A Misreading of Academic Freedom · 23 July 2009

By Sara Dogan - FrontpageMagazine.com

A promising attempt to liberate at least one university campus from the grasp of the indoctrinators came to an end last month, when University of California-Santa Barbara officials announced that the university is dropping its case against Professor William Robinson. Robinson, a Professor of Sociology at the University, was made the subject of an Academic Senate investigation for violating UCSB’s policies on classroom conduct for sending an extremist anti-Israel email to students enrolled in a “Sociology of Globalization” course he teaches.


In his email, which did not allow for discussion or dissent, Robinson declared that “If Martin Luther King were alive …there is no doubt that he would be condemning the Israeli aggression against Gaza along with U.S. military and political support for Israeli war crimes, or that he would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians.” The email contained an article by Jewish Palestinian sympathizer Judith Stone which characterizes Israel as “the final resting place of the massacred Palestinian people.” Along with the email, Robinson included 42 images which he described as “horrific, parallel images of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians.”    


Ever since the investigation was announced back in March, Robinson has been waving the banner of academic freedom to defend his misconduct, aided by the usual suspects (the ACLU, the AAUP) and other groups whose support was less expected (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which typically defends students who run afoul of the campus thought police). Like Robinson, these groups have taken the position that his email message is protected under the right of academic freedom. But what Robinson’s defenders—and many in the academy today—are missing is that the right to academic freedom is not absolute, nor does it defy all common sense and limitation. 


Does the doctrine of academic freedom really endow professors with rights and privileges freed from corresponding obligations? The answer is clearly negative. No university exempts professors from standards of behavior on matters of race or gender, for example. No university would tolerate on its faculty a biology professor who taught that blacks are inferior.  No faculty member who showed up naked in class would be teaching the next day, no matter what his peers thought of his eccentricities.  


As it happens, however, professional standards of behavior for professors – while widely violated by a radical minority – are generally recognized throughout the university by professors in the hard sciences and professional schools. Professional standards of scholarship do not include attacking Jews – including by implication Jews in the classroom – as Nazis. Nor do they include organizing a course so that it is in effect an indoctrination in an extremist perspective.


The century-old tradition of academic freedom is most famously expostulated in the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure which asserts that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”


UCSB’s Faculty Code of Conduct which Robinson was (however briefly) under investigation for violating is clearly drawn from the AAUP’s 1940 statement. It prohibits “significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course” and holds that faculty must not take advantage of their “positions of power to …coerce judgment or conscience of a student.”  


Robinson’s supporters have seized on this clause, claiming that the topic of his email was in fact related to the content of his Globalization course and is therefore protected under the doctrine of academic freedom. But this clause is in fact only one small part of the AAUP’s 1940 statement which is itself an amendment to the original doctrine of academic freedom as it was presented in its first formulation in 1915, several decades earlier. 


The 1940 statement goes on to assert that “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” 


These additional passages from the 1940 statement shine a light on the extensive reasoning behind the concept of academic freedom. A higher bar is set for professors who must take even more care than the average citizen to exercise caution and moderation in their public comments and opinions, particularly when fulfilling their academic duties. In sending his virulent email to his students and attacking Jews (and by implication his students) as Nazis, Robinson clearly violated both the letter and the spirit of the 1940 statement which calls for accuracy and “appropriate restraint.” 



Moreover, the 1940 statement is merely an amendment to the AAUP’s earlier 1915 statement which first defined the concept of academic freedom for the modern university. That statement holds that, “[The] liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry...”


 The 1915 statement goes on to assert, “The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators… and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.” 


Was Robinson’s opinion that Jews are Nazis (and the Gaza terrorists Jews) really reached by a scholar’s methods through patient and sincere inquiry conducted in a scholar’s spirit? In teaching his students about the “Sociology of Globalization,” did Robinson “set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators”? Would these not have been good questions for the board of inquiry that UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang might have appointed? Sadly, these questions will never be answered as the investigation has been halted even before it truly began.



Robinson’s supporters who insist that his email was part of his course and therefore protected under the doctrine of academic freedom are missing the bigger picture. Numerous academic fields (Sociology, Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, to cite just a few examples) have become so corrupted by the doctrines of the political left, that they can no longer be stated to be truly academic fields at all. The premises upon which they are based are political, not academic. Women’s Studies departments, for example, take as their first principle that gender is socially constructed—a position that runs counter to current scientific and biological evidence.


 By basing their defense on one small fragment of the AAUP’s 1940 statement, rather than the original 1915 statement which it amended, Robinson’s supporters essentially argued that his email defaming the Jews must be protected under academic freedom because his entire “Sociology of Globalization” course is an exercise in political indoctrination. But a fuller understanding of the philosophy and purposes of academic freedom reveals that Robinson’s entire course stands in violation of its principles.  This circular logic presented by Robinson’s defenders is the essence of absurdity, yet University officials, cowed by the outcry from the academic left, were only too glad to accept such flawed logic as a reason to discontinue their inquiry.  


The “Standing Orders of the Regents of the University of California” which the regents are legally bound to enforce state that, “[The Regents] are responsible to see that the University remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest. Misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing it to be used for political indoctrination, for purposes other than those for which the course was constituted, or for providing grades without commensurate and appropriate student achievement, constitutes misuse of the University as an institution.”


By turning his classroom into a platform for leftwing views of “globalization,” Robinson thus violated not only the principles of academic freedom, but the orders of the regents as well. This too should have been a matter for inquiry if Robinson’s radical friends had not been successful in precluding it. 


Robert Gordon Sproul, the most famous president in the history of the University of California who built its Berkeley campus into a world class institution had this to say about ideologues like Robinson:  “The function of the university is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth is to be made known. To convert, or to make converts, is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty. Where it becomes necessary in performing this function of a university, to consider political, social, or sectarian movements, they are dissected and examined, not taught, and the conclusion left, with no tipping of the scales, to the logic of the facts….Essentially the freedom of a university is the freedom of competent persons in the classroom. In order to protect this freedom, the University assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by unqualified persons or by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda.” 


From 1934 to 2003 this was the academic freedom clause of the university until it was removed by the Faculty Senate in 2003 at the behest of then-President Richard Atkinson. Rather than take a courageous stand for academic freedom, Berkeley’s leaders sent a message to the radical indoctrinators like Robinson that such behavior would henceforth go unpunished.  It is not hard to see the progression from the retraction of Sproul’s famous statement to the rampant unprofessionalism of William Robinson. 

Not content with merely having gotten away with improper conduct and the abuse of his position, Robinson is now seeking an apology from the University and an investigation of his own investigators for what he views as an illegitimate inquiry conducted against himself.


What we should take from this episode is that an opportunity was lost. UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang’s initial courage in launching this investigation could have served as a warning siren to professors who use the lectern as a soapbox and think nothing of proselytizing their own beliefs to their students. Instead, UCSB’s failure to pursue the case against Robinson and the misreading of the principles of academic freedom by Robinson’s defenders and the university officials who agreed with them will only embolden other classroom indoctrinators who can rest assured that they will face no repercussions for their actions. 


The victims here are sadly not only the students of William Robinson or those who pay tuition to UCSB, but students enrolled in institutions of higher education all across the nation which pay lip service to the idea of academic freedom but do not bother to enforce its obligations as well as its privileges. We must renew the promise and obligations of academic freedom before our universities--which were once dedicated to the idea that students should be taught how think and not told what to think--are irretrievably lost.