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Countering Bias and Misinformation mainly about the Arab-Israel conflict

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND TENURE

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About Maurice Ostroff
Two misunderstood concepts
Their use and abuse
 

By Maurice Ostroff (May 12, 2010)

Because academic freedom and free speech are treasured commodities in a free society, both carry a duty to exercise responsibility so that they are not used to promote destruction of the very freedom that is being enjoyed. The notion that academic freedom and free speech have no limitations is not only erroneous; it is dangerously misleading. Advocacy of criminal or anti-social behavior is not tolerated in most democratic countries, but differences of opinion do exist, for example about what constitutes unacceptable hate speech.

There should however be no divided opinion on whether academic freedom includes freedom to indoctrinate students. While general free speech permits the advocacy of opinions and ideologies and even demagogy, academic freedom, as implied by its name, should be confined to encouraging only academic research in a professor's field of expertise with the objective of always attempting to establish truth and understanding, without promoting one or other side of a contentious matter.

In "Save the World on Your Own Time", Professor Stanley Fish argues that there is but one proper role for academe in society: to advance bodies of knowledge and to equip students for doing the same. When teachers offer themselves as moralists, political activists, or agents of social change rather than as credentialed experts in a particular subject, they abdicate their true purpose.

In a true learning environment, teachers and students must respect those who disagree with them and maintain an atmosphere of civility so as to avoid a hostile environment that limits intellectual diversity and the quality of learning.

In Israel the growing phenomenon of academics who preach rather than teach and who, more egregiously, advocate Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against their own universities, causes serious concern; not because they criticize Israel, but because the unbalanced irrational arguments they use are completely irreconcilable with intellectual honesty. Moreover the blatant prejudice in their public utterances reflects badly on the universities they openly represent, where rigorous standards of unbiased scholarship should be expected

A 1940 statement by The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is highly relevant to this situation. It contains the statement

"When College and university teachers speak or write as citizens .. they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution".(emphasis added)

The AAUP statement also stipulates that

"Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject".

Very sadly, these principles are often ignored, as is evident from reports of abuse of academic freedom at many universities in the Western World. Students complain about professors who discourage them from expressing legitimate views and make extreme partisan statements without any attempt at substantiation. Some reports accuse teachers of indoctrination to the extent that it is necessary to agree with a professor's political views to receive a good grade. Students deserve an education, not indoctrination. 

 The slogan of the American Students for Academic Freedom succinctly sums up the situation. It states. "You can't get a good education if they're telling you only half the story" http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/news/?c=Horowitz-Testimonies-To-Legislative-Bodies

 Tenure. The conflict between a teacher's freedom to express unpopular opinions and security of employment led to the introduction of tenure in academia, to provide job security to academics who wish to pursue original but possibly unpopular ideas. A tenured professor may not be dismissed except for very serious offences and then only after facing a formal enquiry. Sadly this privileged situation is becoming increasingly abused.

Evidently, when some professors turn to politics, they fail to distinguish between facts and their beliefs or assumptions. Relying on the security of their tenure, they often bolster prejudiced opinions with arguments, so shoddy in scholarship, that they would have precluded the attainment of tenure had they been expressed in their junior years.

In his book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America"  David Horowitz describes professors in the USA who freely support Osama bin Laden preach anti-Semitism and advocate killing of white people. A comprehensive preview of this important book is available at   http://tinyurl.com/2756eff

 Very sadly, Israel too, has a full complement of professors who take refuge in the immunity granted by tenure, while ranting against their own country and advocating boycotts of their own universities.
 
In the USA tenure applies to school teachers as well as professors and it has its opponents.  In "A Brief History of Tenure" Time Magazine refers to tenure as the holy grail of the teaching profession, but also as a source of many problems. It inadvertently protects incompetent teachers from being fired.

The system makes it extremely difficult to flunk a bad teacher. Each state has its own stories: A Connecticut teacher received a mere 30-day suspension for helping students cheat on a standardized test; one California school board spent $8,000 to fire an instructor who preferred using R-rated movies instead of books; a Florida teacher remained in the classroom for a year despite incidents in which she threw books at her students and demanded they referred to her as "Ms. God."
http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1859505,00.html

In view of the sloppy scholarship evident in many presentations by academics who stray into politics from their fields of expertise one must fear for the quality of the education they provide for their students. The time is long overdue for the universities to take a serious look at the increasing abuse of the tenure system and academic freedom.

Recommended reading
http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/news/2564/motto-of-anti-israel-academics-free-speech-for-me-but-not-for-thee

 

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