By SHANNON O. WELLS
In a recent on-campus summation of the essence and meaning of “academic freedom,” Kris Kanthak, associate professor of political science, dispensed with high-minded pleasantries and cut to the chase.
“It’s important to me as a professor (that) academic freedom (means) essentially, I have a right to be a jerk,” she said. “That’s not why it exists, but that’s essentially what it means: I have a right to say things that other people don’t want to hear. I also have a set of obligations as a decent and moral person in terms of how I deal with that.” The concept of academic freedom, she added, “says the university can’t fire me just because what I or someone else thinks what I’m saying is true.”
Kanthak, who also is vice president of the University Senate, shared her perspectives alongside other Pittsburgh-area academics at an Academic Freedom Town Hall on Oct. 20 in the Cathedral of Learning. Hosted by Mario Brown, associate dean for equity engagement and justice and School of Pharmacy associate professor, the panel also included Sheila Vélez Martinez from Pitt’s School of Law, and Jonathan Caulkins, professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Initiated by Pitt’s Office for Health Sciences Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Center on Race and Social Problems, the seminar focused on the “complex historical relationship” between academic freedom and freedom of speech.
“University autonomy, faculty rights to teach and research and espouse political views outside the classroom have been seen as ‘givens,’” an introductory statement said. “Present-day conflict between the right to speak and the impact of the speech act is under active scrutiny.”
The collegial exchange explored various interpretations and facets of academic freedom and freedom of speech, including how they relate to current trends and events, with panelists often in agreement or bouncing ideas off each other.
Long road to freedom
“The concept behind academic freedom is about the search for truth,” Kanthak said. “It’s about the understanding that if you’re in an organization who has its full curiosity and searching beyond what we already know, that’s inherently going to be uncomfortable … But it’s absolutely necessary, absolutely vital, the role in universities to simply be able to have uncomfortable conversation — offensive conversations — in service of the truth.”
Martinez concurred, calling the concept of academic freedom “integral” to the modern university, with roots reaching to the founding of universities in Europe.
The concept grew in the U.S., she added, through principles established by the American Association of University Professors in 1940 “that have been adopted across the board by various universities,” including the University of Chicago and its widely embraced “Chicago Principles.”
Caulkins said the impetus to seriously discuss and codify academic freedom took time gain traction. “For many hundreds of years, colleges and universities were more about transmitting an already established body of beliefs and were often church-related institutions, training ministers of the church,” he said. “(Then) there was this transition that has been spoken about, a different role in society … about discovering new ideas, so that the act of freedom is essential.”
Asked by Mario Brown how academic freedom is officially recognized, Caulkins made a point to differentiate between freedom of expression, which the U.S. Constitution grants to protect against government intrusion in thought and speech, and academic freedom conferred by academic institutions. “Freedom of expression protects you from the government. Academic freedom protects you from your institution. … It’s a part of the industry that we are in, but it is also in law in the sense that when we are hired under an implicit or explicit employment contract that recognizes our academic freedom rights.”
Brown’s question about the influence of social media on speech and academic freedom brought up the layers of complications and contradictions that digital technology presents.
“I think in general (social media) allows people to have a little bit more control over the information that they receive,” Kanthak said, “and they can choose to be curious, effectual and get out of their comfort zones. Or they can choose to kind of dig right into their comfort zone and never be questioned or never process information that might be uncomfortable.”
As an academic, Kanthak finds social media helpful in communicating with people “inside and outside the academy.” She cautions, however, that because the information is “curated, you need to be very mindful and understanding that a lot of times information that you want to have … makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable.”
Younger generations, she added, are more accustomed to curated information, “and when it’s not curated to a particular comfort level, that tends to become disturbing.”
Caulkins noted how social media “blurs the boundaries between work and private life … That is, even in your private life you’re associated with your university,” he said. “Your statements may have negative externalities that carry over on the rest of the university community.”
A question from a virtual audience member focused on recent legislative measures backed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis meant to crack down on academics’ research and race- and gender-based discourse and to scrutinize their political beliefs.
Martinez said she’s seen clear evidence that such restrictive philosophies and measures are already infiltrating Florida classrooms. “I was able to look at some materials from Florida … a full PowerPoint presentation on the limits of expression within the classroom, and within the structure of curriculums and syllabi and all that regarding race, critical race theory and ethics,” she said. “So it’s a real law already. It’s not a proposal, but it’s happening.”
Joking that law professors seeking to avoid such oppressive teaching and learning environments are now seeking out schools like Pitt, Martinez said, “this is a reality and there are people that are very, very scared about the courses that they teach — everyone that teaches critical race theory, people that are teaching criminal proceedings, people that are just teaching everyday law classes — are afraid of what the consequences might be in the new environment. And this law is being replicated in other states, so it’s not going to be only Florida.”
Rather than accept these trends or somehow work around them, Martinez said they should inspire dedicated academics to be more defiant in maintaining already hard-won academic freedom.
“There is always going to be a tension,” she said, “and the extent of our academic freedom, the strength of our freedom of expression is going to be as strong and as long as we are willing to defend it and fight for it to try to assert, because that is the tension that we have to navigate.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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