Dwayne Ball Lake Academic Freedom Award Speech

 Acceptance of the James A. Lake Academic Freedom Award

Dr. Dwayne Ball

Marketing Department, College of Business, UNL

April 25, 2006


I want to thank the Academic Senate for this honor.


I am deeply indebted to my friend David Moshman for the real-world education he has provided me, and to many other mentors as well, prominent among them Bob Haller and other board members of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska.  And I am grateful as well to Richard DeFusco, Tom Zorn, Peggy Adair, Gerry Harbison, and Laurie Lee for supporting my nomination and for being good friends of academic freedom.  I am also indebted to many others, too many to name.


I don’t think I was unusual in having spent 10 years in universities – 4 years as an undergraduate, 5 years as a graduate student, and a year as a visiting professor - without knowing what academic freedom was. I think most undergraduate students, PhD students, and many faculty don’t.  When you don’t know what your freedoms are, they are easily taken away.


We may see in our lifetimes the shrinkage of academic freedom into irrelevance.  I’ll give you, briefly, four worrisome trends.


The decline of tenure


The first is the decline of tenure.  A recent poll published in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that 53% of college and university presidents wanted to see the end of tenure.   Apparently, the major reasons for this desire to end tenure were that tenure makes it too difficult to change an inefficient organization, and tenure makes it too difficult to get rid of trouble-makers.


What has been done in response is to shrink the fraction of faculty on tenure track, hire an army of adjuncts, and at some universities, eliminate tenure altogether in favor of contracts.   By one account, far less than one-half of faculty now teaching at American universities and colleges are protected by tenure. 


Already we are seeing attempts to make adjunct faculty permanent features, giving them service obligations, a promotion ladder, and administrative appointments that were previously reserved for tenure-track faculty.  Further, we have seen the rise of post-tenure review, and narrow journal lists for judging faculty performance.  All of these things put tools in the hands of administrators for removing faculty for arbitrary as well as proper reasons. 


Thus, most American faculty now have good reason to fear angering an administrator, their colleagues, or students.   What does it do to education when most faculty do not dare to be controversial in the classroom or out?


The rise of speech and conduct codes


That brings me to speech and conduct codes.   These have been promulgated aggressively across US campuses for the past 20 years, with no sign of a let-up.  For the past three years, I have written a column for the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska newsletter - and I will be happy to send copies of those columns to anyone who sends me an e-mail.


This column has detailed dozens upon dozens of cases in which students and faculty across America were investigated, reprimanded, fired, terrified, expelled, mobbed, removed as editors of student newspapers or as campus radio announcers, not allowed to form recognized student groups, forced to take “sensitivity training,” or hauled before kangaroo courts, because they expressed a politically incorrect opinion, or otherwise violated vaguely-worded speech codes, “codes of conduct,” or so-called “community standards.” At some universities, “free speech” is restricted to a tiny marked area on campus, making an oxymoron of the term.   Some students in education schools are now tested to confirm that they hold opinions consistent with something called “dispositions standards,” as part of which one must state a belief that white males are uniquely privileged and don’t deserve it.  Failure to agree gets one removed from the degree program.  The examples go on and on. What I publish is just the tip of the iceberg.


Given enough power, human beings are natural totalitarians.   In the fifties, anti-Communist hysteria was in power, and the academic Left was oppressed.  Now, across America, the academic Left is in power, and oppresses everyone else.


The intrusion of legislatures into hiring and curriculum decisions


And that brings me to the third threat, the intrusion of legislatures into decisions that properly belong in the hands of the faculty, or mostly in the hands of the faculty: research decisions, personnel decisions regarding colleagues, classroom speech, and the enforcement of academic freedom. 


Some Nebraska senators want to prohibit the use of fetal tissue in medical research.  As long as abortion is legal, this is a violation of academic freedom, no question about it.  We must fight those prohibitions.  Enough said.


The most recent example of a legislature considering intrusion into personnel decisions is the case of Professor Ward Churchill.   His comments regarding workers in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were revolting, but he had every right to make them.  He has been the target of investigations by both the Colorado legislature and his university.  It is clear that he is being punished for his unpopular opinions; this is not supposed to happen.


There is more going on in state legislatures than this, however.  Fifteen state legislatures, as well as the U.S. Congress, have considered bills that would institutionalize David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights.  None has so far passed.  The Pennsylvania legislature is conducting hearings, in which Horowitz figures prominently, on the question of whether some professors are using their classrooms and gradebooks for left-wing indoctrination, thus denying students academic freedom.  It is a tragedy that state legislatures are even thinking about becoming involved in ensuring academic freedom.    But it does raise the question, “why do they think they can’t leave academic freedom to the faculty?”


It is worth remembering who pays most of the bills for American higher education: taxpayers, students and parents.  They have every right to ask if the faculty is indoctrinating rather than educating.   I would like to believe their concerns are baseless, but I am assailed with doubts.


The Hazelwood decision


That brings me to my final point, the little-known Hazelwood decision.   This was a 1988 case before the US Supreme Court, which ruled that a high-school principal had prior censorship rights over the school newspaper.   What has happened recently is that the Hazelwood decision has been extended into University press rooms.   A college or university president may now, under certain conditions, censor the school newspaper.   Is that the way we want to educate journalists, who are so important for a free society?  About a dozen state legislatures have passed student press freedom laws to counter Hazelwood, but Nebraska’s legislature has refused.




So, what will American universities be like in 25 years?   Will there be many fewer academic freedom awards, because anyone who deserves one will have been fired long before being nominated?  Will nearly all faculty live in fear that their jobs will be terminated for a politically unorthodox opinion, whether the prevailing orthodoxy is right or left?  Will student journalists have to censor their stories to keep the college president’s blood pressure down?  


Let me give a hopeful answer to that.   There are faculty and administrators who will insist on academic freedom.   The best example I can think of is an incident in 2001 at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.


A faculty member published a poem titled "Indian Girls," a moving and sympathetic discourse on the sexual abuse of young Native girls in Alaska.  Native students became offended at the apparent criticism of their culture, and protested.  Mid-level university administrators began to build support for an investigation of the author, who was terrified.


She need not have been.  University of Alaska system President Mark Hamilton brought the witch-hunters up short with a stern one-page memo, to be distributed to all University of Alaska campuses.  I can do no better than to quote from it:


"Opinions expressed by our employees, students, faculty, and administrators don't have to be politic or polite, however personally offended we might be… What I want to make clear and unambiguous is that responses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech CANNOT BE QUALIFIED [emphasis his]… Noting that, for example, 'The University supports the right of free speech, but we intend to check into this matter' … is unacceptable. There is nothing to 'check into,' nothing to 'investigate.'"


Now, there is a man with backbone who understands freedom.  If we all behaved like that, the next generation of scholars would have nothing to fear.


Thank you once again for this award.