Academic Freedom from first principles

Recently there have been two, somewhat prominent, cases where a professor received a job offer from an academic department had that offer rescinded by the administration (typically without explanation). The cases have interesting parallels and raise interesting questions about academic freedom. I’ve encountered a fair bit of confusion about how academic freedom plays into all this. In this essay, I attempt to construct a model of academic freedom and its limits (acceptable and otherwise) derived, more or less, from first principles. So I don’t rely on e.g., AAUP statements except as cross checks that I’m in the right concept space. I’ll try to apply this derived notion to the cases (Salaita and McGinn) to test it out.

Some caveats:

  1. While the S&M cases are prominent and important, they are by no means the most significant impositions on academic freedom today. For example, the treatment of adjuncts (and the reduction of tenure lines) is far more significant and destructive. I’m sort of wimping out by starting with S&M, but that’s where my head has been, so that’s where I’m starting. Sorry.
  2. I don’t particularly care for Salaita or McGinn.
  3. I’m more personally sympathetic toward Salaita than McGinn (by like a ton).
  4. My judgement is that Salaita has a very strong case for his having treated unjustly. McGinn much less so.

The Academic Mission

The standard primary (at least nominal) goal of a university is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Universities can have other goals, even other primary goals (e.g., social justice or, more problematically, profit), but if knowledge creation and sharing aren’t in there it’s hard to see how they are a university per se. A university can choose to emphasise one over the other (“teaching colleges” vs. “research universities”), but without the combination you just are something else. [Note: We need to construe knowledge broadly so that the creation of art in all its forms is covered.]

It is important not to prima facie constrain the form or sort of knowledge. It happens that scholarly knowledge is the primary form of knowledge generated by universities, but it’s not the only form, and part of the teaching aspect is to produce self-knowledge in students.

Given this mission, we immediately face two questions:

  1. What are the necessary means to achieving this mission?
  2. What are the most effective means to achieving this mission?

The banal answer is that we need a certain amount of resources. People have to eat while they teach or do research. Labs and classrooms cost money.

Another answer is that we need rigour, quality, skill, and so on. Sometimes this is called expertise, but there are some issues there (e.g., when “being a credentialed expert” substitutes for “has a specific capability”) . So, let’s just call it skill. We need skill in research and in teaching.

The distinctive answer answer to both these questions is free inquiry.1

Free Inquiry

Why does inquiry need to be free? Even in areas which might seem to be highly constrained as to method and topic (say, physics or biology), the space of possible hypotheses, techniques, and methods is too large and complex for exhaustive search.2 We need to winnow down our explorations to likely to be fruitful efforts. And we have a plethora of mechanisms to do this: teaching, funding, hiring criteria (and actual hiring), promotion criteria (and actual promotions), peer review, peer acclaim and scorn, public acclaim, prizes, and so on. The social mechanisms in place to direct research both in form (e.g., thou shalt publish in high ranking journals; thy thesis shall cite appropriate literature) and in content (e.g., see the history of cold fusion3).

Furthermore, one of the jobs of a PhD supervisor/advisor is to steer their students to projects that are likely to result in a successful PhD defence.4 A key job of peer reviewer is to ensure that certain quality, relevance, and significance standards are met.

All this suggests that inquiry is de facto highly constrained and such heavy constraints are embraced by the academic community.

However, history is littered with surprising scientific ideas and techniques. To grossly oversimplify, science works by a generate and test methodology: We generate theories and test them against reality. The problem is that we are often wrong and wrong headed. It’s not just that we make errors, but that we make errors at every level, including what’s worth investigating and what’s the right way to do it. Given the enormous forces pushing for conformity, we need something to counterbalance it. We need to make space for stabs into other parts of the investigatory space.5 If there is a lot of momentum in a certain direction, then other moves are both inherently risky (after all, we generally have good reasons for the current direction) and institutionally risky (the rest of the community is trying to keep every one on “fruitful” paths).

We need to mitigate the risk of groupthink and communal misguidedness. The way we do this is by providing some mitigation of the individual (or sub community) risk and some encouragement to go off the common paths. Some example mechanisms:

  1. Tenure and other job protections.
  2. Conscious efforts to support diverse views.
  3. An ethos of critical reflection, exploration, and devil’s advocacy.
  4. Less constrained fellowships such as MacArthur awards, etc.
  5. Opener fora such as workshops where we relax e.g., rigour standards with an eye to exploring new ideas
  6. Strong socialisation into a culture of academic freedom

It’s instructive to note that the formal mechanisms are relatively few. In the US, tenure is an important one, but it is very minimal. Tenure is just a contractual provision that you cannot be fired except for cause where cause is restricted to fairly minimal levels of competency. Classically, esp. in the humanities, if you can teach a couple of courses, you can keep your job. Thus, pursuing a failed or even bonkers line of research does not mean you’ll be fired.

