Academic freedom vs. intellectual responsibility

Two big stories in the news today are about academics: Ward Churchill, a professor being fired from the University of Colorado for what he said about the 9/11 bombings, and Norman Finkelstein, a professor at DePaul being denied tenure for what he has written about Israel. Both universities say they are firing these guys for other reasons, but those reasons simply don’t hold up, and it’s clear that the firings are essentially political. (Further information and discussion of both cases can be found here.)

I am a great believer in academic freedom. It is essential that academics be allowed to say the most controversial things without fear of being fired. But I am also a great fan of intellectual responsibility, to the point where I think in some cases it would be right to fire someone (or even imprison them?) for atrocious instances of intellectual irresponsibility.

Now the Churchill and Finkelstein cases seem to me to be importantly different. I think it is widely agreed that Finkelstein’s work is intellectually responsible. Many people find his conclusions unacceptible, and charge that he slants information the wrong way, but my sense is that even his opponents (apart from Alan Dershowitz) would say he has a position worth considering and wrestling with. (Or?) But it seems equally clear that Churchill is irresponsible in his silly ravings. His thoughts can be easily set aside without impairing fruitful intellectual discourse. So, in short, Finkelstein seems to be the sort of academic for whom academic freedom is designed, and Churchill seems to be a free rider, one of the problems you’ll get by stretching the protective cover too broadly.

Is there a way to offer the protection of academic freedom to all and only those who are intellectually responsible? My guess is no. It would be nice if academic administration could be trusted to sort out who’s being intellectually responsible and who’s not, but they have a lot going on. They need to secure money from legislatures and donors, they need to recruit students, and they need a trouble-free career history if they hope to advance to better jobs. So, I guess we are left with the need to vigorously defend academic freedom, even if it ends up encouraging and defending the intellectually irresponsible!

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Academic freedom vs. intellectual responsibility

  1. Mike says:

    you should post links to those stories if you have them.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    Done! You might have to register with the Washington Post to read them. But that’s a good thing to do anyway.

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  3. sohrab says:

    One could argue though that though responsible, Finkelstein’s scholarship–deliberately or not–serves the cause of extremist views on the Israel-Palestine question. Left anti-semetism is in many ways far more complex, nuanced, and sinister than its rightward counterpart.

    Finkelstein’s arguments dangerously plays into the hand of this particular brand of highly educated bigotry, which is usually scoffs when checked on its anti-semetism: “criticizing Israel is not anti-semetism! Yes there was a Shoah but why should its memory be used to oppress Palestinians?!” e.g. the circles that invoke international law and human rights to single out Israel as an oppressive, apartheid state, while the other murderous regimes in the neighborhood as well as so many others on the planet are never blamed.

    Since departing ways with DePaul he has been touring the world giving talks sponsored by such left groups, who often have very dubious agendas for the region. I support his denial of tenure, not to mention Churchill’s.

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  4. Huenemann says:

    I don’t know enough to either agree or disagree with you about “cloaked anti-semitism” you describe, but I’ll bet you’re right. Let’s suppose Finkelstein is a rabid anti-semite. Still: should university administrations deny tenure to scholars who hold reprehensible views? My own experience suggests that they’re not the ones to make the relevant moral distinctions!

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  5. sohrab says:

    Finkelstein posits a Jewish conspiracy composed of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and the rest of “THE LOBBY” to make the claim that the memory of the Shoah is being used to advance the cause of a violent, imperialist state. His M.O. is attack scholarship. He spends most of his time accusing his opponents of plagiarism and falsification.

    However, I’ll admit that it’s hard to imagine Norman Finkelstein as an anti-semite. He often cites the fact that his own parents were Holocaust survivers. And in order to make the case that the “LOBBY” overstates the number of survivers, he makes the argument (in The Holocaust Industry and elsewhere) that the Nazis were only too efficient in their systematic destruction of Europe’s Jewish population.

    So clearly he is no Ahmadinejad. But this is precisely why he should be denied an academic position from which to broadcast his views! The new anti-semites can abuse his identity and family history: “Look! here’s a jew–a son of Shoah survivers–decrying Israel, as well as the ‘LOBBY’ and its cohorts in DC!”

    Now why should DePaul, whose mission is based on Vincentian values of goodwill and charity, promote this kind of scholarship?

    According to DePaul, Finkelstein was denied tenure based on departmental recommendations that strictly consider academic standards for tenure. He and his supporters imagine Dershowitz and the “LOBBY” making intimidating phone calls to Trustrees, but it’s easy to discern the far less cynical basis for the decision considering the core values of said private institution.

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  6. Huenemann says:

    But wait a minute — surely you don’t wish to maintain that anytime Professor X’s scholarship can be utilized by hate groups, Professor X should be denied tenure, do you?

    Since you brought up Ahmadinejad, let me admit I was initially outraged that Columbia invited him to speak. But now I’m not so sure. One effect of his speaking was that the sheer ridiculousness of his views was brought further into the light. Granted, he’s certainly no kind of scholar, but he is an important political figure right now, and surely universities ought to invite such figures to their campuses — but with appropriate venues for challenging the claims they make. And we can now say to Iranian universities: we invited your guy to speak, how about inviting one of ours? What if nations morally opposed to one another made it a practice of inviting one another over for the airing and critical discussion of views?

    (Or am I just being a pollyanna-ish idiot?)

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  7. sohrab says:

    Not in the least: I do agree with you that Columbia handled Ahmadinejad’s visit well, giving students and campus leadership sufficient opportunities to challenge his ridiculous views. Too bad he won’t reciprocate the gesture.

    (By the way: I hope I’m not sounding like some sort of “we-need-to-smoke-out-tenured-radicals” conservative.)

    I would certainly oppose denial of tenure for a scholar if the only argument for it was the fact that his/her scholarship has the potential to be abused. In Norm’s case, it’s the fact that he actively panders his work to and flirts with groups that target Israel unfairly and on irrational grounds.

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