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Opinion

Democracy Works: What academic freedom really means in a democracy

Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth
Johns Hopkins University Press
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Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth

What should academic freedom look like in 2022? How has it become conflated with the idea of free speech? Who should decide how issues regarding faculty speech should be adjudicated? Those are just a few of the questions we explore this week with Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, authors of "It's Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom."

The book considers the ideal of academic freedom in the wake of the activism inspired by outrageous police brutality, white supremacy, and the #MeToo movement. Arguing that academic freedom must be rigorously distinguished from freedom of speech, Bérubé and Ruth take aim at explicit defenses of colonialism and theories of white supremacy—theories that have no intellectual legitimacy whatsoever. They argue that the democracy-destroying potential of social media makes it very difficult to uphold the traditional liberal view that the best remedy for hate speech is more speech.

Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State; Ruth is a professor of film at Portland State University. They've also coauthored "Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments." 

Episode Transcript

Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy on the campus of Penn State University, I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
I'm Chris Beem.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. This week. Our guests are Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth, who are the authors of the forthcoming book. It's not free speech, race, democracy and the future of academic freedom. Michael is a colleague of ours here at Penn State. He is the Edwin Earl sparks professor of literature. And Jennifer is a Professor of Film at Portland State University. And this book, as the name suggests, really dives headfirst into a lot of issues that have been talked about in recent years on college campuses.

Michael Berkman
But you know, all of it raises I think, a larger question, a book like this earlier guests that we've had that have also talked a lot about what's going on on college campuses, many of them from a more conservative direction, I think about what role universities should play in a democracy if they have any particular role within a democracy. And certainly, it's the contention of many in academia today, that democracies do have a role to play in a democracy. Tracy Fitzsimons, the president of Shenandoah University wrote after January 6, that universities have a commitment to bettering humanity. The president of Johns Hopkins recently wrote a book where he talks about how universities must, quote, foster democracy. And our guests today say that universities must further democracy. So clearly, there's the idea out there that universities have a role to play in a play in a democracy and a universities provide expertise for democratic discussion and debate. This is something our Provost talked about, actually, when he was on the air with us years ago, universities develop ways to use the expertise within their university for public good. I mean, at a land grant university that's easy to see in terms of our extension programs, and things of that nature. But more broadly, the idea that the expertise developed here needs to be applied to public debate, and public discussion. But universities also I think, increasingly recognize the role that they need to play in creating or helping to create good democratic citizens,

Chris Beem
The job of the university is to help citizens distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments between evidence that is, you know, responsible, legitimate, and persuasive and evidence that is, you know, none of those things, right.

Michael Berkman
Because free speech says you can say whatever you want, right, you know, within limits, but free speech says you could say whatever you want, right?

Chris Beem
Free speech does not mean that you have the right to say whatever you want, and to keep your job, or to keep your source of income. And there this free speech that you have gives the other person the right to condemn what you're saying, and to challenge what you're saying. But I do think that part of the problem here is that free speech has become this talisman that you can just wave whenever you want, and it gets you. It's like, oh, well, then it's free speech, it's okay. And their argument is that it's something very different from that, that the idea of academic freedom is very different. And, and really more restrictive than that.

Michael Berkman
I think that what they're arguing is that your work, it needs to be able to pass muster, by the, from the evaluations of your peers, I mean, that's built into universities, all the time, everything about how people are promoted, and tenured everything about how people are hired. But everything about how you get published, is based upon the idea that your work is passing muster of other experts in the field. And this is different from the idea in free speech was you could just say, whatever you want, and that's free speech, ideas often brought into universities, the idea people should be able to say whatever they want, and it should be protected by some notion of free speech, but that doesn't really exist within the university. Right.

Jenna Spinelle
And that's, I think that's a good place to go to the interview. I think we've we've laid out what role universities can and should have in a democracy and where that butts up against some other misconceptions about things like free speech and where universities fit into that and that, as we've said, is the entire subject of Michael Jennifer's book and We dive into a lot more detail in our conversation. So let's go now to the interview

Jenna Spinelle
Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth, welcome to Democracy work. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jennifer Ruth
Thanks for having us.

Jenna Spinelle
So your new book, it's not free speech touches on so many issues that are important to democracy today, particularly when we think about a university's role in democracy. And central to the book is that the notion of academic freedom. So Michael, let's start with you, if you don't mind, tell us what academic freedom is.

