That was the title of a talk I attended last Thursday on campus. It was organized by Lester Hunt of our own philosophy department, and delivered by Richard T. De George of the University of Kansas. Though the talk ranged over a number of related issues, the title of the talk referred specifically to the issue of the question of who academic freedom is designed to benefit. De George argued it was designed to benefit not the professors, as one might think, but the general public. His central example was that of the USSR: professors learned to keep their mouths shut and avoid suffering personally, but they failed to produce new discoveries, greatly hurting the position of the USSR. Along the way I learned some useful tidbits of Soviet history: That Lenin had written a pamphlet titled "What is to be Done" arguing against intellectual freedom as early as 1901, and that Soviet pseudoscience extended well-beyond the bogus genetics of Lysenko, and to the denunciation of relativity and quantum mechanics as "bourgeois" (this changed when the Soviets decided they wanted to build an atom bomb).
De George described the arguments used by Lenin against intellectual freedom, and argued they had some plausibility at first glance. The problem, he said, was that the Bolsheviks didn't have the competence to evaluate what was good scientific theory. The government has no special access to truth. Adults are reasonable people, not needing government oversight of their beliefs.
He went on to describe an ideal of how the university should operate, conceding to an extent that his picture was idealized. Scholars were to be presumed competent as the ultimate authorities in their discipline, knowing better than outsiders what to teach. This independence, however, was not to be a barrier to accountability. He proposed that Universities could be judged on whether their graduates actually had valuable skills.
It was not terribly surprising when De George got around to arguing that not only is there no excess of academic freedom, in reality there's too little of it. He discussed a couple of well known cases: First was Larry Summers of Harvard, who was forced to resign for suggesting that the lack of women in science might be explicable by a difference in innate ability or interest. De Georges' said he had read Summers' remarks, and gave the impression that they were even milder than many news reports would suggest: Summers was merely suggesting a possible area of research.
The other controversy about a single person discussed was that of Ward Churchill, who made inflammatory remarks about the September 11th attacks. De George suggested the university had handled it on its own well enough. He also came out in opposition to the Academic Bills of Rights that David Horowitz has been promoting, saying that students have no right not to hear views with which they disagree. Finally, he addressed the claim that all knowledge is somehow subjective or politicized, making the obvious point that this view appears self-defeating.
Then came time for questions. One student asked about the appropriate response to a professor discussing the September 11th attacks in class (say, political science). The response was that the attacks make an excellent example for all kinds of issues, though if a professor spent fifty minutes haranguing his students, it might be grounds for a complaint to the department chair.
My question was about how realistic the assumption of adult reasonableness and scholarly competence was. I mentioned continental philosophy in literature departments. This prompted both De Gorge and Hunt to discuss a case that they both knew of where someone in a literature department had almost been denied tenure, not by people within his department, because "this postmodernism thing has had its day." Once the rationale was publicly known, it was taken as obviously illegitimate and the guy got tenure. Hunt commented that he thought the key thing was freedom of academic departments.
Other questions dealt with political correctness, diversity training, and how to teach critical thinking. The final couple of questions dealt with the question of what if someone outside a department knows that someone in the department is wrong. That part of the discussion seemed a little muddled and I tried to jump in, but there wasn't enough time.
At the end, I agreed with a lot of what De George said, though I'm skeptical of the idea of the department as sovereign, at least as a foundational principle. It suggests, for example, that say if a physics department were split into experimentalists and theoreticians, that would inherently change who ought to have power. It may be that in practice we can't do much better than letting each department tend to its own affairs, but I can't see the principle as sacrosanct.