The right-wing attack on higher education is about the difference between free speech and academic freedom

The right-wing attack on higher education is about the difference between free speech and academic freedom
A math teacher giving a lesson.

Rightwing Republicans have since at least the 1960s accused college campuses of indoctrinating students with leftist ideologies. They call for more free speech (read: rightwing speech) in order to combat such indoctrination. And, recently, the calls have been getting louder.

The most visible manifestation of this is Turning Point USA (TPUSA). TPUSA maintains a website called the Professor Watchlist. TPUSA’s list includes academics who are well-known, including Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. Some are lesser-known. The list also includes lesser-known but vocal academics such as Dr. Anthea Butler, whose authorship of White Evangelical Racism and frequent contributions to MSNBC are tailor-made to catch TPUSA’s eye.

On the TPUSA’s ProfessorWatchlist “about” page, one sees this passage (I bolded key points):

TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right of professors to say whatever they believe; however students, parents and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in our lecture halls.”

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This statement could have come from any rightwinger.

From my perspective, as an academic, it boils down to a choice.

Do we want our academics to continue teaching and researching according to professional standards? Or do we want academics to compromise those standards in the name of free speech (read: rightwing speech). This understanding hinges on the difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom.

On freedom of speech and academic freedom

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has some ideas. In a webinar earlier this year that can be found on YouTube, DePaul University professor Dr. Valerie Johnson describes the differences between academic freedom and freedom of speech. These ideas, often used interchangeably, are quite distinct.

Freedom of speech and civic engagement is based on the equality of ideas. It is an individual right regulated by law. All speech, at least theoretically, is given equal protection. At a civic meeting, the wealthy Ivy-league educated corporate executive and the working-class custodian have the equal right to express themselves.

By contrast, academic freedom and the classroom experience are based on an inequality of ideas. As Dr. Johnson explained, academic freedom protects activities “manifesting disciplinary competence.”

An academic’s discipline generates knowledge. This knowledge is taught in classrooms. Their discipline has standards for generating new knowledge. These standards apply when conducting research. Academics are protected when research falls within these standards.

When an academic’s activities “manifest disciplinary competence,” they are free to pursue those activities. They can choose their research paths and course content. Teaching certain courses is required, but they choose readings and teaching strategy.

So what conservatives see as indoctrination is simply academics relaying those elevated ideas as determined by their discipline to their students. Sure, the students should be able to have discussions and bring in their perspectives – left, right and center. But ultimately the professor must teach the conclusions from their discipline.

Therefore, threats to academic freedom take a specific form: any group or individual who does not have disciplinary expertise attempting to regulate what academics do violates their freedom.

With this understanding of the difference between free speech and academic freedom, we can look more closely at why this rightwing push for free speech in classrooms (read: rightwing speech) will ultimately force academics to choose competence or conservatism.

Competence or conservatism

While academics tend to be liberal politically, they are bound by professional standards. Third-party accreditation bodies periodically review their course offerings (my university is going through this right now). Moreover, the specific content of a course will always be couched within the consensus from their disciplinary area.

Suppose a professor is teaching Introduction to Sociology. Certain ideas and concepts must be taught for the course to be considered a proper Introduction to Sociology course. The professor’s politics will certainly color some classroom discussions, but ultimately the core content of that course is determined by the discipline.

TPUSA has Faryha Salim on their watchlist. Salim, an adjunct professor at Cypress College, was recorded in a zoom classroom session clashing with a student about police and policing.

The student described police as heroes. Salim countered by claiming that American policing grew out of slave patrols and that police have committed atrocious acts toward citizens and gotten away with it.

Salim also said she would not call the police if in danger because she does not trust them. Her life would be in more danger. The video of that exchange went viral. Salim was removed from the class.

I believe that Salim’s tone could have been better. Students should be able to articulate their viewpoints before the professor relays their discipline’s findings. I can see the concern in that direction.

But the claims that Salim makes are widely accepted within the discipline. The claim that US policing grew out of slave patrols is at this point well understood and a standard claim in criminology. She’s also right that police have done horrible things to citizens and gotten away with it. Finally, the notion that people of color are in more danger in the presence of police is a bit hyperbolic for my taste, but she’s hardly alone in that regard. It’s boilerplate in criminology.

Indeed, if a student today graduates with a degree in criminology and does not know the ideas Salim is relaying to her student, ideas that are not hers alone, that degree program has failed that student.

Or consider Dr. Betsey Stevenson, an economist from the University of Michigan. Dr. Stevenson conducted research showing that the vast majority of people found in economics textbooks were male and that this could explain why few women pursue the field of economics.

This is considered a “radical agenda” by TPUSA.

So Dr. Stevenson is on their watchlist.

In reality, Dr. Stevenson is a paragon of professional competence. According to a write-up by her university, she, along with her co-author, presented this work at the annual American Economic Association conference and published this study in a peer-reviewed journal. Her work was then summarized in The Economist.

So what does TPUSA want Dr. Stevenson to do?

She asked a research question acceptable within her field, used the proper methods to generate an answer, presented their findings for critique by peers and colleagues, and then co-published the work.

The examples of Salim and Stevenson point to a question TPUSA and conservatives generally must answer. Do they want professional competence or do they want academics to compromise their standards in order to add more content that conservatives will like?

Choose academic freedom, not free speech

I focused on TPUSA because of its visibility. But they are emblematic of a conservative push in state legislatures across the country.

According to a report by PEN America, 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and learning in educational institutions were introduced between January and September 2021. Indeed, on the day that I am finishing this piece, Virginia’s Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin signed our state budget. He pushed for a provision that “requires each public college to adopt an official policy on academic freedom and begin reporting on the state of free expression and diversity of thought on their campus.”

Conservatives are calling for more free speech in order to force professors to consider unsupported conservative ideas. Progressives need to push back on this and advocate for more academic freedom.

Choosing academic freedom is choosing competence.

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