Michael Bérubé
Oh, is that all? Um, actually, this is, Jennifer can jump in as well, because it was her idea to bring in Robert Post's argument about democratic legitimation. But basically, academic freedom has suite in the United States has three components, freedom of research, which almost no one questions occasionally, there are corporate restraints on research. But very rarely do you find someone actually trying to block a book something, freedom and teaching which does come under fire, if it's about controversial matters. And then the third one, which is the trickiest and takes up most of our book, extramural speech, the speech that the agent as citizens. So I certainly gave up none of my First Amendment rights. When I took a position at Penn State or the University of Illinois, Jennifer did the same at Portland State. But it gets very tricky. When we start speaking in public about areas of our expertise, then we're held to a higher standard. So the paradox there that we spend some time on almost an entire chapter is that we're actually on safer ground if we Mel golf, on Twitter about stuff we know nothing about, like certain refereeing calls in the Super Bowl, as opposed to things we're actually expert in, because they're the standard is higher for us, because presumably has bearing on our teaching and research. But those are the three components. They are, you know, the faculty considerable or intellectual autonomy, in teaching and research, again, leaving aside extramural speech for a moment. And we think we're not alone. This is one of the cornerstones of a free society to make sure that the people who are doing the teaching and research are not beholden to church or state or party. And the trade off, then this is where we get into Jennifer's use of Robert posts argument is that ultimately, this is a bargain that will serve democracy in some way that the advance of knowledge unfettered by external constraints will serve something we call the common good, whatever that might be.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, and let's let's pick up on that. Jennifer, can you talk more about this, this argument from Robert post about democratic legitimation and democratic competence?

Jennifer Ruth
Yeah, I think in his book, it's a 2012 book, democracy, expertise, academic freedom of First Amendment jurisprudence for the modern state. He's a legal scholar at Yale. He is really he said, he said in an interview that he was interested in working out this this sort of jurisprudence, because of the way in which expert knowledge seemed to be being debased in the public sphere to mere opinion, and mere opinion was seeming to have equal weight with expert knowledge. And he wanted to try to carve out a space where academic freedom and free speech are not conflated. And that had that space has been carved out, over the years through a kind of common law built by a the American Association of University Professors, through reports, documents, decisions by committee a on academic freedom and tenure, on which I serve. But judicially it's been kind of what post calls a Sargasso Sea of different kinds of feelings in search of a coherent philosophy. And, of course, that confusion is reflected in the, in the public sphere. The conflation of academic freedom and free speech, not just with the public, but even among academics is huge. And it's a problem when you want to carve out a space for expert knowledge that can be kept kind of inviolate from political interference or commercial interference. So he that's what he's looking to do. And he creates two he sort of coins two phrases to develop his argument. One is democratic legitimation, for which he feels the First Amendment is critical, because it's about the quality of persons to participate in the democratic process to some extent, and then, but the fact that democratic competence, a certain amount of competence around facts and knowledge, are required to facilitate democratic self governance. If we don't have that. We don't know how to differentiate between good ideas and bad ideas. And that's the space where the universities come in, and if we can protect them from outside influence, we can protect this sphere in which good ideas and bad ideas don't get equal time. It's not actually as one court decision quoted one of the justices. It's not a marketplace of ideas in the university, you it's actually our whole job is partly to vet and make judgments and build on knowledge based on not continuing to revivify debunked knowledge. So that's where he's coming from. And I think he does a really nice job of creating some legal ground work.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, and I know you you talk about the the kind of broader need for reform, you know, among the American Association of University Professors, some of which, you know, their, their, their materials, or their frameworks on these issues haven't been updated in decades, if not longer. But I want to come back to this conflation of academic freedom and free speech. Can you talk a little bit more about where that comes from? And and why perhaps it does seem to be so prevalent in our discourse today?

