On Academic Freedom and Integrity |Statement to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees

By Professor D. Fairchild Ruggles

Presented to the Meeting of the Board of Trustees, May 14, 2014,  Springfield.

Chairman Kennedy, Members of the Board of Trustees, President Easter, Chancellor Wise:

I am grateful for this opportunity to address the Board about a subject of concern on the UIUC campus: academic freedom.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees statute on Academic Freedom (Article X, Section 2, a) states: “It is the policy of the University to maintain and encourage full freedom within the law of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication and to protect any member of the academic staff against influences, from within or without the University, which would restrict the member’s exercise of these freedoms in the member’s area of scholarly interest.”

The AAUP 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom affirms that, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

On campus, academic freedom provides the opportunity for people to say things that appear unpopular or are difficult. We cannot limit speech or frame the classroom in such a way as to exclude a “lifestyle” that we don’t like. We cannot—or should not—decide what is acceptable based on who pays the salary of the teacher.[i] The principle of academic freedom rises above those particular interests.

This is easy to say, but it can be difficult to enact. In practice, we are challenged not by the lofty ideals, but their specific application on the ground. As the great African history scholar, Terence Ranger wrote: Academic freedom is something to exercise, not simply something to claim.[ii]

Yet UIUC faces a serious challenge to the principle of academic freedom because our unit heads are now being told whom they can or cannot hire, the criterion being prior criminal record–even though we have successfully hired such individuals (with fully disclosed records) in the past, and they have obtained important grants for UIUC programs and won teaching awards, specifically teaching about incarceration. But recently, someone decided that such people are unfit to teach, that they remain forever unrehabilitated. On campus, do we have a clear policy that states which people may be rehabilitated after incarceration and which cannot? Who decides that?

Shall we now add new categories to those who cannot or should not teach? Women were once excluded as both teachers and students in universities. In Nazi Germany Jews were banned from public office and university teaching. In the United States, Communists were persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. What categories of exclusion shall we adopt today? Which pasts shall we reject as unredeemable? And how shall we—unblemished ourselves—judge them?

I volunteer at a state prison where most of my students were members of gangs. In seeking education, they want to become contributing members of society. They want to make amends for the terrible pain they caused in the past. In their journeys toward enlightenment, they have much to teach the communities that spawned them. My students are thoughtful, caring men, but shall we exclude them from university educations and teaching because, as former gang members, they once systematically terrorized their communities?

When we choose to exclude some people as “outside the realm of acceptability,” shall we make a policy that also guides how we teach about the unacceptability of women, Jews, political dissidents, and the incarcerated? Will that policy now guide how we teach about crime and redemption? Shall we adhere to the new UIUC policy that—apparently—has determined that redemption belongs to some and not to others? In teaching about incarceration, shall we include in our new policy a statement that no one with actual experience in prison will be allowed to teach about it? In teaching about the violence of the 1960s, the violence of war, race riots, and radical—even criminal—political action, shall we have a policy that excludes all of the people who once engaged in that violence? Or shall we only exclude some?

Are you planning to make that decision for us? And will you also guide our curriculum, helping us select the right speakers and readings so that we do not suggest redemption for the wrong people?

I ask you to reflect: in this process of exclusion, this process of intervention in campus hiring and teaching—at what point have the lofty ideals of academic freedom been shattered on the rock of actual practice?

Let me close with the case of a great man who was once labelled a terrorist: Nelson Mandela. A communist and a militant, he was convicted of trying to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa and served 27 years in prison. Yet, he then led his country from Apartheid to a new era of, not only freedom, but peace and reconciliation. For this he won the Nobel peace prize in 1992. But in 2014, Mandela would not be allowed to teach on the UIUC campus.

In consideration of this, I ask the Board of Trustees to defend academic freedom as a concept, and to have the courage also to defend its practice.

 

Notes:

[i] News Gazette, 9 May 2014, p.1.

[ii] T.O. Ranger, Towards a Radical Practice of Academic Freedom: The Experience of East and Central Africa (Cape Town, South Africa: University of Cape Town, 1981).