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Academic Freedom for Thee…What About Me?


There is no field more perilous for open-minded scholars than evolutionary biology. So this caught my eye. Journalist Menachem Wecker has co-written a whole book on academic freedom. Now, with a piece in the National Catholic Reporter, Wecker gives a pr�cis of what it means for scholars to enjoy the freedom to teach and think without fear. What will he say about the question of Darwin versus design?

Just this:

Contrary to popular belief, academic freedom isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Instead, it guarantees that professors can only be dismissed for cause, ascertained by a hearing of their peers.

So if a biology professor “goes off the deep end” and tells students there’s no such thing as evolution, or genes don’t exist, that professor will go before a committee, which could decide that behavior is unprofessional, [Hank Reichman, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure for the American Association of University Professors,] said. But if a biologist goes in a new research direction that threatens “some of the old truisms of the field,” that professor must be protected.

“The greatest discoveries in almost every field of knowledge,” Reichman said, “come from people who take risks and are sometimes viewed as troublemakers or pariahs.”

“Must be protected”? If only!

I haven’t read Wecker’s book, so he may know a lot more about the evolution debate than is indicated in his op-ed. However, one of his two examples of “going off the deep end” that could reasonably get a professor disciplined is if he “tells students there’s no such thing as evolution.”

“No such thing as evolution”? That reads as if Wecker doesn’t understand that evolution has several meanings — change over time, the Darwinian mechanism, common descent. In our experience, what has landed scientists in serious trouble is giving students grounds to question the second of those — the efficacy of unguided natural selection in generating biological information, the software that runs life.

It’s the super-Darwin partisans who dishonestly equate that — a genuine and profound scientific question — with saying “there’s no such thing as evolution.” And it is at that level of blunt aggression that the censors employ their power to silence. Remember the case of biologist Scott Minnich at the University of Idaho, against whom his university’s president issued what amounted to a gag order?

Jonathan Wells summarizes in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design:

In October 2005, just before Minnich was scheduled to testify in Pennsylvania [at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial], University of Idaho President Timothy P. White issued an edict prohibiting the teaching of “views that differ from evolution… in our life, earth, and physical science courses.”

Apparently, academic freedom doesn’t extend to critics of Darwinism. When University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill called victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 “little Eichmanns,” the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defended his academic freedom, reaffirming the AAUP’s commitment “to preserving and advancing principles of academic freedom in this nation’s colleges and universities. Freedom of faculty members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful, is an essential condition of an institution of higher learning that is truly free.” But when word of President White’s edict reached Jonathan Knight, director of the AAUP’s Office of Academic Freedom, Knight said: “Academic freedom is not a license to teach anything you like.” In the Orwellian thinking of the AAUP, all unpopular views are equal, but some are more equal than others.

A guy like Ward Churchill could teach whatever vicious claptrap he likes, but a responsible articulation of the evidence on a controversial subject like intelligent design — that is prohibited, worthy of a fatwa. Says the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “Academic freedom is not a license to teach anything you like.”

To borrow the words of Hank Reichman of the AAUP, cited by Menachem Wecker, it’s precisely questioning “some of the old truisms of the field” that has, in fact, threatened the careers of scientists who have rethought orthodox concepts of origins in biology and cosmology. For a recent illustration, go back and review our coverage of the Eric Hedin affair at Ball State University.

Here’s an irony. Lately, thoughtful folks in the media have become increasingly aware of how illiberal and censorious of dissent “liberal” universities and colleges truly are. My old friend and colleague Jay Nordlinger at National Review, for example, revealed the existence of a secret Facebook discussion group at my university, Brown, that shelters candid interactions about controversial political subjects. Students needed to seek out a private online bunker to talk openly!

In 1984 I was kicked out my dorm for writing a couple of op-eds, deemed insensitive, in the Brown Daily Herald. The atmosphere is apparently even more oppressive today.

Jay writes in amazement:

Yes, there is an underground group whose purpose is to allow kids to say what they ought to be free to say above ground.

As David Frum remarked on Twitter, when he read the magazine piece, What is this? Warsaw 1983 or America 2015?

Secret forums for dissenters? That is exactly the world of Darwin-doubting scientists at this very moment. But the impact and the ramifications of politically correct speech codes for students are minor compared to scientifically correct codes on scientists. Students are there to learn and enrich themselves, but professional scholars are supposed to be discovering new knowledge, of relevance to the world.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that for professors with controversial thoughts on evolution, it’s indeed Warsaw 1983. I am waiting for journalists to pick up on and report that.

Image: Manning Hall, Brown University, by Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.