This is a ridiculously minimal protection! It covers less than a third of academic staff in the US, some portion of those are merely “tenure track”. The pre-tenure track is brutal with a common bit of advice being not to rock the boat in anyway before you get tenure (!). In other words, there are all sorts of personal risk that tenure doesn’t protect against. You can get some more protection by being otherwise successful (and there, it probably should be lots of grants, at least in the sciences).

If we think more broadly than the sciences, the forms of knowledge become more diverse and the idea that we might be able to restrict the “freedom” to something like one’s academic speciality becomes untenable. We don’t know what will work at all or work for a given person.

My favourite description of this comes from Robertson Davies’ novel, Fifth Business:

Yet often, usually at about three o’clock in the afternoon when the air grew heavy, and scholars at nearby desks were dozing over their notes, I would think: Dunstan Ramsay, what on earth are you doing here, and where do you think this is leading? You are now thirty-four, without wife or child, and no better plan than your own whim; you teach boys who, very properly, regard you as a signpost on the road they are to follow, and like a signpost they pass you by without a thought; your one human responsibility is a madwoman about whom you cherish a maggoty-headed delusion; and here you are, puzzling over records of lives as strange as fairy tales, written by people with no sense of history, and yet you cannot rid yourself of the notion that you are well occupied. Why don’t you go to Harvard and get yourself a Ph.D., and try for a job in a university, and be intellectually respectable? Wake up, man! You are dreaming your life away!…

Despite these afternoon misgivings and self-reproaches I clung to my notion, ill defined though it was, that a serious study of any important body of human knowledge, or theory, or belief, if undertaken with a critical but not a cruel mind, would in the end yield some secret, some valuable permanent insight, into the nature of life and the true end of man….The only thing for me to do was to keep on keeping on, to have faith in my whim, and remember that for me, as for the saints, illumination when it came would probably come from some unexpected source.

Taking such risk needn’t (and really isn’t!) be consequence free: If you pursue unfashionable lines, you will have trouble with your career. You might lack for colleagues, endure scorn and mockery, and end up with little to show for your efforts. You might be profoundly wrong or merely unrecognised. But being wrong is the natural state of someone seriously engaged in inquiry. We are nothing if not fallible.

People are strange. We can be brilliant in one moment or area and bonkers everyone else. Linus Pauling was undoubtably one of the most significant and productive scientists in history, but he was a big ole quack about vitamin C. So, we should be careful about excluding people from community of inquirers because of, let us neutrally say, quirks, whether they are quirks in their field but especially if they are from outside their field. (“Field” is, itself, not a crisp, static notion.)

Politics is both something we study and something that affects what and how we study. It is also something that is easy to get wrong in a variety of ways.

Obviously, for all the propaganda, no university is organised around a extreme principle of academic freedom. We put lots of barriers against (what we think are) unfruitful or kooky ideas. And a good deal of this is appropriate! Remember, the goal isn’t freedom per se, but success in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. So, while people are amazingly fallible, we are also the only court available. There are conflicts between people’s academic freedom (e.g., funding is often zero sum, so if we give it to one person we necessarily deny it to others; instructor’s freedom to innovate pedagogically is restricted by the fact that students need certain conditions for effective learning; medical researchers are restricted in their experiments on both humans and animals even when less restricted mechanisms might be more effective). The name “academic freedom”, itself, suggests that we aren’t protecting people at large (though universities should make it easy to enter and benefit from support for free inquiry).

Given that we don’t have radically free inquiry, we need to be extremely cautious about the restrictions we do have and any new restrictions we introduce. A good deal of academic freedom (in the sense of intellectual risk taking and support for risk taking) comes from socialisation into a professional ethic (or, at least, the show of it). This socialisation is extremely fragile, is steadily being attacked, and in many ways is diminished in, at least, the US and the UK.6 Thus, some obvious moves:

  1. It’s not enough to give lip service to academic freedom, we must enact and defend it even when it hurts.
  2. A restriction of academic freedom should be primarily justified by an overall gain in academic freedom with the burden of proof being against an active restriction.

The second condition supports the “whole picture” standard of evaluation of hires and tenure decisions. One way we can expand freedom is allowing failures to be balanced out by other successes. Thus, if someone pursues a faltering line of research, they should be able to be promoted at least partially on the basis of their excellent teaching. Similarly, while we might determine that certain constraints on political expression in some classrooms are appropriate (intro classes are potentially more restrictive than advanced graduate seminars), we should be extremely wary about making decisions based on external political considerations or unpopular political expression.


