Monday, May 12, 2008

More on the Delaware Debate

Erin O’Connor claims
that I’ve “jumped the shark” in my defense of academic freedom at the University of Delaware. She writes, “Surely he can see the difference between voluntary, student-motivated political efforts and institutionalized, politicized bureaucracies funded with taxpayer dollars?” This is an interesting view of academic freedom, that it applies only to student-motivated efforts and not to “institutionized” actions by university employees “funded with taxpayer dollars.” She’s wrong. Staffers who are part of “bureaucracies” also have academic freedom, including the freedom to design and implement controversial, voluntary programs. The invocation of “taxpayer dollars” cannot be used to justify censorship, whether the money is used to pay for faculty or staff or student organizations. Everyone gets the freedom to organize voluntary activities. No exceptions, not even for left-wing administrators who write dumb memos.

O’Connor also objects to the idea of “endless tutelage” in residence hall. Obviously, some people think that dorms shouldn’t try to educate students. And they might be correct that many students dislike educational programs (I haven’t seen any data on this topic) or even cause “damaging cynicism” (whatever that is). This is an argument to make in the realm of free speech. It should never be the case that voluntary educational programs are banned (whether by the central administration or a faculty body) for being “political” or controversial, even if you imagine that they don’t belong in dorms.

O’Connor also claims, “it's quite a falsehood to label FIRE a ‘conservative’ organization.” No, it’s not. FIRE is a conservative (mostly libertarian) civil liberties group that defends people with many different viewpoints, just as the ACLU is a liberal civil liberties group that defends people with many different viewpoints. I’m not usually the term “conservative” to smear FIRE; I’m using it to explain why they’re willing to let their ideology override their free speech principles. But obviously, the organization founded by the authors of “The Shadow University”, which has right-wing opponents of academic freedom such as Candace de Russy on its advisory board, which repeatedly declares conservatives to be the overwhelming majority of victims of campus censorship, is a conservative group. It just is.

I think that the critics of the ResLife program are overwhelmingly on the conservative side, but I don’t particularly care if they are “across the political spectrum” as O’Connor claims. If there are progressives who want to have the ResLife program banned, then they’re wrong, too.

I believe that the ferocity of the response to my criticism is not because I’ve jumped any aquatic creatures, but because I’ve exposed a certain hypocrisy among the thoughtful conservatives who don’t join in David Horowitz’s crusade against academic freedom. These well-intentioned conservatives and libertarians, like O’Connor and John Leo and those at FIRE, don’t like to have the limits of their devotion to academic freedom exposed. O’Connor may wonder why I want to “grind this particular axe.” I don’t particularly like the Delaware program, and I certainly don’t like the way they implemented it last year. But the principle of academic freedom demands that we defend even people and programs we don’t like against those who think that “political” activities should be banned from the dorms, or anywhere else on a college campus.


Sherman Dorn said...


You're confusing the institutional functioning of academic freedom (institutions can set their own missions and programs without political interference) with the individual version of academic freedom (where students and faculty have the right to research, read, and write on any topic, without restraint).

Yes, ResLife staff can do whatever they want as individuals, including noting their U Del affiliations, but that's different from insulating ResLife from collegial governance. Collegial governance means that faculty have a primary role in the institution's intellectual life. As Peter Wood wrote elsewhere, curriculum committees reject proposals every year across the country. Is that interference with a department's program, or is it collegial governance in operation? Faculty at my campus sit on a committee that judges admissions exceptions for scholar-athletes. Is that an interference with the Athletic Department, or is it faculty exercising some discipline on potential excesses of sports teams?

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