Michael Bérubé
Well, the conclusion I could go to get to you alluded to some AAUP documents that haven't been updated, and we took the sharp knives out to one of them's from 1994. And the statement that often gets quoted, and it's about speech codes. And in the course of that statement, the completely confuses the difference between a visiting speaker coming to campus, which a lot, you know, a lot of controversies are about that, especially if they have some racist or allegedly racist tinge to them. And then students speech and professorial speech, all these things are different things. And yet, we call it that I actually want to call it up, but really the strikingly misguided passage and it reads, an institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission. It asserts the power to prescribe ideas, and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however, repugnant, indeed, by prescribing any ideas, the university, he sets an example that profoundly deserves his academic mission, any ideas, not just the racist, sexist homophobic stuff. But the fact now that we are disclosing this to your listeners that the moon is in fact made of blue cheese. In fact, colony was right. And that phonology has much to teach us. We are you, again, are the following posts, but then a lot of this suggests to us that in fact, academic freedom sets a much higher standard, that in fact, it does involve a jury of your disciplinary and your academic peers. The jury is not always right, sometimes, you know, ideas moved from the margin to the center over the course of time, history of science is largely about that. But I think where these, this conflation really started happening, I mean, I think that that statement from the AAUP carbon data, that's 1994, this started with the PC scares of the early 90s. And the claim that free speech was imperiled on campus. And this quickly morphed into a conflation of academic freedom and free speech, so that you got professors claiming academic freedom for things that was never intended to cover. And you got a really blanket invocation of that marketplace of ideas that the university has to be open to all ideas, just let them find out. And I think we are you we have a number of arguments about that. But one of them is, first of all, in principle that is wrong. Right. And this is why that tension between Democratic competence and democratic legitimation is so strong. If in fact, 70% of the people of Pennsylvania believe in astrology, that doesn't mean it should be astrology department at Penn State, right. We don't conduct these things by plebiscite. And yet at the same time, we are answerable to the public in a way, because we believe that academic freedom ultimately serves democracy. Another sense without just turning things over the popular vote. So yeah, I think and I think some of this has been, that's one of our arguments. The other of course, is that's been harder and harder to maintain any kind of faith in the marketplace of ideas in given the advent of Facebook and Trump and, you know, organize this information campaigns that, you know, pandemic are literally lethal. But even before that, that really severely eroded the standard liberal belief to which I subscribed until a couple years ago, that the best antidote to hate speech is more speech, are that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Turns out that shining sunlight on Nazis helps them grow. Right? So we say in the book, maybe bleach is a better disinfectant.

Jenna Spinelle
We've been talking on the show recently about how this libertarian notion has impacted our media environments, how it's impacted public K 12 education, there's been sort of this assault on these these institutions and the broader sense of the common good that they put forward. It all sort of framed in this market place of of ideas. And I think that that is the point that you make that we're seeing perhaps something similar happen or have seen something similar happen with within higher education, again, using this this notion of academic freedom.

Jennifer Ruth
Yeah, could I say something to the first, the role of libertarian thinking and how it has encroached into the ACA, academia, one thing that we, we say, we do say that, you know, it's been 80 years since the the definitive 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure, buy up that, you know, 180 educational organizations signed on to, and we said that, you know, it needs to be updated, in part in response to the fact that social media, the erosion of tenure, all of these things, but there is a way in which we need to go back to the 1915 declaration, because that's the place where the emphasis really is on the academic freedom is a collective right, not an individual liberty or an individual, right, it's the profession that decides. And so that's a really, that's a piece that's missing, in part because of the rise of the marketplace of ideas and the sort of libertarian campaigns to make everything about individual rights, and anti regulation. And one of the things that when you bring up the assault on public education, which are the there's a pen report that just came out, that shows the degree to which I think that a lot of people are under the illusion that this mostly just affects K through 12. It also affects higher education. What's really interesting, there's a really good book that came out in November called free speech and coke money manufacturing, campus culture war by Isaac Kamal and Ralph Wilson. And they really walk you through the libertarian the way that the libertarian campaign, the Koch money, beginning with, you know, trying to defend the tobacco industry and say that there's a both sides to tobacco, when the news reports talk about the damage to to your health, they should also talk about toxic consumers and then enjoyments and pleasures, to you know, making a big case about ambulance chasing lawyers, like all of the anti regulation work that the libertarians have done, and the way they Wilson and Kamala do a really good job of showing how that has actually also happened for campuses and to academia. They've also, you know, you know, put their sights on academia. And it's really had an effect on how the public views universities. And one of the things one of the things that I think they don't talk about this in their book, but I'm really struck by the what you might ironically call the interest convergence between libertarianism and authoritarianism. And the degree to which you there's a Venn diagram of politicians that started off saying, We got to pass legislation to protect racist speech, allegedly and re can you know, things speech emboldened by a kind of Trump figure that sort of brought out the sense of, hey, white nationalism, all of this kind of stuff, we got to protect we've got to pass legislation to protect that and universities to within six months passing legislation banning speech,