I trust it’s obvious at this point that I can derive my favoured position: The Salaita unhiding is a gross and unjustified violation of both his and the hiring department’s academic freedom. The tweets were far from the classroom and his peers determined that his whole picture was highly favourable.7 The nominal rationale (that some students might be made to feel uncomfortable in his classes because of their political views) is strongly undermined by his prior record. The actual motivation (placating donors) is precisely the sort of thing we should resist, even though it hurts. The power of money is already tremendous in universities and not letting funders control every appointment is an extremely modest restriction on it.

What’s more, the chilling effect is obvious and powerful: Don’t express political opinions that might offend a donor unless you are 1) happy in your current position for the rest of your career and 2) extremely careful about any contractual stuff. Since among the things that offend wealthy donations is freaking climate science this pretty much exposes us all.


McGinn’s case is structurally similar: he was given an offer by a department but an administrator over-ruled it. As much as it pains me to say it, we have to start with a presumption that this is not a good thing. We have fewer details on the rationale, but deference to local academics is a powerful restraint on administrative violations of academic freedom.

That being said, there’s considerable room to critique the East Carolina hiring committee (the CHE article is behind a paywall so I requote from here):

Michael Veber, an associate professor of philosophy who led the search committee at East Carolina that chose Mr. McGinn, says he didn’t put much stock into what went on at Miami. “After reviewing the evidence, Miami never even accused him of harassment,” says Mr. Veber. “So I don’t see how anyone could justify denying him a position because of any of that.”

Nicholas Georgalis, a distinguished research professor of philosophy at East Carolina, says his department wanted to hire Mr. McGinn because of his eminence as a scholar. “His publication record is amazing, he is a rare public intellectual, and his letters of recommendation from top people in the field were extraordinary,” says Mr. Georgalis, who has been at East Carolina since 1973 and says he can’t remember administrators ever turning down a philosophy-department hire before this. “We felt this was a great opportunity.”

As for the reaction to the sex-harassment allegations Mr. McGinn faced at Miami, Mr. Georgalis says “a lot of it was hysteria, reactions based on rumor.” He adds, “I evaluated him based on his academic credentials, which are stellar.”

Here’s a case where the “whole picture” is relevant. I’ll leave it open whether a whole consideration of the McGinn record would justify his appointment (I tend to think not), but McGinn resigned his prior position for things where a teacher’s freedom is weakest: intimacy (whether benign or malign) with students. What’s more, the public record McGinn himself put forth is gives a troubling picture of his judgement. For one, he was actually accused of unprofessional conduct:

Pursuant to Section B4.9 (d)(ii) of the Faculty Manual, the University believes that Professor McGinn’s conduct is unprofessional due to the amorous relationship that developed between a senior faculty member and his student [my italics]…. The “relationship” violated the Faculty Manual’s policy on Consensual Amorous, Romantic or Sexual Relationships. Pursuant to that policy, ‘a faculty member who engages in amorous relationships with a person over whom he or she has evaluative authority without taking steps necessary to resolve the conflict, including reporting such a relationship at the earliest opportunity, may be subject to disciplinary action under the policies embodied in the Faculty Manual governing charges of unprofessional conduct.’… In this case, there is no dispute that…prior to and during the duration of the Independent Study Course and the research assistantship, Professor McGinn and Ms. X had a romantic relationship…

McGinn admits he had such an unreported amorous relationship, even though he thinks his conduct was professional. (Let us note that if everything were hunky dory about the relationship, the student wouldn’t have filed a complaint. It’s still theoretically possible, given what is public, that it was a wrongfully motivated accusation, but esp. given McGinn’s display, it doesn’t seem likely.)

At the very least, the whole Genius Project (wisely hidden on the main site) is a perfect example of where we should not take academic freedom in spite of McGinn’s protestations:

The student (hereafter NN) and I were engaged on what we called “the Genius Project”. The purpose of the genius project was to make NN into a truly original and outstanding young philosopher (one who could expect to find an attractive job later). Part of this project involved techniques for encouraging unconventional thinking, and the concept of “taboo-busting” was deemed helpful towards this end. We had developed a very open and candid style of communication, and were in contact extremely frequently. (She came to my house several times to play tennis and go paddle boarding, as well as talk about the work we were doing.)…

In this spirit I sent NN two short email messages, spaced over three months, which contained some (mild) sexual content, which was related to the seminar of mine NN had attended and which was relevant to work we were doing together. This content pertained to the hand in relation to human evolution and human life (including sexual life), and referred back to material discussed in the seminar I gave and which NN enthusiastically attended. These emails were received in the spirit in which they were intended (certainly no complaint was voiced about them), and they gave rise to some mild amusement between us over the months. They were quite banal. Many other personal and professional matters were discussed in our email correspondence, as well as our very frequent meetings; these two were exceptional and designed to achieve a specific pedagogical end. In no sense were they intended (or interpreted) as attempts to elicit anything from the recipient (except perhaps a chuckle).

