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Chemical Eye on Academic Freedom
by Preston MacDougall


April 13, 2005

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. That would be just ducky as an opening line if this was a Biological Eye commentary, but it did happen to be my first thought when I read about the latest assault on academic freedom, which has been under attack recently on multiple fronts, and from surprising directions.

jpg Preston MacDougall

When defining what academic freedom is, I probably would continue with a feathery theme, recalling Konrad Lorentz's famous demonstration of a gosling's sense of belonging being imprinted by its first encounter. Likewise, academic freedom is a tough thing to pin down, but scholars know it when they see it, or when it has been fouled, because academic freedom is what distinguishes colleges and universities, such as their own alma mater (literally "nourishing mother"), from other, more pragmatic, places of learning.

We are frequently reminded that freedom isn't free, and that certainly is true. But it applies to all types of freedom, including academic freedom. The most prestigious prize given by the American Chemical Society, the Priestley Award, is named after Joseph Priestley, the British chemist who discovered oxygen in 1774. His chemical fame made him a prominent Dissenter from the state religion, and he didn't remain British for very long afterward. When his Birmingham home, laboratory, and Unitarian Church were burned to the ground, by a royally angry mob, in 1791, he sought religious freedom, and personal safety, in the newly United States of America.

There are still regions in the world today, where the Taliban and their ilk are in control, that millions of people risk their lives when they expose their religious faith. While the "price" is not nearly as high, at least for the individual, academic freedom has its costs too.

A college or university is a marketplace of ideas. This is also certainly true, but we are not reminded of it often enough, which is apparent from the rash of so-called Students' Bills of Rights. These are modeled after a document distributed by a conservative pundit, and are being brought before various Legislative bodies, including the State Senates in California and Tennessee, which has seen such monkey business before.

This, however, is not one of the surprising directions referred to earlier. After all, in order to control people, which is what pundits do, you must first remove some of their freedom.

No, the first recent surprise attack on academic freedom came when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard voted to censure their own President. While there has been subsequent talk of his "bullying" management style, the bulk of the media coverage has exposed the crux of the matter: his statement that genetics cannot be ruled out as a factor in the under-representation of women in the top echelon of math and science. He did not say it was a factor. He said that you couldn't rule it out, and even suggested that it may not be a factor.

No question about it, ideas were attacked reflexively, which runs afoul of academic freedom. And not only was it an inside job, but it happened at Harvard University, which is the Fort Knox of academic freedom.

Still, this isn't the most surprising of the recent attacks on academic freedom. That distinction has to go to another Ivy League school, Columbia University, and again the resignation of its President, Lee Bollinger, has been called for. This time, however, it is the graduate students that are up in arms. In the academic community, where faculty are "mature" and undergraduates are in a "gestation phase", graduate students are the scholars most recently imprinted with the scent of academic freedom. I think that, in this case, they are right on target.

This time sex had nothing to do with the President's predicament. It was a combination of the other two tricky subjects: religion and politics. The details, which involve certain professors in Columbia's Middle East studies program, and a small group of Jewish students who felt intimidated in class, were no doubt important to the individuals involved. Whatever transpired in the classroom, there are multiple manners of addressing it, without clipping the wings of academic freedom.

The attack on academic freedom came, rather ironically, when Mr. Bollinger, during a speech to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, said that Professors have a responsibility "to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others."

Now I am guessing that he spoke from a podium. And I am probably not alone in associating the Ivy League with an allure of certitude. Moreover, as a faculty member, I know that when my university President speaks, my colleagues and I are a captive audience.

It bears paraphrasing: What's toxic for the goose is toxic for the gander. When it comes to academic freedom, you either have a free marketplace of ideas, or you don't.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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