Monday, December 10, 2007


Freedom Fighting

Adding further to the tangle involved in the Guillermo Gonzalez tenure case and the lawsuit brought by Nathaniel Abraham against Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (all against the background of the public relations hoopla of the upcoming Expelled) is the case reported on by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed.

Richard Colling ... a professor at Olivet Nazarene University, in Illinois, ... has been barred from teaching general biology or having his book taught at the university that is his alma mater and the place where he has taught for 27 years. A biologist who is very much a person of faith, these punishments followed anger by some religious supporters of the college over the publication of his book in which he argues that it is possible to believe in God and still accept evolution.
Colling appears to be advocating the theological position that has come to be known as "theistic evolution," held by other religious scientists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. Jaschik notes that the supporters of Gonzalez and Abraham have not rushed to the support of Colling. But, then again, neither has the American Association of University Professors exactly.

University officials assert that the fact that Colling hasn’t been fired or had his pay cut means that Olivet Nazarene can’t be accused of violating his academic freedom. Somewhat tepidly, the American Association of University Professors has apparently said only that it "tends to believe that having courses taken away (without due process) and having [a tenured professor's] books banned generally is a violation of academic freedom" and promises an investigation. It is also asking, so far unsuccessfully, for the actions against Colling to be reversed.

The case is in many ways notable because the AAUP gives religious colleges considerable leeway in enforcing religious beliefs and is getting involved here only because of evidence that the university is violating its own stated principles. At the same time, the AAUP says that proponents of intelligent design are not necessarily correctly citing the principles of academic freedom in some other prominent cases attracting attention. ...

Jonathan Knight, who directs the academic freedom division of the AAUP, said that in cases where religious colleges explicitly require faculty members to reject evolution or other scientific beliefs, the association would not bring academic freedom investigations.

"If a private, church-related institution says that to be a member of this faculty, you must believe in the inerrancy of the biblical account of the origins of life, we would scratch our heads on whether it's going to be very productive in terms of science education, but we wouldn't say that they have violated academic freedom," Knight said. "They are entitled to set out the rules of the game, and they have done so, and so be it." ...

But what of Woods Hole or other scientifically oriented institutions that may not want to hire people or who may want to fire people who would teach against evolution in the classroom or refuse to do laboratory work based on evolution? The fears are not just theoretical — the lawsuits over such dismissals are very real, and many academics fear that the "Academic Bill of Rights" or similar measures backed by some conservatives would make it hard for them to keep out people whose teachings might run counter to science.

Knight said he could not think of a case where the AAUP had been asked to investigate the claims of anti-evolution professors.
On that issue, Jaschik cites to:

... a 1986 AAUP document, "Some Observations on Ideology, Competence and Faculty Selection," [that] says it is legitimate in some cases for departments to intentionally exclude certain perspectives when doing hiring. "Not just any currently debated approach to a subject has a degree of importance which should guarantee it time in the classroom ... An institution of higher learning should welcome those who offer to bring it new ideas; but there is not (sic) evading the substantive question whether the new ideas a candidate offers to bring it really are that — as opposed, perhaps, to mere passing fads or fancies."
But that hardly goes to claims of the purposeful exclusion of instructors and employees, who can otherwise do the work, because of their religious beliefs and the positions they take outside their work, such as is alleged in the Abraham case and which is the sub rosa claim in the Gonzalez situation.

The article also references an AAUP document entitled "Freedom in the Classroom (2007)." The problem with that defense of "academic freedom" is that much of it is written in the following style:

To urge that instruction be "balanced" is to urge that an instructor's discretion about what to teach be restricted. But the nature of this proposed restriction, when carefully considered, is fatally ambiguous. Stated most abstractly, the charge of lack of balance evokes a seeming ideal of neutrality. The notion appears to be that an instructor should impartially engage all potentially relevant points of view. But this ideal is chimerical. No coherent principle of neutrality would require an instructor in a class on constitutional democracy to offer equal time to "competing" visions of communist totalitarianism or Nazi fascism. There is always a potentially infinite number of competing perspectives that can arguably be deemed relevant to an instructor's subject or perspective, whatever that subject or perspective might be. It follows that the very idea of balance and neutrality, stated in the abstract, is close to incoherent.
That paragraph is perfectly at home in an academic setting but that isn't where this battle is going to be played out.

I suppose the very fact that I raise these issues means I'll have to explain that I support academic freedom (though I may not be as absolutist about it as Larry Moran) and support the practice of giving university professors tenure as part of a program to foster that freedom. But in an age when much of higher education is financed, one way or another, out of the public coffers, I and the people like me aren't the ones that need to be convinced. As the AAUP said in "Freedom in the Classroom":

Calls for the regulation of higher education are almost invariably appeals to the coercive power of the state. In recent attempts to pass legislation to monitor and constrain faculty in the classroom lies a deep menace, which the architects of the American concept of academic freedom properly conceived as a potential "tyranny of public opinion."
"Framing" may or may not be beneath academics, but appeals to academic freedom on one hand, while seemingly denying it to the religious on the other, won't work. Those who want to continue the university as an independent engine of learning had damn well better take an interest in convincing the public at large in ways that resonate with them that the institution should not be turned into a "trade school" for future MBAs and a sounding board for the majoritarian culture.

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