher education continues to get squeezed between dwindling state funds and growing spending mandates, the University of Colorado may someday have to go private, CU President Elizabeth Hoffman said" on November 17, according to the Rocky Mountain News.
Hoffman says that like it's a bad thing.
Meanwhile, State Senator John Andrews is contemplating an "Academic Bill of Rights" (ABOR) to thwart discrimination against conservatives and Christians on state-affiliated campuses. Of course, ABOR would apply equally to all people, but clearly part of the motivation is to protect those two groups. That's the stated goal of "Radical Son" and convert to conservatism David Horowitz, who has visited Colorado to promote the idea.
There's a basic tension here: how can academic freedom entail political interference? Usually we consider ourselves to be "free" when government leaves us alone. Yet the state funds CU and other colleges, so the state gets to help set the rules. Or, as Andrews has said in another context, "Eat my bread, sing my song."
Andrews' proposal is unnecessary for two widely discussed reasons. First, there's not much evidence that religious conservatives are suffering serious discrimination now. Second, mechanisms already exist to help ensure fairness.
However, ABOR is more fundamentally flawed. The main point of college is to foster robust debate among a community of skeptics, not pander to people's intellectual insecurities. Legislative rules intended to ensure fairness are more likely to stifle academic debate.
ABOR might encourage some conservative or religious students to more readily cry victim. (Conservative victimology is itself a peculiar development.) Jesse Walker wondered recently in *Reason* how we're supposed to tell the difference between a student who got graded down, say, for choosing the topic of creationism, versus a student who simply wrote a poor paper about creationism. The same problem arises with all controversial subjects involving religion or politics, especially issues like abortion, firearms, gay rights, immigration, etc. In the worst case, ABOR would be used as a club to punish professors who didn't inflate the grades of conservatives.
The conservative cry for intellectual diversity and tolerance is a bit odd, given conservatives often champion moral absolutism and universal truth. Isn't it possible that some students' views are wrong and greatly in need of correction? Do we really wish to protect *every* political and religious perspective?
A disgruntled student may mistake Socratic dialogue for crass antagonism. Isn't the most important task of teachers to press us to reconsider our cherished beliefs? Socrates always was mindful of the perspective of his interlocutors, but rarely was he concerned with making them comfortable. Notably, Socrates, widely regarded as the greatest teacher of all time, was killed in part because he challenged the religious views of his students. Perhaps under modern legislation, challenging teachers will merely be turned over to a committee of academic "fairness."
Though conservatives profess to advocate personal responsibility, ABOR threatens to undermine just that. In the brilliant Harry Potter series, the students learn some important lessons from a couple of idiot teachers. You can't always rely on those with authority. A prudent student investigates teachers and takes classes accordingly. When a bad teacher cannot be avoided, you do what you can to get through the class, then move on. ABOR will encourage students to instead whine, summon the inquisition, and expect yet another bureaucracy to solve their problems.
Yet colleges can't accept tax funding without inviting legislative oversight, which by its nature will tend to undermine academic freedom.
Is it really such a surprise that conservative Christians are upset to hear their tax dollars are funding the promotion of ideas hostile to their own? The legislature necessarily must ensure tax dollars are spent the way constituencies want. Yet colleges must not sacrifice academics to populist sentiments. Put simply, either a college can promote academic freedom, or it can accept tax dollars. It cannot consistently do both.
Many private colleges already promote intellectual diversity without legislative "help," and others cater to particular groups, such as conservative Christians. Few think it strange or inappropriate that, say, Colorado Christian University hires Christian faculty and admits mostly Christian students, because CCU isn't funded by Colorado taxpayers.
What ideas a college promotes, condemns, and discusses should be up to the administrators, professors, students, and voluntary funders of the college. It should not be up to the legislature. But by begging for more tax funds, some college leaders guarantee political controversy and governmental oversight.
According to CU's Office of Planning, Budget, and Analysis, state appropriations for fiscal year 2003-2004 total $58,692,575, or about 17% of the total revenues of $349,401,424. Meanwhile, student tuition and fees are 72% of total revenues. If CU isn't willing to give up the 17% of its revenues that was taken by force from tens or hundreds of thousands of Colorado citizens, then CU deserves to sing the tune of the politicians, even if it is a Siren's song.