Commentary Magazine


Freedom Without Responsibility

The facts of the case are not in dispute. On January 19, 2009, UCSB Sociology Professor William Robinson, then engaged in teaching a course on globalization, “sent an email to students comparing the Israeli occupation of Gaza with the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.” The email contained 42 photos, which Robinson, who specializes in Latin America, had pulled off of the internet, and, among other commentary, the following passage:

Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw — a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians, subjecting them to the slow death of malnutrition, disease and despair, nearly two years before their subjection to the quick death of Israeli bombs. We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide (Websters: “the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group”), a process whose objective is not so much to physically eliminate each and every Palestinian than to eliminate the Palestinians as a people in any meaningful sense of the notion of people-hood.

The UCSB Academic Senate has decided to end an investigation into whether Robinson violated the faculty’s code of conduct: “The committee did not find probable cause to undertake disciplinary action in this matter. I have accepted the findings of the charges committee. Accordingly, this matter is now terminated,” wrote Gene Lucas, executive vice-chancellor, in a letter to Robinson. Lucas’s letter came after FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, threatened UCSB with a press campaign if it did not drop the case, but Paul Desruisseaux, UCSB’s assistant vice-chancellor of public affairs, stated that this development had not affected UCSB’s decision.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1940 defined academia in a similar vein to the law, as a “learned profession,” which therefore has a responsibility to uphold a professional standard of behavior. Academic freedom is not a First Amendment issue, because the question is not whether faculty have the right to freedom from governmental censorship — they do — but whether they have the right to speak without needing to consider the consequences.

It’s the claim of being a “learned profession” that justifies academic freedom, which is any faculty member’s right to speak and write as that member sees fit without fear of reprisal. It is implicitly assumed that this right will be exercised in accordance with the responsible status of the profession. Yet that’s often not the case, and when so, the profession does nothing about it. The worm is at the heart of the doctrine: standards of responsibility must be policed by some objective authority; otherwise they would be meaningless. In the absence of individual commitment to standards of conduct, the claim to freedom without consequences comes down to freedom without responsibility.

William Buckley wrote in God and Man at Yale that academic freedom was a “superstition,” because all hiring decisions, according to Buckley, are at least partly political, and that being so, those ultimately responsible for running the university — at Yale, the alumni who elect the Yale Corporation — have the right to push for those decisions to lean politically their way, instead of faculty’s way. The argument is cogent.

But Buckley was more of a prophet than a reporter. Academic freedom may have been a superstition in his day, but it was not until the 1960’s brought the explicit, hard-core, left-wing abandonment of the concept of the apolitical Ivory Tower, that the problem became acute. Yes, the concept of self-enforcement always had its flaws. But it did at least offer some justification for academic freedom, and some hope that the professional standards on which it must be based would be upheld, either by individual conscience or — no matter how paradoxical it may sound — by peer pressure.

I cannot agree with my academic friends who argue that academia is akin to the law. Both may call themselves “learned professions,” but lawyers can be disbarred. It may be unwise, but you can even sue a lawyer for misconduct. Academia and the clergy are, as far as I am aware, the only two groups in society that — unless their members’ conduct is purely criminal — have managed to aggregate to themselves the right of exclusive self-governance, with all it implies about the power of faculty over students and academic institutions. That once tenure is received in academia, this governance is based on nothing more than the whimsical willingness of faculty members to uphold standards of conduct, renders academic freedom even more meaningless. In a country based on the concept of checks and balances, on the realization that no one deserves to have unfettered power over others, there is something deeply non-American about this peculiar arrangement.

Today, mostly laudable groups like FIRE, and less laudable groups like the AAUP are very concerned with professorial freedom. But no one is concerned with professorial responsibility. Certainly, the faculty are not. And this is not just — maybe not even primarily — a matter of politics. As Prof. Donald Kagan wrote in these pages several years ago:

At Penn State, where I began my own career, I taught four courses. When I moved to Cornell in 1960, it was down to three. At Yale we teach two courses a semester, and in the hard sciences only one. The top universities today offer at least one semester off for every seven semesters taught; in my day, it was a semester every seven years. In sum, today’s college faculty meet no more than half as many classes as their predecessors a half-century ago. . . .  most faculties lack precisely that requisite sense of professional responsibility, and are instead the major obstacle to improvement. . .  This is not a battle over the control of academic turf. The turf itself is at stake. The twin purposes of a university are the transmission of learning and the free cultivation of ideas. Both are entrusted to the faculty, and both have been traduced at its hands.

What’s a tragedy is that there is no visibly better alternative. Prof. Kagan ended his article with the argument that salvation would have to come from outside the university. But would the government do better? Hardly. The courts? No. The parents? Sure, if they cared, but there is not much evidence that they do, at least not in sufficient numbers. The students? Ditto. Buckley believed in the alumni, but that was wrong then and even more so now.

Robinson is now demanding an apology from UCSB for even implying that his actions might have constituted a violation of standards of professional conduct. He is not, naturally, willing to apologize for anything he has done. That’s academia for you: never having to say you’re sorry.

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