Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Johns Hopkins Academic Freedom Statement - An Analytical Representation

Drafted in January and just released, the Johns Hopkins statement on academic freedom will no doubt be widely cited.I cite the full text below.

This post is a version of the document designed to draw out and represent exactly what it says, and to examine the assumptions underlying the document.

Note: on detailed analysis, the document reads as though it were actually two separate documents forxced into a not-always-happy merger. My analysis treats the document as a whole, but maintains reference to the two parts as follows:

(*) Means the point was made separately in paragraph 5
(**) Means the point was made separately in paragraph paragraph 8


Academic Freedom - Analysis and Discussion


Definition:

  • the liberty to speak and learn and invite others to do the same,
  • to create and pursue research, and
  • to participate, on and off campus, in public debate
  • they should be free to rebut or even condemn ... speech (*)
Questions: this definition is strictly limited to expression and research. Should matters of opinion and faith be included as part of academic freedom (the document references 'freedom of thought' but is vague on whether it should be explicitly protected)? What about assembly into classes, clubs, associations, and the like?  What about publication and distribution of research results? It is arguable that this is far too narrow an account of the freedoms protected in academic freedom.
Force:
  • not to obstruct, prevent, or punish (speech)(and research?)
  • Example: speech on academic, political, or cultural matters, even when deemed offensive to some, is not alone grounds for sanctions against any member of the university community
Questions: who does this force apply to? It is not clearly defined in the document. For example, does it apply only to the management and administration of an institution? Or to all members of the institution? If so, then what is its force with respect to a person not employed at the institution (eg., students, visitors)? Is it also intended to have impact on, and be respected by the wider community? Can a government, for example, be accused of violating academic freedom? A lot of thought has gone into the nature of the governance, but not nearly enough on who, and how, it governs.
Impact:

  • promotes a diversity of views and perspectives, and   
  • necessarily tolerates the expression of views on a broad range of academic and political subjects that are thought by some to be wrong, distasteful, offensive or even hateful. 
Questions. There are numerous references to the protection of opinions that are thought to be offensive or hateful. But a far wider range of expressions could be said to be impacted by this policy. For example, does it apply equally to statements that are unpatriotic? Does it apply to expressions of political opinion, support for political parties? Would it protect an avowed belief in astrology and witchcraft? Does it protect climate change denialism, creationism, and other unscientific theses? Does it apply to calls for war or defenses of torture? There seems to be an over-emphasis on protecting hate speech, without an emphasis on protecting political, cultural and scientific speech.
Application:

  • to all faculty, students, and staff alike 
Questions: the only statement of application is to faculty, staff and students alike. Yet several statements in the document refer only to faculty and professors, thus creating the appearance, if not the reality, of a two-tier system. Additionally, it does not explicitly apply to other entities associated with the university, such as governing councils or boards, advisory committees, not does it apply to offices (such as the Registrar), societies and institutes within the institution. The document does not adequately reflect its applicability to the full membership of a university community.
Justification:
  • Academic Freedom is the wellspring of a free and open university
  • the freedom of thought it protects is at the core of the search for truth, and its free expression lies at the very heart of our university mission,
  • a university must have breathing space for free and creative exploration and experimentation, and for the sifting and winnowing of the ideas that define its very purpose
  • A professional and respectful exchange of ideas is integral to creating a positive and professional environment for learning, teaching, and research (*)
  • On occasion, university officials, faculty, or students, may disagree with, and even be offended by, a statement or other expressive activity (*)
  • intellectual freedom and open inquiry is an important part of its history, and its legacy (**)
Questions: the statements made here go far beyond the statement and account of academic freedom. And yet they reflect a remarkably limited perspective. It is interesting that 'learning' does not appear until the fifth paragraph, and only as an aside, when presenting a justification of academic freedom. While there is perhaps no real reason to disagree with the (desired) attributes of a university that necessitate academic freedom, it may be relevant to list them here:
  • free and open
  • freedom of thought
  • search for truth
  • creative exploration and experimentation
  • sifting and winnowing of ideas
  • exchange of ideas
  • environment for learning, teaching and reserach
  • history and legacy
Are these all and only the properties of a university relevant to the establishment and maintenance of academic freedom?  Is it permissible as part of academic freedom to oppose the proposerties of a university enunciated as part of the justification of academic freedom?

