My old student Eliot pointed out this op-ed by Stanley Fish. He's reviewing a book called "For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom" by Matthew Finkin and Robert Post. Their main point is that academic freedom isn't the same sort of general right that the first amendment guarantees, but flows only from a specific conception of academic labor. "It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs." Watch for the sneaky passive voice verbs! Who is doing the determining and specifying and figuring? The academic profession, is Fish's answer, but this seems rather too abstract. In practice, it means academic administration — in other words, him. And why wouldn't that suit him? "Administrators Seek Authority Over Professors" — not exactly a newsworthy story. (Sort of like "Violence Erupts in Middle East.") "An Authoritative Word On Academic Freedom" — ah, that's more like it. It sounds authoritative!
I actually do agree with Fish that there are a lot of abuses in classrooms (politicized professors who see their classes as indoctrination centers), but it's not as if the students are helpless and passive here. If they were, Fish wouldn't need to high-five the authors for writing that while professors should "'respect students as persons,' they are under no obligation to respect the 'ideas held by students.'"* (Not that I disagree with them on that.) I'm not sure what the point here is, except to give Fish another opportunity to style himself a Legal Thinker Whose Opinions Might Surprise You. Everybody knows there are toxic, unprofessional professors — most people have taken classes from one or two. Every academic administrator dreams of ways of getting rid of them. No-one yet has come up with a way of doing it that doesn't gut universities and put them at a competitive disadvantage. Would I apply for a job at a university that had abolished tenure? No, and neither would any other self-respecting, non-desperate professional. This has come up about 134568 times, and every time the logic of unilateral disarmament reasserts itself. So what are we doing here, fantasizing vaguely about making professors more accountable? Oh, I remember: Stanley Fish is a legal thinker whose opinions might surprise me. Only no, on closer inspection, they don't.
*"Way to go!"? Hey Stanley Fish — the 1980s called, and they want their stale hortatory exclamations back.