March 10, 2004

More on Academic Freedom

Via Kieran Healy, Michael Berube points out that the Nona Gerard case is different from the Southern Mississippi case (see my earlier comments, including a declaration of bias). Gerard's firing went through administrative procedures, while the president of Southern Miss unilaterally and summarily fired two tenured professors. He says that when he expressed sympathy with Gerard earlier, some of his friends told him he didn't know what he was talking about, so he's reserving judgment.

That's reasonable; I don't know the details of the case either. But administrative proceedings in themselves aren't enough to guarantee justice--ask the Innocence Project.*

In particular, you could imagine that someone who was a real pain--who attacked her colleagues, who gave brutally frank (and possibly inaccurate) advice to students--would be likely to alienate a lot of people on campus. Maybe people would be alienated enough to see what she did as grave misconduct, worthy of revocation of tenure. But it would still be the conduct that academic freedom is supposed to protect.

I don't know whether Gerard really did commit fireable offenses, or whether she just got too many people angry. Part of the reason I don't know is that Penn State hasn't said exactly what she's done. I understand that they're facing a lawsuit and can't speak freely, but that leaves us unable to tell whether there's been an abuse of academic freedom or not. So I think we all do have reason to be gravely concerned.

(I don't think I'm disagreeing with Berube here--he says that "The Penn State decision should be pursued, and the grounds for Gerard's dismissal made available for broader review," and that the people who told him about Gerard weren't discussing revoking her tenure. It's possible that she was a bad colleague but not one who should've been fired. Until the details come out, we can't know.)

*And of course there's a huge difference between being fired from a tenured job and being imprisoned or executed, I'm not saying there isn't. And the Innocence Project site is truly dismaying.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 10, 2004 12:35 PM