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Sep 27, 2021

Academic freedom and disciplinary authority

Here is a case: Another unit at the University has invited someone to be a guest speaker at a public event. The speaker happened to be in one of our fields. Should the other unit consult us before inviting someone, or should they maintain the stance of academic freedom, and invite anyone they want, no matter how controversial?

Let us say you are in the more pro-freedom camp. Yes, they should feel free to invite whoever they want. However, let us extend this logic a little further. What mechanism can prevent a university inviting, let us hay a Holocaust denier, or a climate change denier, or an anti-vaxxer? That would make us look like a collective fool, right?

My preference is to always check with whoever has the disciplinary authority. If you speak about homelessness, perhaps check with Social Work. If you are talking about science, let’s talk to the college of math and science. A talk about nursing should probably be run by the Nursing faculty, etc. The thing is – you may in the end override your colleagues’ objections, and still invite a controversial figure to come. After all, every discipline is full of disagreements, and many fields are split on specific issues. But you would be making this choice from a more informed position, not out of ignorance.

This is the important lesson: in making a choice, just the ability to make a choice is not enough of a motive. Flipping a coin is not an act of choice. Freedom of choice does not apply to the choice between knowledge and ignorance. In some cases, equally well-informed people have strong differences in opinion. It is enlightening to hear their dialogue. In the absence of hard facts, informed opinions are the next best thing. But when opinions get stuck on egos, when having a different opinion is the goal on its own, the talk is not fun.

The question is, who can make that distinction between wacko quasi-science and a real science? Well, this is why we have academic departments, with their own disciplinary knowledge. You don’t have to believe them, but you must try to listen to what they have to say. That is the limitation imposed by working at a university. 

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