Affirming Academic Freedom at the Nation’s First Public University
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third installment of a three-part essay by Lloyd Kramer, a professor of history and former Chair of the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he has been a faculty member since 1986.
By Lloyd Kramer
Some academic colleagues and some critics outside the university argue that professors would be more respected or supported in the wider society if they remained silent or simply spoke quietly to members of the legislature and governing Boards.
Critics of the recent UNC faculty letter, for example, argue that legislative and Board interventions are mainly taking place because our university’s governing officials believe that institutional neutrality has given way to liberal ideological conformity. The outside interventions, in this view, would mostly disappear if the faculty adhered more closely to what key state leaders envision as the educational purpose of the university.
The Justification for Faculty Action
People within universities have obligations to look for the truth and to teach accurate information, yet they also have the right to interpret that information in new ways. This search for knowledge inevitably reveals complex information and creates debates about disconcerting truths that some powerful people dislike (the realities of climate change, for example, or the effectiveness of vaccines or the history of systemic racism or the anti-democratic meanings of election denialism).
Our knowledge is always moving in new directions, and people on all sides of the political spectrum are tempted to denounce scholars as “ideological” whenever they describe new knowledge that challenges widespread beliefs. There would be no reason for outside interventions if academic institutions could assure state leaders that the ideas of their faculty and students generally converged with the main beliefs of governing officials.
In the real world of academic life, however, professors and students often express ideas or pursue actions that some influential officeholders view as objectionable or one-sided, so critics of the university have decided that outside interventions are needed to correct academic imbalances and fix political problems.
Has the faculty letter therefore exacerbated a conflict that would go away if professors would stop speaking out or if they would change their behavior? This is the kind of question that Martin Luther King, Jr., eloquently addressed in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after he was arrested in April 1963 for leading Civil Rights protests in Alabama.
Blaming People Who Protest for Causing the Actions They Dislike
Birmingham’s city government and police forces were violently repressing the advocates for racial equality, and some local clergymen stated publicly that while the police interventions were regrettable, they would likely cease if the protestors reduced their public marching and stopped speaking in such challenging language.
The pastors suggested, in other words, that the protestors contributed to repressive public actions because they were pursuing actions that most of the state’s governing leaders disliked.
The significance of a faculty statement about academic freedom is by no means equivalent to King’s “Birmingham Letter,” but King responded to the pastors with insights that might offer useful perspectives for those who question the UNC faculty’s critical response to the legislative and Board divergence from the modern university principles of shared governance.
“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension,” King wrote to his critics. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with…. In your statement” King continued, “you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?… Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?”
Every strategic action carries risks. But I think that almost 700 UNC faculty signed a recent letter opposing legislative and BOG/BOT campaigns to reshape their university because they see that the interventions continue to expand.
If silence is the only way to reduce or stop these interventions, then we need to ask if this strategy could become the faculty’s own version of academic hemlock.
Although no public statement can include all the nuances that may be needed to explain complex issues, I joined numerous UNC colleagues in signing the recent faculty letter because such statements offer an important (though modest) strategic action for defending the public value and cultural traditions of academic freedom.
The opinions expressed in this article do not represent any official position or viewpoint of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.