Jenna Spinelle
One of the things one of the, the, the solutions that I hear put forward, we've talked about it on this show, and we had Jonathan Rauch on to talk about his book, The Constitution of knowledge. I know groups like the the Heterodox Academy, they all sort of advocate for what they describe as viewpoint diversity

Michael Bérubé
It's a Trojan horse, basically. Because it assumes, first of all, that viewpoint diversity is in its of itself. A good and it depends on what kind of field we're talking about, again, you know, I brought up Ptolemy not that blue cheese is silly. Everyone knows the movement of cream cheese. But Ptolemaic understandings of the universe work for so long, because they weren't terribly off. We didn't have the instruments to see, you know, okay, you know, Mars is exactly where it should be. And so for that matter, they're still outliers out there who refuse to accept the evidence of the Big Bang, right. But in some fields, I'm starting with the sciences. But I think this holds for a lot of the social sciences as well, less so the arts and humanities where things are much more loosey goosey. But there are whole fields in which viewpoint diversity is a crock. We're in fact, this is settled. I mentioned phonology for one of the things I hope gets established by our book is how incredibly ubiquitous eugenics was 100 years ago, we had a little debate over an adjective with the editor of the New Republic, and I'd said that white supremacism has a long and distinguished history in the academy. And we're distinguished so that jumps out right but what I meant was it didn't it wasn't confined to southeast Alabama State, or Bob Jones University. It was you pick this and then the Dunning school was concocted? You know, the the basically, anti reconstruction pro revanchist academic wing of the Ku Klux Klan was it was all concocted at Columbia. So in phrenology again, it's been discredited, but you can go back 100 120 years and find that it was just a subset of much wider beliefs. Almost everyone shared. But we don't want that viewpoint diversity back. Thank you very much. One of the things we are trying to do in this book is say, look, every theory that there is some innate or cultural difference among humans that allows us to rank them by race. This now belongs on the ash heap of history and the zombie believes must finally die.

Jenna Spinelle
The other thing that that we hear that this kind of lack of you know, people who feel that their speeches is being restricted in some way I know you mentioned the the Harper's letter in in your, in your book, I took this sounds from that. But there's this chilling effect, right of where if you don't have whatever the one true opinion is deemed to be, then you you're too afraid to say anything or bring up controversial topics in in the classroom. I'm just wondering, you know, how real is this chilling effect? How much fear is there about saying the wrong thing, or getting canceled or everything that is purported to come along with that?

Jennifer Ruth
Yeah, I pretty much agree with the position that it's not canceled culture, its culture, there's always been a pull back and forth and a tug of war an attempt to try to try to be censorious with one with positions that you don't agree with. And that the difference is that we may be in a period of more accelerated change of social norms and reckonings you know, George Floyd's more murder me to these kinds of reckonings with our society, Trump really, you know, created a new sense of urgency around inclusiveness and, you know, accepting that we're a multiracial democracy, and also understanding that some people don't want to share this country with others. So I think there's an accelerated social norms that are creating a new sense of self consciousness among faculty. But that's not a bad thing. I met I'm in Portland State, we have a pretty we have a strong contingent of progressive students. When they was introduced as a pronoun for a singular pronoun. I actually stumbled for a while, I had no problem adopting it, but I stumbled for well, my students were incredibly forgiving. For every one incident that gets totally blown out a portion. 1000 moments happen across campuses where students don't decide to become mob, you know, outrage mobs,

Michael Bérubé
But I do have the more than a sliver of sympathy with that kind of critique, that person can lose their career over over a tweet. But the social media have made things so volatile. And but if you go by some subjective feelings of whether people are afraid to say X, Y, or Z, you're not gonna get any reliable data at all. Sometimes people have, they're reluctant to say, What do you mean, I can't just be transphobic. Now is the sell by date now expiring? Don't told me that. So it is true. In those catalogs of the canceled that there were some injustice is done, and things were taken completely out of context. That's why I thought it was really important for us to start the book with a chapter about what is context, what very term canceled culture come from? What happens when you truncate the context of another and so what happens when you what can constitutes, and this is not just a dry exercise in literary theory, sometimes people's careers depend on this right? And we've got a situation here. I think, this goes also to what we would suggest as a remedy for faculty who are accused of things of a situation here where a guy can be removed from his class at USC for saying a Chinese word that sounds like the N bomb. And meanwhile, we have real live breathing, white supremacist running around with complete impunity. It's kind of crazy system has completely ad hoc and sometimes like I say, manifest and justices are done. That said, You're gonna have to drug me pretty hard to tell me that Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle are canceled, right. In fact, the whole Joe Rogan thing demonstrates to me that no one even understands what free speech is anymore, let alone academic freedom. You know, if musicians pulling their stuff off, Spotify is infringing on Joe Rogan's free speech No, the concept was pretty much lost or new altogether.

