Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Academic Freedom in Perspective

In American higher education we have significant debates about the limits and rights inherent in our notion of "academic freedom". Rooted in the basic principle that scholars should be free to pursue the truth wherever it takes them, and to teach what their discipline requires (rather than bowing to public or, often, political pressure on this or that issue), the idea of academic freedom is fundamental to the American higher education enterprise. Hardly a week goes by when there isn't at least one story in the Chronicle about some professor or another, or some institution or another, debating the boundaries of what's appropriate and what kinds of speech are protected.

As important as those debates are, it's good to keep them in context. For the vast majority of western faculty, nearly all the time, academic freedom isn't much of an issue - even for those who study controversial subjects (evolution, global climate change, politics, etc., etc.) Hundreds of scholars (including me) signed an open letter criticizing the George W. Bush administration over the Iraq war; to the best of my knowledge, none of us suffered so much as a slap on the wrist. Contrast that to the situation in modern Russia (this from today's Insider Higher Ed):

A philosophy professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations was fired after writing an op-ed criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as akin to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, Reuters reported. The institute, which is affiliated with the foreign ministry, said it had dismissed Andrei Zubov for criticizing Russian foreign policy: "Let the inappropriate and offensive historical analogies and characterizations lay on Zubov's conscience, the leadership of MGIMO view it as impossible for A.B. Zubov to continue working at the institute,” it said in a statement.

Granted, I am no big fan of casual comparisons to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, there are some similarities between Russia's grab of Crimea and the German Anschluss with Austria - they're not the same, but there are some valid comparisons there. Whatever your take on the appropriateness of the analogy, however, it's clear that all this professor did was what American professors do all the time: disagree publicly with his government on one of the more important policy issues of the day. For that he was openly fired, without even a pretext that there is some other reason.

So the next time we are tempted to declare that the sky is falling because some American professor is abusing or being abused over academic freedom issues, remember that it could be FAR worse. And if the Moscow State Institute of International Relations calls with a job offer, you might want to think twice.

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