Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, October 14, 2011

Historian stresses need for faculty protections from external interference

Without academic freedom, the quality of higher education is likely to decline because the faculty needs policies to protect their freedom of expression in and outside of class, a noted scholar said Thursday.

In addition, and as equally important, is preserving the faculty's autonomy and ability to carry out its academic responsibilities, said Ellen Schrecker, who gave the Faculty Senate's 2011 Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom in Honigman Auditorium at the Law School.

  Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University delivers the 2011 Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. (Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services)

Her lecture, "The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University," was based on her book.

Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University, said academic freedom assumes that as long as college and university teachers fulfill their academic responsibilities, their teaching, research, and extramural speech should be protected from external interference.

"In other words, they should not lose their jobs or be otherwise sanctioned by their institutions because of outside political pressures," she said.

Professors need to be free from extraneous interference with their teaching and research. They also need to control those aspects of their working conditions that make it possible for them to maintain their schools' intellectual integrity and educational standards, Schrecker said.

Academic freedom operates through three mechanisms: tenure, faculty governance, and peer review. Schrecker said all, in one way or another, protect members of the academic profession from external interference.

While many faculty members will never venture into the kinds of controversies that require such protection, having academic freedom enables those who need it to continue their activities without fear of losing their jobs, she said. It also protects fields or subjects that are politically contested: religious and gender studies, for example, and more recently, Middle East studies.

For many years, campuses have been a haven for dissenting voices and complicated ideas. But that function is increasingly under attack, she said.

"A democratic society requires citizens who can think for themselves, as well as earn a living," she says. "But, without a corps of dedicated and independent professors, it is hard to see how America's colleges and universities can provide that educated citizenry. It is a scary thought, indeed."

Established in 1990, the lecture is named for three faculty members — Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson — who in 1954 were called to testify before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. All invoked constitutional rights and refused to answer questions about their political associations. They were suspended from the university. Markert subsequently was reinstated, and Davis and Nickerson were dismissed.