Jenna Spinelle 
So thinking about you know, the the speed with which these things these instant these incidents are, are occurring and being adjudicated thanks to to social media and just the the broader nature of our media environment in general today, do faculty committees or organizations like the AAUP, which are notoriously slow moving, or at least that's the that's the stereotype of them anyway? Do they have the capacity to act as quickly as seems to be needed to, to really you know, stay on top of things for for lack of a better term or you know, respond to things out As as they're happening?

Jennifer Ruth
That's a really good question. And I do think I don't fault you for saying AAUP is notoriously slow moving on, I think the fact that we've introduced this critique of the 1994 statement, I'm on committee a, but it's still I don't have direct power over anything, they would still probably take years to revise that statement. I think we really, I think that's why ultimately, even though we want a up to rethink some of its positions, and update some of its positions, we really are calling on faculty. And it's not like we're all very aware of the disinclination to be to invest too much of our time, in governance issues and service when we want to be doing other things. But we need it. And I mean, and there is hope. So we need academic freedom committees that have a certain amount of the have bylaws that allow for the creation of an ad hoc committee that has people in the discipline of the person who's come under the spotlight in some way, a particular incident, you know, that can that can move pretty quickly, it's going to happen. And we do have some hope that that's possible. And I'm going to point to the Senate Resolution campaigns that are passing across the country, but that are not getting nearly as much attention as they deserve. The University of Texas at Austin yesterday, passed a resolution rejecting political interference and the education of critical race theory. This is Texas 45 Yes, five, no three abstention. There's they're drawing a line in the sand that this we are the ones who do dictate what happens in the classroom, not Greg Abbott or whoever is the and so in this, there's over 15 schools now that have adapted a template and a pass this resolution and it's it's just gaining momentum, including Penn State, including Penn State, including Portland State. So yeah, I think I think it needs to be local, too. I think you know, these things are gonna show up in the media. No, Connors Conor Friedersdorf is in Atlantic writer doing the Free Speech wars. And he'll every little moment at Oberlin every little moment anywhere, he's gonna, he's gonna blow up, right? The faculty committees need to be indifferent to that. So parsing it in the net, and the social media parsing it in, and journals and magazines, that's one thing, faculty need to be allowed to parse it themselves.

Michael Bérubé
Just remember, I know you have another question. I just want to go back over Jennifer's remarks about the AAP. Because that perception and move slowly is not wrong. When the AAP does an investigation, first of all, they usually have to be bodies that you have actually fired tenured professors, and conducted to investigations, we concluded our work in a couple of months, but you still have to pour through 1000s and 1000s of pages of emails, policy documents, what have you. And that's one of the reasons I think the Foundation for Individual Rights and education sometimes cleans the UPS clock, they respond very, very quickly. They have like people's parachuting down to a campus, you know, from the special fire helicopters. Very, you know what, right, they have a good legal arm, they're they're very savvy about this sort of thing. But sometimes, that's not a virtue. And when you talk about faculty committees, you know, inevitably being deliberative. And meanwhile, some guy of the Atlantic is complaining about the students don't think about me, Oberlin is really by me and the students years later, we find out not only are the students entirely white, but the entire narrative was garbled from the outset and then went viral, thanks to Friedersdorf that we saw the same thing three years ago with PC, a lot of the incidents turned that on closer examination to be complete nonsense.

Jenna Spinelle
But one last thing for our listeners who are not part of higher education, but still see that we are whether it's Conor Friedersdorf, or others who are on this sort of canceled culture beat so to speak, and are just seeing these things out there. How How might you recommend that they sort of parse them or you might you offer some some advice for for how to think about these these stories as they will no doubt continue to come up given the sort of popularity or you know, financial viability that they seem to bring?

