Emory Report

May 3, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 30

Books in review:

The Future of Academic Freedom

Louis Menand, editor; University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Reviewed by John Bugge

Despite its title, this collection of essays by nine distinguished contributors from philosophy, history, literature and the law offers commentary not so much on the future of academic freedom in the American university, as it does reasoned reflection on the sort of battering the concept has absorbed in the last decade. In her foreword, Linda Ray Pratt, former president of the American Association of University Professors (an Emory PhD in English, by the way), explains that the book was commissioned by AAUP as a means of responding to attacks on the university for "[s]peech codes, multicultural curricula, affirmative action, sexual harassment, women's studies, deconstruction and every meeting of the Modern Language Association." In all the controversies surrounding these issues, academic freedom has been implicated, called into question, put at risk.

Its new vulnerability, Pratt suggests (and Richard Rorty's essay in the volume helps confirm), stems from the epistemological "paradigm shift" that has occurred since academic freedom was first defined and defended at the start of the century by John Dewey, founding president of AAUP. In the devolution from early pragmatism to neo-pragmatist, postmodernist relativism, Rorty's question, "Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?" has to be answered "no."

For if one believes with Derrida that reality is only socially and linguistically constructed, and with Foucault that knowledge and power are "locked in a mutually supportive embrace" (as Thomas Haskell puts it in a rejoinder to Rorty), then academic free speech becomes, in the language of Stanley Fish, a "dependent value"-that is, one that is nothing more than situationally dependent. "[S]o long as so-called 'free speech principles' have been fashioned by your enemies," says Fish, "contest their relevance to the issue at hand; but if you manage to refashion them in line with your purposes, urge them with a vengeance." In such a climate it seems clear that "We Need a New Interpretation of Academic Freedom"-the title of another noteworthy essay in this collection by Oxford University Professor of Jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin.

It is a pity this volume has nothing specific to offer on the vexed question of academic freedom in medical schools, though several essays offer insight into the severest threat to that principle we at Emory have faced in some time: the attempted firing of tenured medical school faculty members, one of whom, apparently, for his too-vocal exercise of the right of free expression over recent policy decisions concerning Grady Hospital, a right whose protection it is tenure's purpose to safeguard. However counterintuitive it may at first seem, one could almost believe the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Administration Building is something of a hotbed of post-structuralist discourse on academic freedom wherein the operative principle (from Fish again) is that "the name of the game has always been politics" (as quoted from his well-known 1992 essay, "There's No Such Thing As Free Speech and It's a Good Thing Too").

Notwithstanding, in this Emory case of one man's speaking his own truth to power, we are better guided by Dworkin's view that "academic freedom plays an important ethical role not just in the lives of the few people it protects, but in the life of the community more generally." An attack upon it cheapens "the ideal of ethical individualism," by which one has the "duty to speak out for what one believes to be true," and according to which "it is wrong to remain silent." Dworkin cites the example of the Reagan administration's "gag order" forbidding federally financed doctors from discussing abortion with their patients, calling it "a disgrace ... because it ignored the deep responsibility of the moral role of the physician, and the moral harm that follows from frustrating it."

In 1996 AAUP published a statement on "Tenure in the Medical School"--one of whose authors was the late Neil Moran of Emory's Department of Pharmacology--which modestly asserted that "the presence of income-generating activities [in medical schools] in no way weakens the claim of faculty members in those schools to the protections of academic freedom and tenure." Would that the administration of the Emory School of Medicine saw it that way. I recommend this volume of essays to them, and to all who are concerned about this most crucial principle of our quite different academic enterprises.

John Bugge is professor of English and president of the Emory chapter of the AAUP.

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