Stanley Fish's Versions of Academic Freedom
Stanley Fish, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (University of Chicago, 2014)
Reviewed by Steve Macek, North Central College
Literary critic, law professor, one time New York Times columnist, former dean and noted public intellectual, Stanley Fish has made a name for himself as a wry commentator on college life and campus politics. In Save the World on Your Own Time (2012), he famously argued that the only legitimate aim of college teaching was to expose students to new "bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry" and argued that partisan advocacy - indeed, advocacy of any kind- should be banished from the college classroom. In his new book, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (2014), Fish argues for a "deflationary" conception of academic freedom that corresponds to his view of the proper and necessarily limited aims of faculty work.
Starting from the hardly controversial premise that "academic freedom" is an ambiguous concept, Fish over the course of 135 terse and often witty pages sketches five distinct conceptualizations or "schools" of academic freedom that he thinks dominate the way people today talk and think about the topic. The first school, and the one he explicitly supports, is the "It's Just a Job" school. From this perspective, academic freedom is nothing more than the liberty college teachers require to engage in a specific set of professional tasks: imparting knowledge and skills to students and conducting research to expand "the body of what is known" (10). Understood in this way, academic freedom provides faculty with the freedom to do their jobs but otherwise gives them no special protection for their speech and conduct beyond that afforded to other citizens.
The second school, which Fish labels the "For the Common Good" school, views the work performed by academics not simply as a job but as a vocation, one that makes a special contribution to democracy by providing expert knowledge to guide political debate and by challenging the "tyranny of public opinion" (11). This notion of academic freedom treats shared governance as part and parcel of the self-determination required by the scholar's democratic calling and insists that faculty should having a voice in any and all administrative decisions that affect "academic matters" (44). As Fish himself acknowledges, this version of academic freedom is the one embodied in the AAUP's founding documents, including the 1915 Declaration of Principle and the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Nevertheless, he rejects this school because, supposedly, "shared governance ... is not necessary to the flourishing of academic work" (42) and because this approach locates the value of academic work in something external to the academic enterprise itself, namely, democracy.
The third of Fish's schools is "Academic Exceptionalism" or the idea that faculty are especially gifted individuals who by virtue of their exceptional talents "need and deserve more latitude than do other citizens" (85). This concept of academic freedom is epitomized by the arguments advanced in Urofsky v. Gilmore, a 2000 lawsuit brought by a group of professors who study Internet pornography challenging a Virginia state law that prohibits state employees from accessing sexually explicit material on their office computers. The professors argued that even if the law is valid for most state employees, it does not apply to them by virtue of their academic freedom rights. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this reasoning unequivocally and upheld the Virginia law. Fish uses this example to underscore the tenuous legal status of the academic freedom most faculty see as their rightful due.
The fourth school Fish examines is "It's for Critique" which sees academic freedom as the freedom to interrogate all norms and standards, including the professional norms governing current disciplinary boundaries and the departmental structures limiting the teaching and research of individual scholars. Naturally, he spurns this view-which he identifies with critical theorist Judith Butler-as "substituting for the imperatives of a narrow professionalism the imperatives of a political vision" (73).
Finally, Fish's fifth school is something he calls "academic freedom as revolution," the idea that academics must be committed to social justice in both word and deed and that "when university obligations clash with the imperatives of doing social justice, social justice always triumphs" (14). He identifies this concept of academic freedom with a radical Canadian physicist who claimed academic freedom protected him when he appropriated an existing course in the physics curriculum and transformed it into a practicum that trains students to be political activists. Needless to say, for Fish, this departure from the narrow, professional objectives of disciplinary teaching and research betrays the true purpose of the academic community. It is also, he charges, logically inconsistent and self-subverting because it invokes the privileges afforded by the academy to attack the academy.
As pithy, entertaining and insightful as it is in places, Fish's book has a number of glaring flaws.