Jennifer Ruth
I'm gonna let Michael take that after I say one thing, follow the money. Koch foundation is part of his helped fund the Free Speech series of The Atlantic magazine economy in which Conor Friedersdorf is riding. So follow the money see whose interest this is in. Think about the larger campaign of libertarian and conservative groups that to try and deflect against any kind of regulation. And then think about the difference between academic freedom and free speech and try and understand that that we need democratic competence in order to have in a post truth, post facts world, we need to rely on some kind of authoritative knowledge. And that's not gonna that that knowledge isn't going to be figured out through social media.

Michael Bérubé
Picking up on that, I would underscore something that Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote in the New York Times last month, that there are real social costs to the idea that everyone's an expert now. Right. And I see this also. I mean, there's a point in the introduction, I think this one's on me, where I said, you know, we want to believe in the ideal of not just liberals, but you're gonna have a mosque, the public sphere is an open place where people can debate things and debate the good life and the good society. And, you know, in the early days on the internet, I had a blog, I thought, This is great. You know, this is as democratizing as Gutenberg 2.0. Right. This is bringing all kinds of knowledge into the hands of ordinary citizens. We no longer have the gatekeepers we have in media, people sometimes who have outlived their sinecures. And this is the like the blog revolution of it turns out that a lot of that really went sour. And that asking people to be experts, or you now have a whole book literally legions, millions of people who have quote, unquote, done their own research on COVID. And look where that has gotten us. So my watchword for your listeners would be watch out for the clickbait. It's so tempting with the outrage machine is every bit as tempting to the left. So the right. It's the sort of equal opportunity, temptation. And I've had my moments of getting into it as well thinking, Well, that's pretty enough, Archie, outrageous. And how do we mind myself, you got to give us at least 48 hours to figure out what in the world is going on here first, and maybe another 48 days to figure out whether it's true or not. And I know that's in culture where you know, judgment is instantaneous. I'm sending it was standing for like, like conservative standing for history yelling stop. But one of the things we point out is that the original canceled hashtag cancel a cold there was not actually about canceling who called there, right, there was a much more nuanced critique that you could get only by actually talking to the person on some media other than Twitter. And I honestly did not know that until I did a deep dive into I originally thought cancel Colbert was this manufacturing, social outreach and social media outreach thing. And turns out, it was actually part of a fairly metric critique of the fact there's almost no cost to white comedians, for mocking the kind of thing the cold air mocked, he was mocking the owner of the Washington Redskins, and he was doing it in this Bill O'Reilly persona. But as a matter of fact, it's a different thing, if a white guy tells that joke, right? So slow down a bit. Not everything deserves your like, for your retweet in the next 15 seconds. And a lot of these things that come out of academic controversies, you know, sometimes take some time to parse.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, I think that is a wonderful note to end on. Thank you both for this book. As I said, we did not even we barely scratched the surface of all the things you cover, I highly recommend listeners pick it up. And we will link to it in the show notes. But Jennifer, and Michael, thank you so much for joining us today.

Michael Bérubé
Thank you for having us.

Jennifer Ruth
Thank you so much.

Chris Beem
So Michael, what I find interesting about the book and that unit comes up in the interview as well, is this argument that this is a statement about the the the role and importance of academic freedom right now. And they talk about how things have changed in in the in the culture and in higher and higher education over like the past 2025 years. And they're saying, Look, right now the role and the the objectives of higher education are distinctively under threat. And so this is why we need a statement about what the academy is for right now. It's not able to do its its job. And because of that, that's one of the reasons why our public argument or public debate is so compromised is so bad. And so they are arguing that in this world in which Greg Abbott is saying what should go on at the University of Texas, and legislatures all over this nation are saying what is okay in terms of teaching around the subject of race? All of that is a threat to the role of, of higher education and democracy. And so it needs to be confronted head on there.

Michael Berkman
So all of this is going on, they're taking on, they're taking on quite a bit. And they're, you know, from keep in mind, these are two authors that are deeply entrenched in how universities govern themselves. And they both come from a position, I think it's fair to say that they believe in strong faculty governance of universities. And so they're starting from How can universities play a role given all of these changes? And how can the faculty effectively play a role in in all of these changes that are going on?

