digital rhetoric Higher Education

academic freedom, social media, and the university without conditions

Let’s call this a “Law and Order” style post, as in “inspired by real events.” This is also, I believe, a classical example of a Latourian “matter of concern.”

Without suggesting in any way that the principles of academic freedom ought to be modified or interpreted differently, it should be clear that the material conditions of communication have completely changed since the last time (in 1970) the AAUP “interpreted” the 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure. Though there is a Statement on Professional Ethics that was last revised in 2009 to me it seems clear that it is still failing to account for our changing conditions (maybe there wasn’t a critical mass of academics on Twitter yet). The key paragraph in that document is probably:

As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution. When they speak or act as private persons, they avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university. As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.

For me, there are two interesting points here. First that professors have “rights and obligations” that are no different from other citizens. And second, that when they speak or act as private persons that they “avoid creating the impression of speaking for their college or university.”  Let’s deal with the second point first. Exactly how do you avoid that impression in social media? I suppose if you in no way identify yourself as a professor in your profile page and you can’t be googled and identified as such. What is due diligence in terms of “avoiding” here? It’s not like one can invoke the online version of Robert’s Rules to insist that an audience not associate one’s speech with one’s institution. And as for having the same rights and obligations as other citizens, that’s hardly much solace. Do we imagine that high profile professionals in corporate America are not subject to personal conduct policies? We know that people get in trouble and not hired for jobs because of what they post in Facebook and such. We teach our students about this all the time. So the notion that we have the same rights and obligations as any private person is something to think about.

So one argument says that professors should be able to write/say anything that falls within the protections of the First Amendment and not be subject to any professional or institutional consequences. Of course this is not practically possible to ensure because everything we say has consequences, often unintentional ones. This is an inherent risk of communication. I could be writing something right now that angers some reader who will remember and some day be disinclined to publish something I’ve written or promote me or whatever. No one can control that. That’s always been the case. There have always been feuds among faculty in departments, where one professor always opposes anything the other one suggestions. Only with social media we have this business on a larger scale. One can say that the acts of an institution are a different matter, and that’s true, but those acts are always actually taken by individual people sitting on a committee or in an office somewhere. That angry letter to the editor you may have written 10 years ago, instead of being buried in some archive where no one can find it, now comes up on the first page of a Google search for your name. And really anyone in America can find it and read it at any time, not just the couple thousand local folks who might have turned to page 53 of the newspaper one night a decade ago. We all know this already. So how can we pretend that our circumstances have not changed?

I know that we want to imagine that all these things are separate, but they were never inherently separate. As Latour would suggest, there were many hybrid technologies at work beneath that old 20th-century system constructing order, like Maxwell’s demon. But those old systems no longer function. The question then becomes what system should we build? In answer to this question, one often hears Derrida’s concept of the “university without conditions” cited:

[t]his university demands and ought to be granted in principle, besides what is called academic freedom, an unconditional freedom to question and to assert, or even, going still further, the right to say publicly all that is required by research, knowledge, and thought concerning the truth.

I would note that the key point here is that this is the university without conditions and not the professor with conditions. Professorial freedom has always been constrained by editors, reviewers, granting agencies, etc. We know what the university of print looked like and how it aspired to, though obviously did not reach, Derrida’s idealized institution. Whatever the digital university will look like, whether it is better or worse, it will clearly be different, because it already is.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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