Basis:
  • the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Question: is the basis for academic freedom really the U.S. constitution? Could there exist academic freedom in nations not governed by the U.S. constitution? The basis for academic freedom is not rooted in exceptional circumstances particular to the United States.
Limitations:

  • no right to defame or threaten
  • no right to deface or harass
  • no right to infringe on the privacy of others
  • no right to otherwise violate the law
  • reasonable (and) viewpoint neutral, restrictions on the time, place, and manner of expression (in order to) ensure the orderly functions of the university
  • no right to plagiarize or otherwise engage in academic or scientific dishonesty 
Questions: it appears as though this list of limitations is on the one hand too broad, and on the other hand too narrow. It is too broad in the sense that 'orderly functions of the university' may be very broadly, and disproportionately, defined. The definition of academic freedom should not be limited by 'reasonable' measures, only by extraordinary measures in extreme circumstances. Otherwise many manifestations of belief, such as political demonstrations, are exempt from academic freedom. It is too narrow in that it makes no mention of research and other ethics and standards. If academic freedom protects the freedom to research, it must define research ethics. Additionally, when the law requires or allows harassment, or the infringement of privacy, which prevails?

Additionally, and I understand that there is a cultural difference here, it would seem to me that academic freedom is no defense against racism, sexism, homophobia, and attacks of a strictly personal nature. These are forms of expression harmful to society as a whole, and a university cannot defend in its community the right to harm society. Many would also argue that the requirement of "a professional and respectful exchange of ideas" (see above) also prohibits the disparagement of culture, religion, background, appearance and language. You cannot on the one hand be "respectful" and on the other hand feel no restraint when being offensive to others. Academic freedom must not embrace a very narrow and (frankly) extremist view of 'freedom of expression' without regard to respect for others and impact on the wider community.
Responsibilities:
  • exercise of judgment on the basis of professional criteria and the highest intellectual standards:
    • in matters such as academic quality, and  
    • faculty and student performance evaluations
  • faculty / professors who express their personal views on controversial subjects in the classroom must make it clear that students may disagree with those views without penalty
  • when one is speaking on matters of public interest, it should be made clear that personal views do not represent those of the institution
  • the ... appropriate response to ... statements in an academic setting is objection, persuasion, and debate
  • nurturing that flame (of intellectual freedom and open inquiry) and passing it on (**)
Questions: these responsibilities (as suggested above) apply disproportionately to faculty and professors, and can be construed to give faculty and professors extraordinary rights over and above the academic freedom of staff and students. Perhaps this was intended. Nonetheless, 'professional criteria' and 'highest intellectual standards' are vague and could admit of wide interpretation, at the discretion of faculty and professors. The responsibility here should refer to some known, non-arbitrary, and neutral set of external standards not subject to malicious interpretation.

Additionally, it should be clear that the responsibilities listed here as being incumbent on faculty ought also apply to students; they should be enjoined not to sanction or punish each other as the result of the expression of opinion (this is an essential criterion for a free student press).

Additionally, there are many methods of persuasion that are presumably not sanctioned by academics, but which could be seen as allowed by this definition, for example, emotional or social pressure, boycotts and restraints of trade, physical force, ostracism and exclusion, and more. Presumably it is not the intent to explicitly allow these (or all of these) but the distinction is not properly drawn. What sort of non-rational forms of persuasion (strikes? boycotts?) are allowed, and which (torture?) are not? And on what basis? This document is unclear. The preference for rational forms of objection is clear, but the delinieation of permissible non-rational forms of objection is entirely absent.

