Renewing Commitment to Academic Freedom
Over the summer, I received a letter from the head of the American Association of University Professors. This letter went out to all college and university presidents in the nation, asking us to take the opportunity of the Fall Convocation on our campuses to speak about the importance of academic freedom and the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure first issued in 1940. I am happy to honor this request this evening.
I agree with AAUP General Secretary Bowen that many forces are swirling in the public sector that threaten academic freedom—the freedom to think, to speak, to teach, to write, to conduct research without governmentally-imposed restrictions, or restrictions arbitrarily imposed by the institution or its representatives. “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” in the words of the AAUP statement.
In the academy, we believe that truth can only emerge through the conscientious and disciplined pursuit of inquiry framed by the rules of research, and the consequent robust debate over the results that we call teaching. The whole point of teaching is to equip our students with the framework and discipline for our lifelong research— the endless quest to discover knowledge, and the debate that follows to test the results of what we find along the way. As stewards of the search for knowledge and truth, as incubators of invention derived from discovery, universities constitute one of the essential corners of the foundation of the free society. The other corners are also essential—government, family, the independent voluntary sector including religious organizations. But the balance of the house runs askew, and the house runs the danger of collapse, if one corner shifts toward the space of another, if all corners do not realize and accept their essential interdependence on the strength of each fulfilling its intended purpose.
So it is that governmental proposals to direct or control the content of the collegiate curriculum, the measurement of outcomes, the conduct of research, the admission of applicants, the manner of artistic expression, the expression of beliefs and opinions, the free and unfettered climate for seeking the truth—all such governmental efforts are incompatible with the framework of a free society and the role of institutions of higher education within it.
But we know all of that—don’t we? What’s really going on here? Why does the general secretary of AAUP have to remind us to speak out in defense of the most fundamental element of our professional lives in higher education, our academic freedom? Could it be that we, the academy ourselves, have forgotten its importance? Could it be that we, the teachers and researchers and leaders of universities have taken academic freedom for granted, assumed the respect and good will of the state and federal governments, assumed that the general public understands and even desires the intellectual independence we represent? Could it be that academic freedom is in danger because we have not exercised that freedom enough?
Collectively, the nation’s universities have seemed strangely silent in recent years even as remarkable public events are reshaping the social compact of the free society.
Since September 11, 2001, I have felt largely puzzled by the general lack of urgency with which higher education has responded to the obvious curtailment of human liberties in this nation.
But even making such a statement could put me at risk of being called unpatriotic in some quarters, perhaps even put me on some kind of ‘watch’ list—if there’s one I’m not on already.
That’s part of my point. The climate of fear—exactly the purpose of terrorism—has chilled the robustness of our inquiry and debate into the truth: in this case, is domestic curtailment of liberty a necessary component of national security?
But that’s not the half of it.
There’s a war going on that many people feel is not a just war—people including our late Pope John Paul II, people including a remarkably silent majority of Americans. In this case, the evidence of large public deception in order to justify the war in Iraq is out there in plain view. I am puzzled with the relative quiescence of faculties and students and campuses around the nation on this issue.
But even observing that the current war in Iraq is not a just war could put me at risk of being called unpatriotic in some quarters. I may be put on some list—again! The “new McCarthyism” suggests that any question about the war somehow disrespects our brave military women and men who are giving their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. I certainly honor, respect and affirm their courage and commitment to all of us. However, don’t we owe it to them to ask, for what, truly, for what are they over there? Isn’t that our job as custodians of the intellectual freedom for which they are supposedly fighting?
In this democracy, whose values we purportedly wish to spread far and wide—the reason given for shedding so much blood in Baghdad and elsewhere—in this democracy reporters are going to jail over the question of whether to reveal their sources to prosecutors. Judith Miller of the New York Times had to make a ‘deal’ with her White House source and the prosecutors this week in order to end her months-long stay in prison over protecting her source. Freedom of the press isn’t what it used to be, either. But reporters are kin to academics when it comes to the need to pursue truth without coercion. So, why is higher education so silent on the threats to free press?
Ok, I’m definitely on some new list by this point.