Chris Beem
Is this there is a clear focus on this issues on these questions associated with white supremacy and how it is that they call them these zombie ideas that just will not stay dead, even though they have no, they've been completely debunked. Both, you know, in whatever argument or whatever discipline you're talking about, they say that if this is if we allow these arguments to continue to, to continue to claim some kind of, well, we're just it's just open inquiry, we're just asking questions. If we do that, then what we're doing is undermining the factual ground of equality on which a democracy has to rest. And so it's not simply a matter of partisan politics. It is, if if higher education allows these questions to be open to continue to be open, when they shouldn't be, right, we don't still question whether or not the Earth revolves around the sun. You know, we don't those are not those are closed questions. And if we act as if this question is different from that, and is an open question that deserves debate and argument, then what we're doing is not only undermining science and these disciplines within the academy, but we're also undermining the the ground on which a democracy has to achieve in order to sustain itself of namely of, of universal equality,

Michael Berkman
I think many coming from this from a more conservative direction, would argue that really what we're seeing in universities is the imposition of some kind of new orthodoxy.

Chris Beem
No, I think that's right. And and I think it I mean, I'm, you know, the the Heterodox Academy, which is Jonathan Haidt's, organization, argues, you know, that's the opposite of, of orthodoxy. Right. And, and there is a, an argument that, you know, he is on the other end of the spectrum, right. But what Beurbe and Ruth are arguing is that neutrality is undermines academic freedom, it is not the standard, and it should not be the standard, right. But what Haidt is saying is that orthodoxy should not be the standard, it should not set the terms for academic freedom. And I would want to argue that both of those are cracked. And that naturally, when you're looking at one side or the other of the spectrum, you're less able to focus on the other, I think their book does bring out these these examples, right? of people who are just, you know, unjustly pilloried for something that that really is, is, is perfectly legitimate, or at least understandable discourse. Right. And I do think that that Jonathan Hite and and others I mean, there are there's are distinctions there, right, there are people who are eager to pounce on any example of this kind of, you know, let's call it leftist or orthodoxy. And, and, and, and blow it up. And I think that's probably true. But I also think that it's also that the people in the Heterodox Academy have a point. And, and so and I do think that there are there are distinctions to be made between, you know, science and social science and the humanities in terms of what is a genuinely open question. Yeah,

Michael Berkman
I mean, I yeah, I guess I don't I don't fully get what the orthodoxy is here is I mean, if I guess the orthodoxy is anti-racism.

Chris Beem
I mean, I think that's probably right. And but it's also, but it's also a matter of what, when, at what point does a, a topic bleed into anti racism? And when is it? Where does it end an objective question. And I think there are arguments about how that is how that line is drawn.

Michael Berkman
But, you know, let's face it, the 20 election, in particular, has created a very difficult environment for having discussions across absolute partisan lines, in and out of academia. Yeah, in and out of academia, right. And that students, like everybody else, are increasingly caught up in sort of their information silos, and professors too, and right, and we don't, right. And we don't want to perpetuate that in our classrooms. But I guess the question is, by insisting on anti racism, are we perpetuating that?

Chris Beem
I think that I think that's a good question to ask. And I think the answer is, if we allow racist comments to be presented without challenge or without, you know, as if they're genuinely open questions, I think, yes, we are undermining democracy.

Michael Berkman
So for example, and they do talk about Jonathan Haidt quite a bit and the heterodox society. But you know, part of one of the objectives of the heterodox society is just that conservative professors be hired, right along with more liberal ones. I don't I don't think our guests today would disagree with that at all.

Chris Beem
But I would all I would just argue that that the, the job of the academy is to train students how to argue, and if arguments are cut off, some arguments should be cut off. But if all arguments are cut off and saying this is illegitimate, then you're not helping students learn how to argue, Okay, I accept that. Anyway. All right. Obviously, a really challenging book, really interesting book. It's, it's really, really well written. It's fun to read, isn't it? It's fun to read. And and that is not something you say very often about a book about academic.

Michael Berkman
What I really liked about this book is it takes many examples that have been in the news. And it talks about them in thoughtful, interesting ways, sometimes in ways that you might not have thought of.

Chris Beem
Yeah, and I really liked the fact that they are just insisting that part of the issue here is that academicians accept the responsibilities that they have. They can't just like, Pawn this off on free speech. Anyway. Alright, so Thanks, Jenna, for a terrific interview. I'm Chris Beem.

Michael Berkman
I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
Thanks for listening.