Additionally, as noted above, there is no stated responsibility to adhere to any ethical or moral standard at all, including research ethics. Academic freedom must be exercised in an ethical manner.
Jurisdiction:
  • (not limited by) contact with countries and cultures. and other institutions that do not share the same understanding of free speech and academic freedom principles. 
  • (not limited by) research, funding and other partnerships with external public and private entities
  • (not limited by) new roles and relationships with other organizations, many of which involve funding for university research and academic programs

Questions: this is probably the most important of the additions to traditional accounts of academic in recent years. I have employed the phrase 'not limited by' to stand for what was actually some very half-hearted language in the original document ("special care" is used twice, without any account of what "special care" entails). If academic freedom is a core value of the institution, it should not be allowed to be limited by engagement with other cultures, partners or funding agencies. This is especially the case regarding engagement with corporations and entities that profit by association with the institution.

I, personally, would go back to the drawing board, take a more ordered approach to the document, and try again.

Finally, and for the record, nobody simply grants you freedoms, academic or otherwise. Though not a contract, a freedom is a form of interaction between two parties, whether teacher and student, employer and employee, government and citizen. Each of these parties - and especially the weaker - must assert this freedom in order for it to exist. There are no natural freedoms, there are no contractual freedoms, there are only freedoms which live and breathe through everyday exercise to their full extent.


Johns Hopkins Academic Freedom Statement

Note: as the original document was released as an image file (!?) I took the liberty of subjecting it to OCR for presentation here; this may have resulted in some minor errors.

Academic Freedom is the wellspring of a free and open university. The freedom of thought it protects is at the core of the search for truth, and its free expression lies at the very heart of our university mission, Academic Freedom is the liberty to speak and learn and invite others to do the same, to create and pursue research; and to participate, on and off campus, in public debate, It promotes a diversity of views and perspectives, and necessarily tolerates the expression of views on a broad range of academic and political subjects that are thought by some to be wrong, distasteful, offensive or even hateful.

Although tenure may form its backbone, Academic Freedom extends to all faculty, students, and staff alike. A university must have breathing space for free and creative exploration and experimentation, and for the sifting and winnowing of the ideas that define its very purpose.

Like the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, on whose precepts academic freedom is based, however, Academic Freedom is not absolute. One does not have the right to defame or threaten, deface or harass, infringe on the privacy of others, or otherwise violate the law. Reasonable, viewpoint neutral, restrictions on the time, place, and manner of expression are legitimate ways to set the boundaries and ensure the orderly functions of the university.

Academic Freedom also entails academic responsibility. There is no protected right to plagiarize or otherwise engage in academic or scientific dishonesty. The exercise of judgment on the basis of professional criteria and the highest intellectual standards, in matters such as academic quality, and faculty and student performance evaluations, is both permissible and necessary. Faculty who express their personal views on controversial subjects in the classroom must make it clear that students may disagree with those views. When one is speaking on matters of public interest, it should be made clear that personal views do not represent those of the institution. Professors who express their personal views on a contested issue must make it clear that students may disagree with those views without penalty.

A professional and respectful exchange of ideas is integral to creating a positive and professional environment for learning, teaching, and research. On occasion, university officials, faculty, or students, may disagree with, and even be offended by, a statement or other expressive activity. They should be free to rebut or even condemn such speech, but not to obstruct, prevent, or punish it. Speech on academic, political, or cultural matters, for example, even when deemed offensive to some, is not alone grounds for sanctions against any member of the university community. The more appropriate response to such statements in an academic setting is objection, persuasion, and debate.

Johns Hopkins University is not a narrow enclave. Its mission, its influence, and its presence reach far beyond the traditional campus. This necessarily brings it into contact with countries and cultures. and other institutions that do not share the same understanding of free speech and academic freedom principles. In these situations, special care is required to maintain our standards.

Johns Hopkins continues to expand its connections to a range of research, funding and other partnerships with external public and private entities. It continues to develop new roles and relationships with other organizations, many of which involve funding for university research and academic programs. Some funding sources may seek to control data and research findings, or limit their dissemination. In response to such requests, special care must be taken to maintain the university's core principles of free and independent inquiry.

Johns Hopkins University was home to the very early development of the concept of Academic Freedom in the modern research university. The torch of intellectual freedom and open inquiry is an important part of its history, and its legacy. Each of us, in our time, as members of this community of scholars, bears a responsibility for nurturing that flame and passing it on. It is our heritage!

1 comment:

  1. may I ask why you wrote this? It is very interesting Kristin

    ReplyDelete

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