Editorial: Academic Freedom Changes its Shape

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday May 15, 2007

The words “academic freedom” have been tossed around a lot lately. They seem to mean different things in different contexts, and as a result they seem to be losing meaning altogether. Chancellor Birgeneau invoked them sanctimoniously in defense of his university’s god-given right to sell off a good bit of Strawberry Canyon, complete with associated faculty members, to British Petroleum, to aid in BP’s search for new and more lucrative ways to allow the rich nations to prolong their excessive energy consumption. A self-selected percentage of UC Berkeley’s faculty senate endorsed his position, which was possibly enhanced by the $500 million payoff, as did the Bates/Hancock apparatus and other local politicos. Now academic freedom seems to be expanding to protect UC’s right to add a 60-room hotel to the environmentally impacted canyon site, presumably so that BP’s visiting scholars won’t have to endure the horrors of the Hilton.  

For a much smaller pot of gold, only $15.8 million statewide, 43 members of the Faculty Assembly, the statewide incarnation of the faculty senates on each UC campus, have recently voted to go on taking bucks from the tobacco industry. Clearly what academic freedom means to some people these days is the right of academics to sell their services to the highest bidder, regardless of where the money comes from. We’ve mentioned before in this space the precedent in Germany during the Nazi era of academics taking research money from Bayer, Krups and other corporations which were engaged in some very nasty projects. History has not vindicated that decision.  

Some people with good educations who should know better have always used their knowledge to research bad things, all the way back well beyond the legendary Dr. Faustus. One of Berkeley’s staple urban legends, undoubtedly true in some incarnation, is of the guy/guys with advanced degrees in biochemistry who supposedly ran great big methamphetamine labs in Emeryville back in the days when it was an industrial wasteland. If UC faculty members were to try this today, academic freedom would probably not be invoked to protect them, even if they claimed that further research into how to make crystal meth is needed. Is tobacco different? 

Again and again, we hear stories about academics who have taken research money from Big Pharma or the tobacco industry and allowed publication of their research results, especially bad news, to be tainted by what the sponsors wanted to promote or suppress. I wrote my first story about this practice in 1979, and new versions still appear on a regular basis. 

In the old days, academic freedom was not based on the golden rule (those who give the gold make the rules). Then it meant the freedom of academics to hold any ideas they pleased and to teach about them as they wished. Of course that concept was honored more often in the breach than in the observance. In 1949, in the era of McCarthyism and anti-communist “spy trials,” the UC board of regents, at the request of UC President Robert Gordon Sproul (for whom Sproul Hall is named), adopted an anti-communist oath for all University of California employees to sign. Thirty-one faculty members and many graduate students were fired for not signing, only coming back when they were vindicated in court. At other universities in the fifties faculty members were fired for not testifying before inquisitional legislative committees like Senator Joe McCarthy’s.  

The battle was always for freedom of thoughts and ideas, never about funding sources. An old German scholars’ song, Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Thoughts Are Free), was popularized by Pete Seeger in defense of those under attack.  

Recently a school teacher in Bloomington, Indiana (another university town) lost her job because she told her students, when they asked about her views on the Iraq war, that “I honk for peace” when passing a demonstration. A federal court in January refused to back her up, saying that teachers in public schools are supposed to convey the official version of information and not their own ideas. It now seems to be a generally accepted opinion that “academic freedom” doesn’t apply from high school on down—based partly on the premise that if the state is paying teachers, teachers ought to say what the state wants them to say.  

But if teachers at state universities are instead paid by Big Oil or Big Tobacco or Big Pharma, should they say what their funders want to hear? Surely not. And what are the rules for the privatized charter schools that are all the vogue these days? Do they have any kind of academic freedom or not? 

It’s been about 50 years since I first started thinking about the concept of academic freedom, when I heard that a friend’s father and brother had been fired from their university jobs for refusing to testify about their political opinions. It seems like it’s changed a lot since then. I hope some academic somewhere is engaged in philosophical speculation or historical research which will explain exactly what’s happened to academic freedom in my lifetime, because the sands have definitely shifted.