Academic Freedom: Where’s the Line?

What are the limits of academic freedom?

Thirty-six year veteran epidemiology professor James Enstrom at UCLA is finding out, after publishing studies that went against conventional thinking regarding tobacco smoke an diesel soot.

Of course, one legitimately could ask the same question about Ward Churchill at Colorado, who was pushed out for academic-misconduct reasons after referring to the occupants of the WTC who died in 9/11 as “Little Eichmanns”, among other things (including apparently false statements about his own tribal heritage).

And how can we forget another recent case (of effective demotion instead of dismissal) closer to home — specifically involving David Deming at OU?

Each of these cases raises big questions about precisely where the threshold lies for universities to get rid of or demote faculty, under what guises, and how equitably that threshold is applied. In all cases, the threshold seemed to be vague, unknown to the professor until it was applied, and wasn’t specified to the media (i.e., the public) afterward. Whether true or not, each case (at first) smacks of arbitrary and capricious action, with legitimate constitutional issues revolving mainly around freedom of speech.

I say the threshold resides in making patently false, fraudulent and/or factually incorrect claims to get hired or promoted, being convicted of a felony, or engaging in certifiable and provable scientific or academic misconduct (as opposed to mere allegations). Based on that, Ward Churchill doesn’t pass the test, given on his false statements about his heritage, not on his lunatic but freely expressed opinions. The Deming case was so muddy, it’s hard to evaluate independently without a lot of inside knowledge that’s being kept under wraps (under wraps…wait a minute, OU is a public university, right?). But given what is known, it sure seems like a case of institutional vindictiveness and retaliation to me. It’s too early to say about Enstrom; UCLA needs to prove he has done something wrong.

As UCLA, CU and OU are PUBLIC universities, funded by PUBLIC tax dollars, freedom of speech and “innocent until proven guilty” apply. Public universities should make the lines for dismissal or demotion crystal-clear, sharply defined, unambiguous, universally and equally applicable, and readily available to those who provide their tax dollars.

Private schools, of course, are a different matter. Faculty at those should be smart enough to know what they’re getting into before they sign on, that there is a risk of their academic freedom being restricted, and not to join to begin with if they don’t agree. As such, some private schools can become safe havens from intellectual challenge for the like-minded, or for quiet and compliant types who are content never to make waves or question authority.


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