Saturday, October 31, 2009

Robert Zimmer: What is Academic Freedom for?

Robert Zimmer is President, The University of Chicago. Here are some excerpts from his talk at a recent conference on What is Academic Freedom for?

I will summarize the principles of the Kalven report, adding a few embellishments for emphasis.

First, the focus on rigorous, intense, and open inquiry carried out by the faculty and students of the University must be accompanied by the greatest possible intellectual freedom, in an environment that supports openness and avoids steps that lead to chilling the environment.

Second, it follows that the University, as an institution, should take no political positions and should remain neutral on such matters (except of necessity those in which it is a direct party), in order to ensure that we have a maximally open environment. Violations of neutrality are a mark against the maintenance of a non-chilling environment.

Third, this University neutrality provides a safe environment for faculty and students to express their own views and take whatever stance they like as individuals. Their views, in turn, never represent the University, which remains neutral.

Fourth, the University needs to protect the academic freedom of faculty and students both by its own neutrality and the protection from internal and external forces that would seek to dampen it.

Fifth, there is recognition of a possible exception. Kalven was a constitutional lawyer, and as such deeply appreciated that a competing interest could trump under unusual circumstances. The exceptions were not spelled out, but rather the emphasis was put on the strong presumption that the above principles would govern. Much of the focus on the Kalven report in recent times is on understanding exactly where the exception clause applies. The report asserts a “heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political or social values of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values however compelling and appealing they may be.”