The Assault On Intellectual Freedom and Its Consequences

Bob Dunne
The Colorado College

Note: This paper was given at the Second Annual Conference on Intellectual Freedom, April 1996, MSU-Northern. Intellectual freedom is under assault at institutions of higher education. Internal sources of this assault are often overlooked. I contend that actions of administrators and students, however unintentional, complex, or subtle, are at the center of the current assault on academic freedom. Administrators, particularly highly trained, high level administrators, naturally seek to subordinate and control other players in the fields in which they operate to perform their tasks and achieve their goals. To gain the upper hand, administrators have developed successful strategies, and justify them by invoking the lofty values of academia and by emphasizing a pro-student orientation. In fact, even though it may not be consciously recognized, administrators have successfully developed a de facto alliance with students. Since the professional ethics of faculties also share the values of academia and are pro-student, such strategies and legitimations are hard to counter. One expression of the administration-student alliance can be found in the increasing use of course evaluations for administrative purposes. Prior to the 1960s faculty members occasionally used course evaluations when they felt that feedback from students would help improve pedagogical technique, or when they were concerned with course design. Such evaluations were reviewed privately and only shared with others if the faculty member chose to do so. Today, at many if not most colleges, course evaluations, at least for junior faculty, are required (1). These evaluations go to the faculty member's superordinates so they can serve administrative functions, from providing evidence for retention, tenure, merit pay and promotion, to being placed in recommendation packets supplied to a potential employer should that faculty member seek new employment. Course evaluations are serious. They have too great an impact on a faculty member's future to be ignored. Consequently, faculty must seek to appease their students. What they do or say in the classroom can no longer be based solely on academic concerns or on a desire to challenge students; in fact challenging students has become dangerous. Here we encounter one aspect of the assault on intellectual freedom. The use of student's evaluations of faculty for administrative purposes has reversed an old relationship. It has always been the responsibility of faculty to grade students, but now students are being asked to grade faculty. One must consider: are students mature enough, well-trained enough, and disinterested enough to assume that responsibility? In any case, faculty subject to such evaluations must seek to win student approval. One result is that more emphasis is being placed on making classroom education fun and entertaining. This inevitably shifts course content and faculty teaching styles. Limits are felt, pressure on faculty come into play, grade inflation ensues, and the general intellectual challenge of the classroom is diminished. Certain topics about which students seem sensitive must be avoided or presented in very careful, often muted, ways (2). A second encroachment is more recent. It was forcefully called to our attention by Dinish D'Souza in his important book Illiberal Education (3). Our campuses have always included idealists and political activists, especially among students. But these tendencies have usually been kept from dominating institutions of higher learning by mature and responsible leadership (4). Today, these political tendencies are referred to by such names as "political correctness" or "ultra-feminism." Because I wish to keep the focus on intellectual freedom in general, I shall simply refer to them as "the current political tendencies" (5). What has happened recently is that as a result of administrative agendas (6), the current political tendencies have been legitimated and empowered. On many campuses the result has been the establishment of codes of conduct and speech, and the institutionalization of machinery to enforce these codes. The specifics vary from one institution to another but usually the scenario is something like this: First, administrators accept and promulgate a code of conduct and speech. Frequently the wording of the code is so vague that it is not at all clear what is prohibited, how the code is to be applied, or what rights those involved in cases have (especially the accused) (7). Then seminars are held in residence halls; frequently attendance is required. Faculty, administrators, support staff, and often even students who are known to embrace the current political tendencies speak. Their message is that the campus community is full of people who oppress powerless victims. Students are encouraged to identify those who are suspect and to inform against them. Administrators will also establish a committee which I shall refer to as the "code counselors." They are to meet with students who wish to discuss possible suspects and determine whether or not there is plausible reason to proceed against the suspect. In actuality the code counselors often actually seek out suspected infractions, and persuade students that acts or