Academic Freedom, the Big Picture

Article excerpt

Academic Freedom, the Big Picture Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University Robert O'Neil. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008


Robert O'Neil's fine volume Academic Freedom in the Wired World covers a landscape that is much broader than the title signals. Indeed, O'Neil provides up-to-date coverage of the full spectrum of issues attending the idea of academic freedom. For those who have spent too many years in meetings and at other events where the term "academic freedom" has surfaced, as well as those just embarking on an academic career, this volume is essential reading.

The book's ten chapters address both perennial and emerging issues. The first chapter examines contemporary cases in which the protections associated with academic freedom have been invoked and uses those cases as entry points to a discussion of the history of academic freedom as a concept. O'Neil dives directly into the case of Northwestern University engineering professor Arthur Bute's endorsement of the views of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who termed the Holocaust a myth. This example of abhorrent faculty behavior becomes the starting point for O'Neil's discussion of the origins of academic freedom in the special nature of the university as a truthseeking institution. The chapter traces the development of academic freedom, introducing some finer points on which later chapters will elaborate and noting the fragility of the concept of academic freedom.

In the second chapter, O'Neil discusses the role of both the AAUP and other higher education groups in protecting academic freedom and the processes for ensuring that academic freedom is not compromised in times of crisis. He uses historical examples, such as the dismissal of tenured professors during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, as well as contemporary ones, such as the treatment of dismissed University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, to highlight key issues.

The third chapter is devoted to the academic freedom protections derived from the U.S. Constitution, most of which pertain only to those teaching in public or state-supported institutions. Key cases and decisions are discussed in an engaging and accessible fashion.

In several of the early chapters, O'Neil points to the special stresses placed on academic freedom and institutions of higher education during the McCarthy era. These discussions are an important backdrop for the fourth chapter's discussion of academic freedom in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. With the cases emanating from September 1 1 still fresh, O'Neil's assessment that these latest threats to academic freedom were handled far more effectively lhan those of the McCarthy era is particularly welcome. He attributes this stronger positioning of academic freedom to several factors: lessons learned from the 1950s, a more welldeveloped "protective matrix" of watchdog organizations, and the actions of key higher education leaders - Benno Schmidt on the board at the City University of New York, Lee Bollinger as president of Columbia University, and Mark Yudof as head of the University of Texas system - who understood the importance of academic freedom.

Research activities can also raise academic freedom issues. In the fifth chapter, O'Neil takes up such research-related concerns, which include efforts to compel faculty members to produce data and other ma- terials for legal and policy proceed- ings and to curtail faculty members' receipt of external funds for proj- ects deemed inconsistent with the missions of their institutions. Other worries involve attempts to impose confidentiality requirements in government-sponsored research, to restrict collaboration with foreign scholars, and to influence the conduct and dissemination of corporate-sponsored research.

In the sixth chapter, O'Neil addresses the special problems for academic freedom posed by artistic expression. …