|Academic Freedom for the Common Good:
An Interview with Matthew Finkin
University of Illinois law professor Matthew Finkin is the co-author (with Robert C. Post) of For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale University Press, 2009). Illinois Academe interview Finkin via email about his book.
Illinois Academe: Conservatives such as ACTA and David Horowitz often point to the 1915 AAUP statement as the true embodiment of academic freedom that the AAUP has betrayed ever since. Are you appealing to the same kind of “originalist” notion of following the 1915 statement, albeit with very different conclusions, or do you think that the idea of academic freedom has evolved in a positive way over the past century?
Finkin: Right wing critics are fond of quoting the 1915 Declaration; but they don’t understand it. That is why Post and I wrote the book. Alas, what comes through clearly by our analysis is that elements on the academic left don’t understand it either. Academic freedom licenses professional discourse, which assumes a professional standard of care. It does not license free speech.
Illinois Academe: Where do student rights fit into your framework of basing academic freedom on professional norms? Do students (including graduate students) have any fundamental rights under this idea of academic freedom at a university?
Finkin: The academic profession has never developed a theory of student academic freedom: Lehrfreiheit was translated to these shores, modified to America’s circumstances; Lehrnfreiheit didn’t make it across the Atlantic. I think we should welcome some rigorous theorizing on this issue.
Illinois Academe: According to your book, “It is difficult to see how academic freedom could effectively counter public demands for restrictions on scholarly liberty if academic freedom were reconceived simply as an individual right.”(44-45) Do you think that a theory of academic freedom should be based on public opinion at all?
Finkin: The point is this: if academic freedom protects disciplinary claims that have no grounding in disciplinary standards of care, there is no reason why the academic should be any more insulated from rebuke—even retaliation at the hands of a hostile public—than anyone else. More important, there’d be no reason for the public to support institutions that licensed speech of that nature. Institutions—and their faculties—can legitimately claim support when speech, including speech that inflames influential groups or the general public, is grounded firmly in standards that precondition the search for knowledge. That is the institution’s mission; its usefulness to the larger society upon whose resources it has a legitimate claim.
Illinois Academe: Considering that professional norms are, by definition, sometimes incomprehensible to the general public, why do you think that they are a more powerful defense for academic freedom than the idea of individual rights, which the public seems to understand much better?
Finkin: The problem arises when there are disputes within a discipline about what its standards of care are. The public can and should be suspicious of departments and programs that would seem to conflate propaganda with scholarship. (Oddly, the right wing has singled out social work for just this sort of criticism, which I find a most unlikely candidate.) I think David Hollinger had it exactly right in arguing that these departments and programs have to demonstrate their legitimacy within concentric academic circles, first to kindred and cognate disciplines and then to the larger academic community.
Illinois Academe: There’s a book published by Yale University Press (as was yours) that’s attracted some controversy because it’s about the Mohammad cartoons and it does not show the cartoons themselves. Do you think that university presses have an obligation not to restrict what they print based on fears of violence? And do you think that university presses, because of their connection to universities, should follow higher standards of intellectual freedom than commercial publishers?
Finkin: I have criticized Cary Nelson for using the AAUP presidency to advance personal views that draw no support from Association policy or practice. But on this singular occasion, Cary wrote an editorial that is comprehensive, balanced, and devastating. It is a 'must read'.