statements formerly taken for granted should be redefined as offensive. Often the suspicious student is encouraged to file a formal complaint and even coached on how to conduct themselves in a hearing. Once a complaint has been filed it is considered by a special committee. Its make-up often includes students, administrators, and members of the support staff, as well as faculty. Since nonfaculty are sometimes placed in the position of judging faculty, these adjudicative proceedings also constitutes a direct attack on the professional status of the professoriate (8). The members of this adjudicative body are usually selected by a top-level administrator because they are known to be sympathetic to the current political tendencies. Proceedings and deliberations, consequently, often accommodate accusers while giving scant concern for the rights of the accused (9). Always, the process is extremely arduous and the resulting punishments are sometimes very harsh. My point is not that faculty never commit infractions nor never deserve to be disciplined. The point is that a whole intimidative atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and hypersensitivity has been created (10). In such an atmosphere, all except those who embrace the current political tendencies, or willingly conform to them, will experience a chill (11). For independent thinkers it is like walking in a mine field filled with trip wires. An innocent statement, taken the wrong way, can result in one being dragged through the mud. When independent-minded faculty members walk into the classroom they must be on their guard. They cannot be spontaneous or candid in presentations or discourse with students. Faculty must stop and ponder before speaking. They must be more distant in their dealings with students; they dare not even offer support to a distraught student lest it serve as grounds for an accusation, especially if the faculty member is male and the student is female (12). A colleague of mine told me about a case in which he was involved. He was in the habit of opening his class each morning by asking students specific questions from the reading assigned the night before. On this occasion he called on a woman student. She was unable to answer his question, became flustered, and began to cry. Being a compassionate man, the professor said, "That's OK sweetheart; I'll call on you again tomorrow." The student mentioned the incident to a friend who told a code counselor. That person sought out the student and convinced her that improper language had been used. The student was then talked into filing a formal complaint for sexual harassment against my colleague. He told me he went through extreme anguish before the matter was resolved. Recently, several faculty who had been accused of offensive conduct or speech have successfully sought redress in the courts because their rights were violated. In response, some institutions have modified their codes and adjudicative procedures to protect themselves legally (13). However, it should be recognized that this constitutes retrenchment. The atmosphere of suspicion and intimidation remains to limit the intellectual freedom of the campus community. The alliance that has developed between administrators and students, illustrated here by its two major expressions--the administrative use of course evaluations and the development and enforcement of conduct and speech codes--is perhaps the most significant threat to intellectual freedom on campuses today. Yet it has gone largely unchallenged. It is unpleasant to recognize that campus cohabitants can constitute a threat. A number of unintended consequences follow from the situation described above. Faculty are no longer treated with as much trust or respect as they once were by their administrative superordinates. Recognition of faculty's lowered status is not lost on students. This has undermined the faculty's ability to serve as role models, a crucial function. In fact, students are induced to regard faculty with suspicion-people to be graded and accused of violating conduct and speech codes. As a result, students are often rude to faculty, and frequently display disrespect for the educational enterprise itself (14) through cheating (15) and criminal acts (16). Finally, despite a self-deluding grade inflation, the quality of the educational experience offered to students has declined (17). These negative consequences of the current situation in higher education are understandable because the same students who show up for class a half-hour late, leave before class is over, turn in sloppy work, and who fail to take notes during lectures often have 3.3 GPAs. Students are also aware that faculty who are more demanding and resist grade inflation are not only not supported by their superordinates, but are often made to suffer for their efforts (18). Educators must come to recognize the seriousness of the current situation. This will be difficult because the faculties are not ideologically prepared to engage in conflict with their administrative colleagues, and because they do not want to see that of academia's lofty values and pro-student rhetoric are being exploited to cover an attack on their professional prerogatives. If corrective action is not taken soon, the cost to society, already high, will continue to rise.


