The Academic Side-Step; Academic Freedom Is Supposed to Foster Debate. So Why Do College Presidents Use It to Avoid Tough Issues?

By Shuger, Scott | The Washington Monthly, April 1990 | Go to article overview

The Academic Side-Step; Academic Freedom Is Supposed to Foster Debate. So Why Do College Presidents Use It to Avoid Tough Issues?


Shuger, Scott, The Washington Monthly


The Academic Side-step

Last summer the Justice Department announced that it was investigating whether a group of Ivy League and other elite colleges and universities had illegally conspired to fix tuition fees and financial aid packages for admitted students. The idea behind the inquiry--that price fixing is just as illegal when done by college presidents, provosts, and deans as it is when done by arms manufacturers or building contractors--seems to have genuinely surprised and appalled most academic administrators.

So far, the schools haven't said much in response because the probe is still in its early fact-finding stages--although some of them admit to participating in interschool committees formed to set uniform scholarship awards for accepted applicants. But a sneak preview of the likely academic response can be found in a footnote to a recent Yale Law Journal article by Prof. J. Peter Byrne of Georgetown University: "...[C]ourts should not subject agreements relating to educational policy, such as standards for accreditation or principles of financial aid, to antitrust liability .... The Justice Department's current investigation into whether certain private colleges and universities have agreed on tuition or financial aid policies in violation of the antitrust laws ... seems on this ground grossly misconceived and potentially in violation of constitutional academic freedom." Let the arms manufacturers and contractors try using that one! When it comes to protecting themselves from outside control or scrutiny, when it comes to doing things because well, they just want to, it doesn't take long for universities to run for their unique brand of all-purpose protective cover: academic freedom.

Harvard to world: Buzz off

As defensive buzzwords go, "academic freedom" is pretty powerful. It's the collegiate equivalent of "national security." Learning is good and liberty is good, so the two together should settle most anything, right? Well it depends what you mean. Most of the current crop of college officials understand the principle of academic freedom (PAF) as something like "You can't interfere with particular points of view held in the university." In other words, to them it means "Buzz off." (That was certainly the interpretation made by a lot of academics in connection with the David Baltimore case--see "White Coats, Black Deeds," p. 23. Phillip Sharp, the director of cancer research at MIT, warned in a letter he sent to colleagues across the country that the congressional fraud investigation of Baltimore's work should be halted because it "will discourage young scientists from exploring new and untested ideas and even keep students from choosing science as a career.")

The original purpose of PAF was to ensure that professors would not be fired because of the views they held. But today's generation of college executives has been quite imaginative in widening PAF's application. Still, while the particulars can rage considerably, the logical role of PAF doesn't vary much from one school to another. It's like a dance step that's done the same from coast to coast. Apparently, IBM, GM, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, and the other corporate pipelines for increasing numbers of college administrators have formed an ideological Arthur Murray's to give us a new campus dance craze--the Academic Side-Step. Consider:

* A California court ruled in favor of a coalition representing small growers and farmworkers that had sued the University of California for using public monies to develop agricultural technologies serving only large agribusiness corporations, at the expense of family farms and farmworkers jobs. This landmark decision required the university to formulate a plan for bringing its research into line with the needs of a broader spectrum of the public that supports it. University Counsel Gary Morrison condemned it as "unwarranted interference" in academic affairs that would endanger the autonomy of the university and threaten academic freedom. …

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