Does Academic Freedom Really Require Tolerance for Prejudice or Falsehood by Faculty?

tags: racism, AAUP, academic freedom, American Association of University Professors

Michael Bérubé is an Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State University.

Jennifer Ruth is a professor of film studies at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

Does academic freedom protect professors espousing white supremacist ideas?

The answer, for the past hundred-and-more years since the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, has been yes. This is a disturbing realization for anyone who thinks of academic freedom as one of the cornerstones of a free and open society—and who understands how profoundly it is threatened by Republican state legislatures trying to criminalize the teaching of critical race theory (CRT). Also disturbing is the fact that, over the past decade, the concept of academic freedom has been confused—sometimes innocently, sometimes not—with free speech. The result is that even while pusillanimous university administrators remove a professor from his class for using a Chinese term that sounds like the N-word, seriously racist work continues to enjoy protection on the grounds that academic freedom is co-extensive with free speech, and scholars like University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax can call for a “cultural distance nationalism” whose core belief is that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.” Indeed, in Wax’s case, this strange idea of academic freedom has permitted her to lie in public, in a 2017 interview with Glenn Loury, about the academic achievements of Black law students at Penn.

Wax did not emerge entirely unscathed; she was removed from required first-year law classes, and her misrepresentations of Penn’s Black students were repudiated by her dean. But she remains on the faculty, and she remains a hero on the right and a cause célèbre for libertarians; in 2018, Penn trustee emeritus and law school overseer Paul S. Levy actually resigned in protest over Penn’s decision to remove Wax from those required first-year courses, writing to then-President Amy Gutmann that the decision effectively suppresses “open, robust, and critical debate over differing views of important social issues.”

And then there is the curious case of Bruce Gilley, a colleague of Jennifer Ruth’s at Portland State University. Gilley made a name for himself as the author of the article “THE CASE FOR COLONIALISM,” whose publication by the journal Third World Quarterly in 2017 led to considerable controversy. He has emphatically doubled down since, giving a talk to the German far-right AfD Party about the glories of their colonial past. In 2019, publishing on the website of the National Association of Scholars, he asked, “Was it Good Fortune to be Enslaved by the British Empire?” His answer is yes: “To be Black in America is, historically speaking, to have hit the jackpot.” “For those who came ashore at Jamestown and in the centuries that followed,” Gilley concludes, “being enslaved under the British empire was about as good as it got.” On Twitter, he refers to George Floyd as a “thug” and King Leopold II, whose brutal practices in the Congo Free State resulted in an estimated 10 million deaths, as a “hero.” In a June 30, 2020, tweet, Gilley wrote that the Belgians should apologize to Congo, not for the murder of 10 million Congolese, but for

*not colonizing the King’s estates sooner
*ending colonial rule despite mainstream Congolese opposition to independence
*not arresting or killing Patrice Lumumba sooner
And nothing else.

These remarks are of course protected by the First Amendment. Whether they are also protected by academic freedom is the trickier question—and it is the one we want to ask. 


Read entire article at The New Republic

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