Friday, September 08, 2006

Just So We're Clear

Mike Adams is always a good read on the state of free speech rights in academia. As a professor and near-victim of the PC establishment himself, he sees first-hand the kind of discrimination that goes on against academics who don't toe the party line.

His most recent column on the subject deals with a case at SUNY-Fredonia, where a Philosophy Professor, Stephen Kershnar, was nearly denied promotion for publishing a series of three articles critical of the university's affirmative action policy. FIRE agreed to take on the case, and the university has backed down, reportedly saying that Kershnar was denied promotion because his original application contained inaccuracies. This explanation is inconsistent with their earlier attempt to get Kershnar to sign a contract which would require him to recieve unanimous consent from a faculty review board before publishing any future articles about university policies. The details of the case are here.

This is a matter of some concern to me since I will almost certainly fall afoul of the PC brigades at some point on my road to tenure. I do believe that there is a PC orthodoxy in academia, and I further believe that they use precisely the kinds of underhanded tactics described here to promote their agenda. A quick visit to FIRE's archives makes plain that this is far from an isolated incident.

However, I think it's important for those of us who support academic free speech to be clear about what we mean. For one thing, we must never resort to affirmative action tactics in attempting to "balance viewpoints" at universities. Such policies - and here I mean the kinds of policies advocated by David Horowitz, among others - are an admission of defeat. We are pushing for a world where academics are hired solely on the basis of their qualifications. Holding a balancing political view is not a proper academic qualification! Such policies give away the farm by essentially conceding that hiring can proceed with a particular configuration of political opinions in mind: precisely the idea we are trying to fight. (For the record, free speech supporters will find nothing to disagree with in the actual text of Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights, which is a good enumeration of the goals of any "academic free speech" movement. What I object to is the way Horowitz wants to implement it - which seems to be largely by monitoring departments at universities to make sure they hire representatives of all possible political viewpoints. This document is something that all universities should voluntarily adopt as a statement of purpose, but it should never be explicitly enforced as policy.)

For another thing, when we talk about a return to a free-market university system, abandonment of the system of tenure and things like that, we would do well to remember that corporations do not routinely allow their employees to publicly criticize company policy decisions. A major corporation would not hesitate to fire an executive who went to the papers criticizing his company's affirmative action policy. If SUNY-Fredonia were a private institution, in other words, none of us would think that Kershnar had a case at all.

I agree with (what I assume to be) Kershnar's position on affirmative action. Affirmative action is naked racism; it is based on a false notion of what's valuable about "diversity," and it has no place in any enlightened, rights-based society, not even as a redress of past wrongs. Be that as it may, no right to free speech in a free society implies that the speaker is thereby immune to criticism or consequences of what he says. It only says that the government shall make no laws abridging the right to expression. As far as I can tell, SUNY-Fredonia is violating no laws by threatening not to promote Kershnar. It is only because SUNY is partly taxpayer-funded that we citizens have any legal claim on this at all.

SUNY-Fredonia is a public institution, and professors at public universities have never been expected to keep silent about their objections to the university's policies. Nor do they have a history of doing so, for that matter. There's little doubt, therefore, that what's going on in this case is indeed an attempt by the university president to silence opinions he doesn't like but against which he cannot find a rational basis for argument - exactly as Dr. Adams describes in his column. And in that spirit, I support any publicity campaign to get Kershnar the promotion he apparently deserves.

I do not, however, support the idea that protection of free speech rights extends to general oversight of hiring practices. Kershnar gets my sympathy because it's obvious what's going on. But I'm not about to feel obligated to defend everyone who, come tenure time, decides to stage a little public controversy so that he can style himself as a victim of the "liberal academic establishment" - and in so doing brush aside pesky questions of his academic qualifications and/or devotion to the institution that is about to give him lifetime employment. This fight can, in other words, be taken too far, and that's a fact better faced now than later.


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