What Good Is Academic Freedom Without An Academy?

by Michael Dorf

As a longtime fan of academic satire, I enjoyed Julie Schumacher's new book Dear Committee Members (favorably reviewed, e.g., here and here). The book takes the form of discursive letters of recommendation from a middle-aged professor of English and creative writing at a fictional midwestern university. Schumacher herself teaches English and creative writing at the University of Minnesota but "Payne University" is not a thinly disguised version of Minnesota; it is instead a generic stand-in for academe. The protagonist, Jason T. Fitger, is also something of a standard type: a once-promising author whose debut novel was more successful than any of his subsequent works; a pedant whose awareness of his own pedantry makes him something of a lovable curmudgeon; a man whose sense of irony alone prevents him from spiraling downward into self-pity. Fitger is more sympathetic than the character played (brilliantly) by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale but somewhat less sympathetic than, say, Philip Swallow, who appears in various David Lodge novels.

Dear Committee Members compares reasonably well with other academic satires. Although the book lacks the depth of the best works of the genre--Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis; Moo by Jane Smiley; the Swallow/Zapp books of Lodge--Dear Committee Members is nonetheless a fun and well-crafted work. And like those other books, Dear Committee Members combines a keen sense of what is ridiculous about academia--the petty jealousies; the pompous posturing over nothing; etc.--with genuine fondness for the people who work and live here. But unlike academic satire of the not-too-distant past, Dear Committee Members has an elegiac quality about it, a sense that this lovely island of insane sanity is a fast-fading anachronism.

Dear Committee Members is chiefly about the gutting of the humanities, symbolized throughout the book by Payne University's lavish spending to renovate office space for the Economics Department, even as the English Department endures a hiring freeze, toxic debris, broken windows, and dysfunctional toilets. The relative penury of some departments is not a new development in academic satire (or academia itself). For example, the villain in Smiley's Moo (published in 1995) is an economics professor who prides himself on seeking, receiving, and ultimately rejecting competing offers from other universities so that he can maintain his status as the highest paid faculty member on campus. But in those pre-Great Recession works, the impoverishment of the "impractical" fields was only relative. In Dear Committee Members, as in reality, it is clear that whole areas of academic study will either be eliminated from the curriculum, or given over to instruction by very poorly paid and overworked adjunct faculty who are not rewarded for, and in any event have no time to engage in, scholarship. Indeed, in much of academia, that is an ongoing trend, rather than a forecast.

I share the view of the fictional Fitger (and presumably of Schumacher) that the demise of the humanities would be a great loss--not of the same scale as the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas but reminiscent of it: a deliberate act of a kind of cultural suicide. But in one respect I am, if anything, more pessimistic than Fitger and Schumacher. For while they see the humanities losing out to the more practical/lucrative branches of the university, I see the very idea of universities as imperiled.

Professional schools are a case in point. Fitger's ex-wife is an administrator in Payne's law school, described in Fitger's letters as a land of plenty. And perhaps that is how law schools look from the vantage of a besieged English department. But of course it is no secret that law schools--especially those ranking in the middle of the pack, as Payne's ostensibly does--have also been under enormous pressure to scale back. Some will close. Others will go the way of the adjunct-heavy humanities. Presumably that is the plan for Suffolk Law School, where the university has offered to buy out all faculty with tenure and long-term contracts.

A similar fate may well await even those faculty in the so-called "STEM" fields that have gained in popularity as students, fearing the burden of large debt, have increasingly (and understandably) come to view higher education through a more narrowly practical lens. For even if there is greater student demand in the STEM fields than in the humanities, there will continue to be competitive pressure to reduce costs--and adjuncts in STEM fields are much cheaper than tenured and tenure-track faculty, just as they are in the humanities, the social sciences, and the professional schools. Whether you think of the fate of literature or other esoterica as a canary in a coal mine, a frog in increasingly hot water, or in terms of some other speciesist metaphor, the writing (to mix my metaphors even further) is on the wall: the very idea of academia as we have come to know it over the last few centuries is under enormous strain.

As I've said before, I think great research universities (of the sort I've had the privilege to attend and teach at) will likely survive for at least another few decades, which, from a selfish perspective, is all that I need. But the traditional picture of the university as a community of scholars will be increasingly inaccurate as an account of the actual people who do most of the teaching in the institutions we continue to call colleges and universities.

And that brings me back to the topic of academic freedom about which I have opined in recent weeks in response to the University of Illinois firing/unhiring of Professor Salaita (in chronological order, here, here, here, and here). The controversy in the Salaita case is over the scope and meaning of academic freedom, but even the Chancellor and Trustees at the University of Illinois continue to say they believe in academic freedom for tenured and tenure-track faculty. And there's no reason to doubt that they actually believe it. However, they also believe--very much erroneously and dangerously--that academic freedom does not extend to "disrespectful" speech or that faculty accused of such disrespectful speech are entitled to due process in determining whether they breached the standard.

I am aware that the university takes the position that Salaita was not yet hired and thus not fully entitled to academic freedom; as more facts have emerged, that claim appears even more fictional than when I first addressed this topic; but even assuming the university view were correct, it is irrelevant, as the pronouncements from the Chancellor and the board purport to circumscribe the limits of academic freedom even for those who are fully entitled to it.

Let us put all of that aside and assume that the Salaita case eventually has a generally positive outcome, leading faculty and administrators across the nation to reaffirm their commitment to robust principles of academic freedom. Still, only the battle will be won. If, over the long run, the number of faculty who are actually afforded academic freedom diminishes substantially--as seems likely given the real-world trends that form the backdrop for Dear Committee Members--the war will be lost.

I suspect that more than a few readers will now think to themselves, Well so what? I don't have academic freedom in my job as [lawyer, journalist, lumberjack, etc.]; what's so special about professors that they need academic freedom, much less tenure, to protect it?

As Professor Buchanan recently discussed in the related context of primary and secondary school teacher tenure, there are special reasons why people who teach need protection against arbitrary firing or discipline. There are additional special reasons to afford such protections to people who produce scholarship. But even apart from these special reasons applicable to teachers and scholars, some degree of "academic" freedom would, in an ideal world, apply to everyone, including non-academics. Suppose that a veterinarian, locksmith, or florist uses his spare time to tweet disrespectful comments about the Middle East or any other subject. Is that a sound reason for the veterinary practice, hardware store, or floral shop that employs him to fire him? True, there would be costs to adding speech to the list of impermissible grounds for employment decisions; litigation would ensue; etc. In principle, however, I think the idea is sound.

Put differently, the argument that academics don't deserve any special protection is partly right, but understood properly, it cuts in favor of extending such protection to others, not restricting it for academics. Unfortunately, however, the large trend is one of leveling down, not up.