Quote from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In the firebrand’s [Ward Churchill] defense, Mr. Sandoval offered the standard-issue rhetoric of academic freedom: Mr. Churchill’s words were hurtful and terrible, yes, but it was nonetheless “appropriate for him to raise the issues” as a university professor. However, with the reporter’s next question, the conversation dropped abruptly from the rhetorical sphere.

Can you think of any circumstances, the reporter asked, where a professor’s speech would constitute a firing offense?

“Yeah,” said Mr. Sandoval, “I would pull professor Dan Forsyth from the classroom in a second.

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Perhaps one of these days we’ll quit writing about controversies about academic freedom as if the professors involved have graduated from being human? It would seem pretty clear that, despite years of education, there are enough professors out there for at least some to have benighted opinions, quash dissent in the classroom, and generally behave like jerks. Is there some kind of surprise that extra years of education and experience don’t necessarily add up to maturity and respect for others?

There is an implied, and sometimes explicit, contract between an university and its professors, in which academic freedom should be respected. Defining what can pass over that threshold has been a matter of debate. However, the professors are not a special class of being, and universities are still social groupings with defined functions. Much like the rest of life, if the professor cannot fulfill his/her part in the defined functions — say, educating students — of his employment, it is likely they will be leaving. Figuring out what behavior can exist without interfering too much with those functions is a matter of debate, but throwing the label “speech” on it doesn’t change the basic question: Can, and does, the professor fulfill his/her duties in a manner that will forward the purpose of the social group?

That’s a huge grey area, but just because something is “grey” doesn’t mean it is necessarily a matter of extraordinary debate. There may be debate over how one would define “abusing students,” for instance, but if behavior is considered to be abusive towards students by the people making the decisions, they aren’t left with a lot of options, and they aren’t likely to ruminate about whether the abuse constituted a right. Perhaps when these debates happen, we should recognize that “You know it when you see it” is the basis for a lot of decisions we make in life. If we start off by saying, “Well, that was wrong, but…” we already know the tone of the debate, because we set it in the first place.

So, does debate over the abstract ideal of academic freedom serve a purpose? Sure, it lays out the basis on which we argue about thousands of decisions. But that doesn’t mean every situation is completely about the abstract ideal. In each of those cases, there are concrete happenings that make each of them different. Can we say that an accusation of being “too animated” in the classroom has a chilling effect? Yep, definitely, since we don’t know what that meant. Personally, I consider it to be a cop-out, but I can also imagine what “too animated” might really mean. Unfortunately, the nature of a lot of these proceedings doesn’t give you much information to go on, so you end up debating the abstract again.

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