Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Homophobia and Academic Freedom

Ahhh academic freedom. The old chestnut of academic discourse. I've long cherished the principle - that academics are free to say whatever they want - as an important aspect not only of effective scholarship, but for an effective society.

Yet, not everyone shares this view and even I find myself re-evaluating this principles every now and then. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a case at the University of Illinois in which an Adjunt professor (that's the equivalent of a visiting lecturer in UK speak) finds himself at the heart of a debate of what appears prima facie to be about academic freedom verses homophobia.

The story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the full story reveals this to be slightly more complex than a typical academic freedom story. The academic at the heart of this, Kenneth Howell, taught "Introduction to Catholicism" and "Modern Catholic Thought" in university classrooms, but served on the payroll of the St. John's Catholic Newman Center funded by the diocese of Peoria.

The story makes clear that: 'the church has maintained control over how Catholic theory was taught, selecting the instructors and paying their salaries. Although the university has amended the agreement over the years to exercise more control, the arrangement has left the Catholic component of the school's otherwise secular religious studies curriculum susceptible to church influence'.

Here, an academic could not be independent - he was paid to be the voice of the Catholic Church. The difficulty in denying him the defence of academic freedom is the growing pressure on universities - particularly in England and Wales at the moment - to draw upon more private funds. If a company funds a lectureship are they bound to promote that companies views/agenda? If so, should they be denied academic freedom?

The UK Independence Party (or the anti Europe head bangers as I affectionately think of them) regularly has a go at Jean Monnet professorships as promoting an EU agenda in universities across European universities (there are currently 775 according to the European Commission). They are presumably not lecturing that the European Union is a bad thing. Would it be all that different to have a Christian or Muslim charity fund professorships that included a homophobic agenda? What of new private universities promoting particular agendas? These are institutions the new Coalition government is seeking to encourage so it's not that wild a question.

The debate might be taking place in gatherings at the University of Illinois today but academics on this side of the pond also need to start thinking about whether they would defend homophobic speech in our universities when practised by those who are paid to do precisely that. The current debate about funding isn't just about money, it's about what universities teach, how they teach it; it's about the debates and ideas that our society grapples with and seeks to understand. It's about whether homophobia is a price we are willing to pay.

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Unknown said...

True Academic freedom would appear to derive from total impartiality - the ability to be objective without prejudgment (prejudice). When you add money into that are you truly removing impartiality or underscoring an existing bias?

It's a tricky one - I think the best we can hope for is that all such funding/employment conditions are stated under the author's name each time they submit for publication; it's up to Academia in the whole to judge whether the opinions or findings given were conditioned by the paymaster.

Daryl Champion said...

Sponsorship and funding of academic positions by business and other bodies with a vested interest in promoting particular points of view are not the expression of academic freedom to begin with. In fact, I would venture to say such arrangements are an abuse of academic freedom and threaten to undermine it.

It is a travesty of the principles of a robust, independent and at least theoretically impartial higher education system to force universities to seek private funding that endangers all of these principles. In cases where private funding for academic positions is in place (and yes, it looks like a growing trend), this should be clearly flagged by the institution concerned and accompanied by some kind of disclaimer.

I don't think "true" impartiality exists, but there is a difference between the (presumably well studied and considered) individual opinions and personal biases of an academic, and knowledge delivered in a lecture theatre or publication that have been sponsored by an external, organised, vested interest group.

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