  1. Cholakian, Rouben. "The Value of Evaluations." Academe (September/October 1994): 24-26.

  2. Coren, Stanley. "When Teaching Is evaluated On Political Grounds." The Montana Professor (Winter 1995): 12-16.

  3. D'Souza, Dinish. Illiberal Education. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

  4. In the past faculties, as respected professionals, exercised considerably more leadership than they do today. However, the recent assent of administrators has placed a category of officials in charge who are less competent as scholars and have less experience as educators. Their role in limiting academic freedom has been pivotal. In his otherwise excellent essay "The Future of Academic Freedom" [Academe (May/June 1993): 11-17], Louis Menand misses this point and fails to recognize the deprofessionalization of faculty that has occurred during the last three decades.

  5. At various points in history, political tendencies have encroached on academic freedom. For an account of the McCarthy era, see: Ellen W. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower, New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

  6. It is my impression that the most important goals of current administrative agendas are: to attract and retain tuition paying students, to subordinate faculty, and to protect institutions of higher education from law suits.

  7. White, Lawrence. "Hate-Speech Codes That Pass Constitutional Muster." The Chronicle of Higher Education (25 May 25 1994): A48; Shea, Christopher. "The Limits of Speech." CHE (1 Dec. 1993): A37-A38.

  8. Wilson, Robin. "Proposed Changes In Cornell U.'s Sexual Harassment Policy Angers Professors." The Chronicle of Higher Education (5 Jan. 1996): A18; Knight, Jonathan. "The composition of Hearing Committees In Sexual Harassment Cases." Academe (Sept./Oct. 1995): 55-57; ibid. "Sexual Harassment: Suggested Policy and Procedures For Handling Complaints." (July/Aug. 1995): 62-64; ibid. "On The Relationship of Faculty Governance To Academic Freedom." (July/Aug. 1994): 47-49.

  9. "Due Process In Sexual Harassment Complaints." Academe (Sept./Oct. 1991): 41. There have been a number of court cases recently in which the rights of faculty members in such hearings were found to have been violated. See: The Chronicle of Higher Education (20 July 1994): A15; Courtney Leatherman, "Fighting Back," CHE (16 March 1994): A17-A18; Christopher Shea, "Eye On The Judicial Process," CHE (9 Feb. 1994): A37-A38. The legality of punishments imposed can also be questioned; see: Jonathan Knight, "The Misuse of Mandatory Counseling," CHE (17 Nov. 1995): B1-B2.

  10. Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "A Kafkaesque Trap." Academe (May/June 1995): 8-14; Shea, Christopher. "Sore Relations Again At Penn." The Chronicle of Higher Education (24 March 1995): A39; Shea, Christopher. "No Laughing Matter." CHE (30 Nov. 1994): A39.

  11. McMasters, Paul. "Free Speech versus Civil Discourse: Where Do We Go From Here?" Academe (Jan./Feb. 1994): 8-13; Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Truth or Consequences: Putting Limits On Limits." Academe (Jan./Feb. 1994): 14-17.

  12. On this point see the informative essay by Jane Gallop: "Feminism and Harassment Policy," Academe (Sept./Oct. 1994): 16-23.

  13. Mangan, Katherine S. "Thorny Legal Issues Face Colleges Hit By Sexual-Harassment Cases." The Chronicle of Higher Education (4 Aug. 1993): A13-A14.

  14. Gose, Ben. "Promoting Intellectual Life." The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 March 1996): A33-A34; Monaghan, Peter. "University Plans Remedial Work in Manners." CHE (14 Apr. 1995): A39.

  15. The Chronicle of Higher Education (16 Feb. 1996): A37; Fishbein, Leslie. "Curbing Cheating and Restoring Academic Integrity." CHE (1 Dec. 1993): A52; Kibler, William and Pamela Vannoy. "When Students Resort to Cheating." CHE (14 July 1993): B1-B2.

  16. Gose, Ben. "The Drug Problem." The Chronicle of Higher Education (21 July 1995): A29; Ibid. (23 June 1995): A27; Muir, Jeff. "Universities Ignore Violence and Vandalism Against Conservative Student Publications." CHE (2 June 1993): B2; Palmer, Carolyn. "Skepticism is Rampant about the Statistics on Campus Crime." CHE (21 Apr. 1993): B1-B2; Collison, Michele N-K. "Many Are Skeptical about Low Crime Rates Reported by Colleges and Universities." CHE (17 Feb. 1993): A25-A26.

  17. Bryden, David P. "It Ain't What They Teach, It's The Way That They Teach It." The Public Interest 103 (Spring 1991): 38-53; D'Souza op. cit.; Magner, Denise K. "Standards in a Free-Fall?" CHE (29 Mar. 1996): A17-A19; Ibid. (17 Mar. 1995): A18; Levine, Authur. "To Deflate Grade Inflation, Simplify the System." Ibid. (19 Jan. 1994): B3; Magner, Denise K. "A Biting Assessment." Ibid. (8 Dec. 1993): A26; Cole, William. "By Rewarding Mediocrity We Discourage Excellence." CHE (6 Jan. 1993): B1-B2.

  18. Presenting evidence on this point is difficult. Information I have received from faculty members at several institutions across the nation convince me that my statement is true. It is important to also note that I have repeatedly been asked not to mention names. I take this as evidence that there is wide spread recognition that retribution does occur.
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