Intellectual Workers and Essential Freedoms

By Edley, Christopher, Jr. | Academe, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Intellectual Workers and Essential Freedoms

Edley, Christopher, Jr., Academe

At the AAUP's annual meeting, a legal scholar argued that journalists and professors deserve special privileges-- but only if they can adapt their work to an increasingly diverse society.

LET ME START IN A SOMEWHAT COMBATIVE stance: what are the principal threats to the freedoms so essential to the work of academics and journalists in twenty-first century America? Are they born of corporatism, in its many manifestations? Some are, and those threats are real enough and growing. But more menacing, I believe, is our arrogance; our smugness; our unapologetic claim of rights and privileges that so many in the public simply do not believe we have earned.

What are these entitlements? Journalists assert the rights to be wrong, to be sensational, to be libelous (although not malicious); they argue that such rights are necessary to guard core freedoms. But the public perceives that journalists view these misdemeanors not only as protected activity, but also as accepted activity beyond the reach of government regulation or civic criticism. These claims by and for journalists are important sources of the public cynicism and distrust so widely felt toward the media. And although this cynicism surely is part of a broader pattern of civic malaise, that does not make the trend it represents either innocuous or immaterial.

For academics, the essential entitlement is academic freedom-the freedom to determine who our students will be, what we will teach them, and how. First Amendment rights of expression and association are the legal bedrock for our claims, but the broader social goals of knowledge creation and dissemination have been built upon that bedrock. An important device for implementing and protecting our entitlement is the magnificent institution of tenure. We are all but impervious to the business cycles that buffet ordinary mortals; we remain untroubled by the high-stakes performance evaluations that terrorize workaday wage slaves; and we stand united in our commitment to the inviolability of those three great and good things about teaching: June, July, and August!

Public Mistrust

But is our privileged sanctuary of academia worth the price the public pays: the tuition, the real-estate-tax breaks, the taxpayer funding? It is no surprise that state prison budgets are creeping up on, and in some places exceeding, state higher education budgets. It is no surprise that political actors are growing bolder in imposing their judgments on academic matters such as admissions and even curriculum. More is coming-mark my words. There are no surprises here, I suggest, because the public is not so confident about the product it is buying. Arrogant, bald, unelaborated claims of entitlement will not reduce that confidence deficit.

Admittedly, there is a difference between the elite public and private colleges and universities on the one hand, and the typical, more numerous public institutions on the other. The power of the legislator or political administrator over the life of an academic in a typical public institution can be chilling and even overwhelming. This force is present to some degree in elite settings as well. But whatever the setting, the basic challenge is the same. As the public increasingly sees higher education as economically indispensable, it will demand greater accountability regarding the effectiveness of its investments in education. Ironically, the resulting pressure for accountability may threaten the very enterprise deemed indispensable.

We can blame arrogance and hubris if we fail to perceive that preserving the freedom and independence we deem so essential means that we must persuade the public that these freedoms are worthwhile. The fact that we believe in their value will not suffice as the trends of cynicism and distrust deepen. We must not underestimate the possibility of a major shift, tectonic in scale, with the power to transform the character of both journalism and academia.

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