To begin with, Fish largely dances around the crucial issue of whether or not academic freedom protects, or ought to protect, a faculty member's extracurricular political activities and utterances. This omission is baffling because virtually all of the celebrated academic freedom controversies of recent years- the Ward Churchill affair, DePaul's denial of tenure to political science professor Norman Finkelstein, the recent Steven Salaita case-have involved professors coming under fire mainly for their public, political pronouncements (rather than for their teaching, criticisms of university policies or scholarly research). Nor is debate surrounding professors' freedom of extracurricular utterance a new development. The catalyzing impetus behind the formation of AAUP was not that trustees or administrators were meddling with faculty teaching or research but that some high-profile professors-notably, Stanford University economist Edward A. Ross and University of Pennsylvania economist Scott Nearing-had been fired for espousing political views university trustees disdained.
Because Fish in this book does not deign to address directly the many well known cases of academics fired or disciplined for their political statements (Ross, Nearing, Finkelstein, Churchill, etc.), it is difficult to determine precisely how his narrow, deflationary view of academic freedom applies to them. Fish again and again claims that any time an academic argues for a partisan political position-whether in a scholarly journal or a popular newspaper-"he has become a political agent and no academic freedom protection attaches" (62).
This seems to imply that, under his "Just a Job" version of academic freedom, it would be perfectly legitimate for a university to punish a professor for making unpopular political statements. Yet, Fish goes on to claim that it would be illegitimate to dismiss law professor John Yoo-who, as an employee of the Justice Department, advised the Bush administration that waterboarding prisoners was not torture-just because he urged morally abhorrent views "in a nonacademic context" (63). But Fish's defense of Yoo here certainly does not follow logically from that the deflationary concept of academic freedom he proposes. And if the "Just a Job" view really does protects a professor's right to say whatever he or she wants "in a nonacademic context" is there any real, practical difference between it and some of the other "versions" of academic freedom Fish discusses?
Even more troubling, Fish repeatedly questions the need for a strong faculty voice in the administration of colleges and universities and comes close to rejecting the very institution of shared governance, usually backing up his arguments with little more than strongly worded assertions from past or current university presidents or glosses on judicial rulings unfavorable to employees' freedoms. It is hardly surprising that a former university president would claim that joint governance is "cumbersome and awkward at best" (43). And it isn't exactly news that the courts these days are stacked with judges hostile to labor rights. But the mere fact that elites think higher education would be better off if faculty simply shut their mouths and followed orders when it comes to the sorts of institutional decisions which have been traditionally been subject to shared governance doesn't make it so.
Also troubling is Fish's curious insistence that academics in both their teaching and research should refrain entirely from making policy recommendations or engaging in any sort of political advocacy, even when such recommendations are not extraneous to what is being taught or studied (a stricture which is, of course, especially curious coming from someone often seen as a neo-pragmatist). Not only is this position barely supported-Fish cites Max Weber on the need for teachers to be value-free and impartial, although such appeals to authority prove nothing-but it is plainly wrong.
While it would certainly be an abuse of academic freedom for a professor to attempt to indoctrinate students into a specific partisan ideology or political program, it certainly would not be an abuse for a professor to point out that a particular policy or course of political action is more likely to be successful or would benefit more people than another. It might be possible to avoid engaging in advocacy or making policy recommendations in fields such as math, astronomy, Latin, computer science and chemistry but in fields such as urban planning, public policy, social work, international development, public health and environmental studies-fields whose whole point is to figure out how best to solve the problems facing society-it is next to impossible.
Perhaps the worst thing about this book, though, is the resolutely ahistorical way Fish approaches his subject. Aside from some scattered references to Arthur Lovejoy and the founding documents of the AAUP, he makes no attempt to situate his five schools in relation either to the history of higher education in the U.S. or to the series of legal, political and intellectual battles by means of which AAUP members won the academic freedom so many of us today take for granted.
I suspect that contextualizing these five approaches in that history would reveal an inconvenient truth: that the version of academic freedom Fish champions, the "Just a Job" school, is a late arrival, one that developed in the contemporary corporate university with its overcompensated administrators and bloated bureaucracies performing functions that once belonged to faculty.
As such, Stanley Fish's Versions of Academic Freedom can be understood as an attempt to justify the corporate university's novel configuration of institutional power-a configuration in which presidents and administrators are given free reign and the faculty's right of intramural criticism is severely constrained-as the only rational or defensible one. Those of us in the AAUP know better.