Source: Wikimedia Commons Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Academic freedom can be a double-edged sword. It can serve the useful purpose of allowing the discussion of controversial or difficult issues. But it can also be used by opponents to try to beat down the opposition by claiming that their own academic freedom is being violated by people with whom they disagree. Two recent examples of this kind of behavior have occurred at the University of Minnesota and I am sure that the tactic is not foreign to most higher education institutions nowadays. Enforcement of political correctness was an item of dispute between those in the College of Education and Human Development and some right-wingers led by the Star-Tribune's house conservative columnist, Katherine Kersten. Her opinion piece, "Battle lines drawn against U initiative," drew quite the fire-storm (pun intended) when a well-known Philadelphia organization (FIRE) became involved in leading the fight against what Ms. Kersten referred to as "thought control." After a few rounds of correspondence, the University of Minnesota essentially cried uncle. Further details available on the FIRE web-site: Victory for Freedom of Conscience as University of Minnesota Backs Away from Ideological Screening for Ed Students. Two thing were disturbing about this matter. First, it was assumed by some that just because Ms. Kersten opposed the actions of some in the university concerning this matter, that she must be wrong because she is a conservative. Now I don't agree with her on much of anything, but I was on her side in this matter. The other, perhaps more discouraging aspect of this matter, was the attempt by some of the University of Minnesota administration to try to used the claim of bullying and disrespect of academic freedom to quiet critics. Thus Jean Quam, the Dean of the College of Education and Human Development commented at a Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure meeting (12/4/09): "Academic freedom means faculty should be able to say what they want, and to defend what they say, without offensive comments in response." During this same meeting she opined that anonymous bloggers seem to have a license to be highly offensive and say things that have no basis in fact, although she, herself, does not read blogs, but has a niece who does. Such an attitude is hardly conducive to free and open discussion. The latest controversy is a little more complicated, but the issues are framed more starkly. The General Counsel at the University of Minnesota, Mark Rotenberg, has asked the Academic Freedom and Tenure committee at Minnesota to consider whether "factually-incorrect attacks on particular University faculty research activities" are protected by academic freedom.
Of course they are not. Why would anyone ask such a question? This development has provoked an outcry that the very process of developing a policy on this matter could have a chilling effect on academic freedom and perhaps that is the intention. Obviously the First Amendment protects free speech and it is generally accepted that a state university may not exercise prior restraint. What is behind this odd request by the General Counsel? A time line (provided by Mr. Michael, McNabb a fellow University of Minnesota alum. Four of his six children have also attended the university.) November 23, 2010. Eight professors and bioethicists submit a letter to the Regents requesting an independent investigation into the death of Dan Markingson while he was participating in a clinical trial at the University. December 10, 2010. General Counsel Mark Rotenberg meets with the Regents regarding the request. February 7, 2011. Regents deny request for independent investigation . February 24, 2011. General Counsel Rotenberg submits to the FCC the following question: What is the faculty's collective role in addressing factually incorrect attacks on particular U faculty research activities?
What is the sub-text? The stained glass picture of Thomas Becket above is a stand in for Dr. Carl Elliot a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively on the pharma-academic health center complex. For the best overall picture of what is going on here, his piece in Mother Jones is highly recommended: "The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials." From that article: "The University of Minnesota doesn't exactly have a stellar record of investigating internal misconduct." I'm sure that Dr. Elliot is not Mr. Rotenberg's favorite person. Lest the gentle reader think that Dr. Elliot is some sort of low life muckraker, he has just been awarded a fellowship by the Edmund J. Sifra Center for Ethics at Harvard. His research topic: Corruption in Clinical Trials. It would seem that the General Counsel of the University of Minnesota could use a refresher course in constitutional law.