Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Angry Moderate Reformer, Part III: It’s as American as Academic Freedom, Political Intimidation, and Apple Pie

By Guest Blogger — August 14, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Jonathan Plucker, a Professor at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week.

Before one of my students once took a specific course, I pulled him aside and suggested he moderate his expectations, as those faculty held some pretty extreme political views. I noted it would be a good experience to engage with those ideas, and off he went. Upon his return, looking a little stunned, he said, “When you said extreme, I didn’t think you meant Communist. They’re literally Communists.” This lead to a discussion about the value of having extreme views - left, right, and center - accessible and debated on college campuses. Universities are where these discussions can safely take place, and they are necessary discussions.

That anecdote popped into my mind recently, when the e-mail dragnet that later brought down the Florida education commissioner claimed its first victim: Mitch Daniels, the Purdue University president and former Indiana governor. If you missed it, then-Gov. Daniels sent some testy e-mails questioning whether the work of the progressive academic Howard Zinn was being taught in Indiana classrooms. He also suggested that a critic of his administration, a university faculty member, not receive further state funding. The implied assault on academic freedom led to considerable hair-pulling and rending of garments among his legion of critics.

Having worked in similar circles in Indiana for the past decade, I received several messages asking, “Did that ever happen to you when you worked in Indiana?” Well, only just ALL THE TIME. Which leads to the question, how healthy is academic freedom in America today?

I’ve long believed that academic freedom is an ideal rather than reality for many university faculty. As an assistant professor, strong messages were sent about what I should and shouldn’t study, and several colleagues around the country received similar, unofficial warnings. That doesn’t sound like academic freedom to me. I’ve had colleagues question my integrity when I invited a right-leaning speaker to campus (oddly, they never questioned the left-learning speakers, of which there were many).

There is little evidence that academic freedom is under threat, especially if you prefer the freedom to lean left. Campuses tend to be very progressive places, and every campus with which I’m familiar has sufficient checks and balances to protect academic freedom. As a non-partisan policy researcher, my work rubs important people the wrong way by definition. In the vast majority of cases, my administrators supported my right to say what I thought needed saying. Most university senior administrators could do little to impinge on academic freedom, and among the handful I know personally, none would even think of doing so.

The political intimidation of a specific faculty member implied in Gov. Daniels’ e-mails received less attention, yet it’s the more serious issue here. I’m torn on this issue. If you’re receiving state funding and criticizing the state’s elected officials, it sounds like biting the hand that feeds you. However, governance shouldn’t be about score-settling and intimidation to silence critics and gain support for one’s agenda. Regarding Pres. Daniels, it’s hardly a secret that he gets pretty angry and overreacts from time to time. The one time he was very, very, very angry with me, I let some time pass, then apologized for the situation (not for the inciting incident) and the implied threat disappeared. It’s how the game is played, so although stressful, no harm done; and I learned who my friends were. Some university administrators distanced themselves from me, but the one person who stuck by me, despite the personal costs, was Tony Bennett.

The worst case of political intimidation I experienced was an e-mail about a year ago. My intelligence, training, research and teaching abilities, and qualities as a human being were directly questioned (and answered, and not positively!). My students were worse off having known me, and I had nothing to offer the state, its citizens, or its students. Worst of all, he said I wasn’t funny (ouch!). The irony? The sender was a prominent Democratic state senator, upset that I denied at a public hearing that, as a member of the state board’s accountability working group, I wasn’t part of a conspiracy to destroy public schools. I could have embarrassed him horribly by making the e-mail public, but he’s an emotional guy, and he was frustrated ... and again, that’s how the game is played.

Academic freedom, and by extension all forms of free speech, mean you get to say whatever you want. But it doesn’t mean people have to listen to you or not hold it against you. I don’t like when elected officials try to intimidate people, but that’s been the way of politicians - across the political spectrum - for thousands of years.

--Jonathan Plucker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.