July 31, 2013


Mitch Daniels's Gift to Academic Freedom : His skepticism about the merits of a sacrosanct liberal history textbook has sparked an overdue debate. (BENNO SCHMIDT, 7/30/13, WSJ)

Mr. Daniels falls squarely among the critics. Zinn's history, the then-governor wrote in February 2010, "is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page." Then Mr. Daniels asked: "Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?"

Did Mr. Daniels--the future university president--violate academic freedom with his outburst? A July 22 open letter signed by 90 Purdue professors suggested as much, saying the teachers were "troubled" by his actions, in particular by his continuing to criticize Zinn's book after taking over at the university. Demanding retaliatory funding cuts or preventing college faculty from teaching or publishing certain ideas would have amounted to such a violation. It appears Mr. Daniels, either as governor or as Purdue president, did none of these. In his emails, he aired his unhappiness with Zinn's account of American history, but there is currently no evidence that anything was done by him or his staff to act upon his heated remarks. [...]

Inquiries of this sort about teaching materials are not unusual in the life of a university president. Presidents take such inquiries seriously and follow up to make sure that the curriculum and materials are of the highest quality. Public scrutiny helps institutions fulfill their mission. It rightly keeps institutions on their toes.

Academic freedom is faculty's freedom to teach. But, more important, it is also students' freedom to learn. It is, as University of Wisconsin Prof. Donald Downs writes in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni guidebook, "Free to Teach, Free to Learn": "the right to pursue the truth in scholarship and teaching, and to enjoy authority regarding such academic matters as the nature of the curriculum, [and] faculty governance." At the same time, it is "maintaining respect for the truth (which means avoiding bias in its various forms), exercising professional and fair judgment, and maintaining professional competence."

In other words: Academic freedom is a right and a responsibility. In recent times, the academy has too often been focused on rights and privileges rather than responsibility and accountability.

Posted by at July 31, 2013 5:10 AM

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