Saturday, December 17, 2011

Academic Freedom

A friend asked me to articulate my views on "Academic Freedom" from a libertarian perspective. As a philosopher, my usual strategy is to take a close look at the key concepts. In this case, let's look at the meaning(s) of "academic" and "freedom."

The term "academic" describes a human activity, a profession, and an industry. It also implies a unique set of instutional  associations: colleges, universities, departments, publishing companies, professional organizations etc. However, the activity is nothing more than the process of human inquiry, or the distinctly human capacity to ask questions and propose answers between individuals, groups, and generations. I would also argue that academic inquiry (or inquiry conducted within an academic institutional structure) involves the epistemic pursuit of either Descriptive Truth (is) or Prescriptive Value (ought).

The concept of "freedom" within the context of academic inquiry turns out to be enormously complex and therefore wide-open to metaphysical interpretation. For us libertarians, freedom is a political concept that refers to the relationship between individuals and governments. Some of us take on the challenge of addressing "metaphysical freedom," or "freedom of the will," but most of us prefer to focus on freedom as the absence of coercion by government. Minarchist libertarians seek to limit the use of coercive power of governments to tax citizens and limit the use of tax money to the performance of specific functions, such as a: police force, judiciary, a military, and perhaps the provision of a very basic social safety net. Anarcho-capitalist libertarians seek to eliminate all involuntary forms of taxation and all coercive government.

So in light of the above, what can I say about "academic freedom?" For a minarchist like myself, I would say that we need to distinguish between public and private colleges and universities. Most of us argue the publically funded educational institutions violate the basic tenets of minarchy, and that all educational institutions ought to be private institutions. So I really can't say much about what academic freedom might mean in the context of a public college or university. But I can say something about what it might mean within a private institution.

Education is an industry. It involves the interaction of both buyers and sellers, and employers and employees.  Academic freedom in private institutions is nothing more than what's mutually agreed upon within a contract. When you agree to accept employment in a private college the limits of your academic freedom are contained within that contract. If you do not accept those limits, then you have the freedom to decline the job offer. Of course, if you willingly sign that contract then your academic freedom does not include the freedom to violate the conditions of that contract. Unfortunately, as an employer the institution does have the "academic freedom" to unilaterally alter that contract without your consent, but you also have the academic freedom to either abide by that contract or resign (freedom to exit). Or, perhaps you might find solace in the "black market" and conceal or disguise your activities.   

Over the years, academic institutions have adopted a variety of traditions intended to increase job security for faculty and expand the concept of academic freedom. The original idea behind tenure was to protect faculty from revolving administrations that constantly seek to revise the terms of employment of faculty, especially salary, working conditions, and academic freedom. Now we libertarians can argue over whether tenure ought to be included within any academic setting, especially over the cost/benefit ratios. But we are reluctant to argue about academic freedom outside of that contractual framework.

So what can I say about my own academic freedom within a Roman Catholic college? Well, obviously I cannot expect the college to grant me the freedom to publish articles with titles like: "The Virtues of Abortion" or "Why God does Not Exist." If I did, it would violate the terms of my contract and I'll get fired, or at least get reprimanded by my superiors. But since, I'm not interested in "inquiring" into the virtues of abortion or defending atheism, I don't regard it as a limit on my metaphysical academic freedom. However, I do disagree with the church's legal strategy for dealing with abortion and I am more of a pantheist than a theist. Now for the "million dollar question?" How did a libertarian philosopher that publishes regularly in journals like Independent Review survive for 25 years at a Roman Catholic college? The answer is simple. Roman Catholic colleges are, in fact, among the last bastions of metaphysical academic freedom in the United States. While it is true that some are more socially conservative than others, for the most part we enjoy much more freedom than other public or private institutions. I do have a few limits, but overall, my college values diverse points of view. In fact, we have not only a handful of outspoken libertarians like myself on the faculty and staff, but also a large number of non-Catholics and atheists. Let me add that all of the libertarians that I know on the MSJ faculty also have tenure. And at least one libertarian on the maintenance staff stops by office every morning to talk politics. But admittedly we're grossly outnumbered by welfare liberals.

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