And, that’s my point, again. We can’t be afraid to exercise our freedom to explore the essential issues of this day. Indeed, to the contrary, our privileged positions as members of the community of scholars demand that we use our academic freedom robustly, to question, to probe, to debate even, at times, very loudly and in ways that put ourselves at risk. At times, while always striving for fairness, for balance, for respect for all positions in that debate, we also have both the right and obligation to speak the truth itself, to reject the bottomless pit of endless, value-less moral neutrality which can be as tyrannical as any governmentally-mandated lesson plan.
The political right has had a field day with academe’s inherent timidity to stand up for certain fundamental moral goods. So, for example, within nanoseconds of my (or other academics) standing up for racial justice or gender equity, someone else will hurl the charge of “political correctness”. Indeed, the very word “diversity” invites vitriolic attacks, such as a screed published just this week in the Wall Street Journal in which the author dismisses attending to diversity as a “scandal” that reflects “hypocrisy, faddishness, arrogance and intellectual cowardice” in American universities today.
In the last two days, it was this kind of contemptuous dismissal of concern for how human beings relate to and treat each other—a concept taught in Catholic social justice as concern for human dignity and human life—that led none other than self-appointed Virtues Valedictorian William Bennett to make some of the most hateful, shameful remarks about African American human beings ever heard on broadcast radio. I won’t dignify those remarks by quoting him. But his contempt for the true moral value of justice for all human beings exposes the true, ugly, sick center of the agenda he represents, an agenda that encourages racial hatred and human oppression.
Now, what does all of this mean for Trinity? While I may fervently hope that the climate for academic freedom is healthy here, like all parts of our work we need to—dare I say?—“assess” how we’re doing on this important value. The Middle States Self-Study moment seems to be a good opportunity to do this. So, I invite the faculty to consider appropriate ways to conduct this assessment as we move through the Self-Study moment. Trinity subscribes to the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom—it is in the first section of our Faculty Handbook—and I invite you to use that statement as the basis for assessment.
On this glorious afternoon, when we celebrate the accomplishments of our seniors, why have I taken this time to speak about such a sobering issue? Seniors: you are now almost full-fledged members of the community of scholars. In May, when you receive your hoods, you will be fully credentialed. Your degree will come with the expectation that you accept the responsibility to be part of the vigorous protection of the intellectual freedom that has made you educated Trinity Women. You need to exercise this freedom continuously throughout your lives, as advocates and activists on behalf of justice and peace, equality and liberty for all human beings. This is the essential mission that you will take with you from your Trinity days: to be exemplars of integrity and honor in all matters; to show courage in standing up for the truth even in the face of intimidation; to manifest your compassion for others in the service of your lives; to live as good stewards of our earth and its resources; to dignify human life through the respect you show for all people you encounter; to reject violence and human exploitation as never justifiable means to obtain social ends. You must not waste the gift of intellectual freedom in defense of pettiness, selfishness or personal gain at the expense of others. Your intellectual freedom is the most precious asset you will ever own, a fragile light too easily extinguished if neglected through too many facile assumptions, bartered in desperate moments, or smashed in acts of dishonesty.
108 years ago, a group of religious women and a few of their friends felt it was very important that women should be able to enjoy the same benefits of a higher education that only few elite men were able to enjoy in the society of that time. The Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity believed that women should have the right to be educated at the highest levels possible, to achieve anything that human beings could achieve without any artificial barriers. The Sisters of Notre Dame did NOT establish Trinity to make us comfortable, to give us a place to spend leisure hours, to indulge petty or childish concerns, to foster creation of paper credentials so that we could get ahead at the expense of others. They founded Trinity for one purpose only: to educate women who would take large risks by taking this education forward to change the world through their hard work and good example.
You sit here tonight in the presence of their vision and courage, and you take their tradition forward as you march forth from this convocation tonight.
May the fire of our Founders go with you, inflaming your hearts and minds with a passion for action for justice, freedom and truth. May you find in their example the courage to raise your voices in the public square, to speak the truth in all matters, to put your time and talent on the line in pursuit of social change. May this education give you the knowledge necessary to be effective agents of truth, the wisdom to make good choices, the charity to see the goodness and dignity of all other human beings. May the blessings of the Trinity go with you, our seniors, all through your lives.