To impose disciplinary action on the writer of these two emails would be a clear infringement of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I judged that these emails were in line with the project on which NN and I were (consensually) engaged, and I think they served their purpose (taboo-busting—though they described rather mundane matters). Most of the genius project took a more conventional form, but it is within this context that they should be interpreted. They were not just gratuitous snippets of risque prose, sent out of the blue. I believe that had the genius project continued it would have borne significant fruit; and indeed a colleague has remarked to me that NN’s philosophical abilities went from “good” to “superb” following the several months during which I was attempting to make her into a “genius”.

McGinn wants to have it every which way: On the one hand, he’s in a consensual, amorous relationship, but it’s part of his formal instruction! And he can’t, just can’t report it since the student didn’t want him to and he knows where to draw the line!

As asinine as his description of “the Genius project” was, he might have been able to make room for it by, for example, discussing it with his chair. Given that this is precisely an area where things can go spectacularly wrong in pretty standard ways, it is ever more important to be above board about it. Even though the university didn’t charge him with sexual harassment, from his own description and subsequent events, it looks like he at least came pretty damn close.

None of this is indicative of a careful teacher with good judgement. Indeed, it shows a person with, at best, a recklessness fed by his ego. (The ego is well documented.)

Just as a plagiarist might also produce good (and honest) work, so too might McGinn now be a reasonable instructor (contrary to the evidence of his own making). But both warrant heightened scrutiny. As far as I can tell, the East Carolina department just brushed all that away. That is something where it is possible that administrative override would be reasonable and necessary.

However, we should not give either side the benefit of the doubt here. Administrative interference should always be met with high suspicion. There are other measures they could take (like having him undergo sensitivity training; making sure he has limited student contact; requiring the committee to undergo similar training). Similarly, the committee has done a terrible job at least in their public pronouncements in a way that is likely to feed into the ongoingly hostile climate for women in philosophy.

S vs. M

The brief summary comparison:

  1. In Salaita’s case, we have an effective fire (which leaves him much worse off than before), at a point where his academic freedom should be very strongly protected, for professed reasons that are far from any normal expectation and farcically weak (with no whole picture analysis), with revealed reasons which are those which require strongest resistance and with secondary effects that are extremely chilling across the US as well as at Illinois.
  2. In McGinn’s case, we have a similar event (I’m not sure how far along it go) which doesn’t damage McGinn’s prior position directly (he having no prior job to lose), where we don’t know anything about the administration’s rationales, but for which there is at least a consideration about his fitness where his academic freedom is fairly weak and his public explanations are transparently poor and where the possible chilling effect is small or beneficial (chilling harassment is a positive good!) and there’s a possible climate benefit.

I think the cases are distinguishable. In McGinn’s case, I have problems with both the administration and the hiring committee, but, on balance, I think the hiring committee fares poorest. With Salaita, it’s not even close — the administration is deeply in the wrong.

  1. Wordpress ate a bunch of work at this point! Fooey! So this was slower in coming than I hoped. 
  2. Not even using robots! “Adam [the robot scientist] is capable of creating up to 1000 individual experiments in a day, with a typical experiment running for 4 days.” 
  3. “””Steven E. Koonin of Caltech called the Utah report a result of “the incompetence and delusion of Pons and Fleischmann,” which was met with a standing ovation. Douglas R. O. Morrison, a physicist representing CERN, was the first to call the episode an example of pathological science….A 1991 review by a cold fusion proponent had calculated “about 600 scientists” were still conducting research. After 1991, cold fusion research only continued in relative obscurity, conducted by groups that had increasing difficulty securing public funding and keeping programs open. These small but committed groups of cold fusion researchers have continued to conduct experiments using Fleischmann and Pons electrolysis set-ups in spite of the rejection by the mainstream community. The Boston Globe estimated in 2004 that there were only 100 to 200 researchers working in the field, most suffering damage to their reputation and career.””” 
  4. A department can face significant problems if they have low completion rates. For example, BBSRC has for certain studentships a (section 2.9) that a department have a 70% 4-year submission rate in order to be eligible. Manchester’s computer science has felt this and related pinches. 
  5. For those of you who like mathematical metaphors, a research community can get stuck in a local optimum
  6. In many ways, we’ve advanced! We’re more cognisant of cognitive blindnesses and things with negatively affect people like micro aggressions, stereotype threat, implicit bias, etc. 
  7. My only prior exposure to his work didn’t leave me particularly impressed. But this was only a tiny bit.