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The Great Debate About Academic Freedom

Hot Topic at Eighth Annual Arthur N. Rupe Debate


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Academic freedom was the bone of contention between opinion-makers Stanley Fish and Cary Nelson at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on February 3. Approximately 200 people attended the eighth Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate, filling about a third of the seats. The audience, mostly from UCSB’s College of Letters and Science, emitted supportive applause and the occasional “Hear, Hear!” in response to Fish’s and Nelson’s divergent views on a topic of great relevance to them.

“Academic freedom ensures that the education a student receives is worth its name,” said Director Ann Birmingham, of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, who introduced the two iconic intellectuals of higher education as “brilliant, outspoken defenders of academic freedom.” Birmingham wondered aloud whether the right to academic freedom lay within the professor or the university and what its limits were.

Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, kicked off the night with his opening statement. He spoke from on stage at Campbell Hall, accompanied by his pixilated duplicate image in a corner of the large screen featuring Nelson’s bust, transmitted via Skype from Urbana-Champagne, Illinois. Nelson had woken up that morning to a local headline reading, “Today is Canceled,” and indeed, harsh winter weather grounded his flight, “perpetuating the suspicion that [Fish and Nelson] are the same person,’ joked Executive Dean David Marshall, the debate’s moderator.

With echoing confidence, Fish asserted that the only freedom granted by academic freedom is the freedom to teach. “Academic freedom,” according to Fish, “is a form of guild protectionism.” Teachers should introduce students to the analytic skills they need to navigate material they were previously unfamiliar with. “Academics are free to do that,” Fish said, and not any other job for which they are not trained. Academic freedom’s only legitimate agenda, he said, is the objective advancement of knowledge.

In Fish’s view, academic freedom has no legal standing and it bears no likeness to the First Amendment, university classrooms are not public squares. Students do, however, have the right to question and to go their own way in their scholarly inquiries.

Fish recently introduced a new field to higher education: Academic Freedom Studies, as he coined it, exploring different approaches to the subject, and relevant cases. On a continuum of the politics of academic freedom, Fish placed himself on the right extremity with an emphasis on academics. “As you move leftward,” Fish said, “academics fades as a moderator and is replaced by freedom.”

The larger-than-life screen version of Nelson defended academic freedom as an element in a larger picture of greater freedom overall. He said it is the right of academics to provoke students intellectually, and that freedom for the former goes hand in hand with freedom for the latter. Responding to Fish’s thoughts on guild protectionism, Cary agreed that academic freedom is the only protection for faculty from an institution’s reprisal.

The case of UCSB Professor William Robinson was amply discussed during the debate. A professor of sociology and global studies, Robinson endured a rocky set of months between February and June 2009 after two of his students dropped his “Society of Globalization” class and reported him for allegedly distributing anti-Semitic materials. Fish insisted that he would have fired Robinson immediately if given the authority. As president of the American Association of University Professors, Nelson had defended Robinson’s scholarly freedom to use Internet-accessible imagery comparing Israel’s invasion of Gaza to the Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Ghetto. According to a statement made by the AAUP, “If an instructor cannot stimulate discussion and encourage critical thought by drawing analogies or parallels, the vigor and vibrancy of classroom discussion will be stultified.” The Investigation was dropped in June 2009 and Robinson was cleared of the allegations.

During their rebuttals, Fish and Cary butted heads over the educational value of passionate advocacy. Fish said he would rather see topics get “academicized” in class while Nelson said he preferred to expose students to informed debate. Advocacy that does not impose, harass, or ridicule students, Nelson added, teaches them how to participate in a democracy.

When the direction of the debate was handed to the moderator, Marshall asked the two professors for their thoughts on academic freedom being limited to faculty. Fish quipped that students have the academic freedom to be in the professor’s presence. Nelson argued that students are allowed parallel practice, meaning they can pursue their ideas but they, like professors, face professional judgment.

Afterwards a UCSB professor who described herself as well informed on the Israel-Palestine conflict wondered whether Fish thought the conflict should not be addressed at all in her classes. Fish responded that she ought not to tell students what they should or should not think or do. “Teaching,” he said, “is not about moving toward ends.”

After the debate, graduate student Josh Harris said that after listening to Fish and Nelson discuss the role students have played in the lives of faculty, he concluded that student evaluations give students an inordinate amount of power over professors’ lives.

The Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate addresses issues of national and international importance, said Marshall. As well, this year’s debate clearly was relevant to UCSB faculty and students. Marshall quoted Rupe saying that democracy depends on informed students, and that informed, intelligent dialogue about the issues that divide and bring us together is crucial.

Stanley Fish is a regular contributor to the New York Times and has authored many books, his most recent entitled Save the World On Your Own Time. Also a prolific author, Cary Nelson recently published No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.

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