Stanley Fish on Academic Freedom:

Prominent English professor and legal scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting NYT column on academic freedom:

Last week we came to the section on academic freedom in my course on the law of higher education and I posed this hypothetical to the students: Suppose you were a member of a law firm or a mid-level executive in a corporation and you skipped meetings or came late, blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims, abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients. What would happen to you?

The chorus of answers cascaded immediately: “I’d be fired.” Now, I continued, imagine the same scenario and the same set of behaviors, but this time you’re a tenured professor in a North American university. What then?

I answered this one myself: “You’d be celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom.”

Fish then describes a particularly egregious case at the University of Ottawa, where a professor apparently used academic freedom and tenure as pretexts for gross neglect of his duties and abuse of his authority. While the Ottawa situation described by Fish strikes me as an extreme case, the general problem he identifies is real: The combination of tenure and overbroad conceptions of academic freedom really do sometimes enable academics to behave irresponsibly with little or no sanction.

Many view academic freedom as a kind of sacred, intrinsic value. I think that Fish is closer to the truth in seeing it as a limited, prudential institution that gives professors the discretion they need to teach and research effectively, and to avoid retaliation for expressing unpopular political views outside of class. However, academic freedom should not be considered a blank check to shield our teaching methods and research from all outside scrutiny.

UPDATE: I am aware, as various commenters have noted, that the Ottawa professor in this case may end up being fired. For that reason, Fish was probably wrong to make the case such a central focus of his argument, and I was remiss in the initial post for failing to point out this shortcoming in his piece. However, the fact that removal is only likely in such an extreme case (and even then is not a certainty and requires jumping through many procedural hoops) suggest that tenure and academic freedom can serve as shields for a great deal of lesser but still significant misconduct.