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Why Freedom for Academics?

Scholars may not deserve any special rights, but many societies have given scholars ``academic freedom'' of some kind or another. Why? One important reason is: the public interest.

Some ancient civilizations would execute a messenger that would bring bad news, while rewarding a messenger that brought good news: this was not to punish or reward messengers, but a matter of propitiating gods. Nevertheless, it it didn't really seem to make the gods any nicer, and applying the rule to advisors --- rewarding advisors who gave welcome advice while punishing those who gave unwelcome advice --- encouraged advisors to give flattering, reassuring, and dishonest advice. If you really want (or at least, really need) knowledgeable and honest advice, you have to be willing to put up with advice you don't like.

Scholars and teachers, like judges and reporters, have an important function that is compromised when freedom is compromised. Since scholars and teachers have special expertise (they are paid to sit around and read stuff), they know a lot about important issues. But asking a scholar or teacher to give advice, or to teach, without the freedom to act according to their conscience, is like asking a judge to be impartial without independence.

  • What a scholar says may be unpopular.

    In the Eighteenth century, doctors became convinced that smallpox could be prevented with an old Arabic device: inoculation. There was a howl from religious traditionalists, and even some violence, at this alleged offense against God's omnipotence. Similar objections were raised in the Nineteenth Century against anesthesia. Nevertheless, these medical innovations led to thousands of lives being saved each year: something that wouldn't have happened if physicians hadn't had the freedom to publish their theories in the face of popular opposition.
  • While we are discussing medicine, a cautionary tale.

    When a Viennese doctor proposed in the 1840s that surgeons wash their hands before surgery, he fell victim to ... his fellow doctors --- and for five decades until handwashing was popularized by surgeons, thousands died each year of complications caused by contamination. Here, the violation of freedom led to the suppression of the truth, with tragic consequences. Also, and this is something that shouldn't be forgotten in an era of wealthy think-tanks that conduct search-and-destroy operations against ideological opponents, sometimes the greatest threats to academic freedom come from within Academia itself.
  • Second, what a scholar says may inconvenience important people.

    During the postwar Soviet Union, factories operating under quota demands poured vast amounts of pollutants into rivers, nuclear power plants were built without containment domes, and water flowing towards the Avar Sea was redirected to various irrigation and other projects. All of this was kept secret, and official studies of the consequences minimized, for state reasons: engineers, ecologists, and other scholars were not permitted to tell what they knew. The results: an incredible pollution problem, the Chernobyl meltdown (in a reactor with no containment dome), and the Avar Sea is literally drying up in what many ecologists are calling the single worst environmental disaster in the modern era. All this could have been avoided or at least moderated if the Soviet government had given scientists and engineers the freedom to investigate the situation and report their findings.
Societies have found that there are immense benefits in academic freedom, and immense dangers in a lack of academic freedom. So academic freedom, while advanced by academics themselves as a right, has actually been advanced by the rest of society as a right of society to honest expert advice and counsel.

What a university is, anyway

It helps to remember what a university is for. A university is a major investment, and if society is expected to pay the bills, there must be good reason. And there is.

  • Universities educate an increasing fraction of the next generation, including all schoolteachers. Thus universities are entrusted with the future of the society. This is an awesome responsibility, and requires faculty be able to do their duty without bending to the transient changes in fashion that politics and business are notoriously prey to. When businessmen talk about running a university in a businesslike way, they forget that while we expect corporations to come and go, universities are supposed to last a long time.
    • Each faculty member needs a coherent vision, not subject to transient `marketplace' demands, but arising from careful prolonged study. This requires an almost judicial independence for each faculty member, and there lies the ultimate need for academic tenure.
    • Students and the community need the diversity that arises from a community of scholars studying important issues from various perspectives. This requires that institutions themselves be insulated from the uniformizing fads and fashions that flighty governments and corporations are prone to inflict for the sake of transient causes. Here lies the need for the independence of academic institutions.
    Notice that all these functions require an honesty that academic freedom makes possible. A healthy university is like a live oak tree, with all the strangely twisting branches ultimately serving all the community in various ways. But a live oak tree grows slowly, in careful reaction to its environment: radical pruning or grafting leads to disaster.
Academic freedom is not something that the public should support because of the prerogative of academics; it is something the public should support for the public's own interest.