Conspiracy Theories and Academic Freedom: Part I.

I recently read about the case of Joy Karega, who was dismissed last fall from her tenure track position at Oberlin College for “intellectual dishonesty” in her Facebook posts (for a few more specifics on this case, see also here).  The initial objections to her Facebook posts stemmed from their allegedly anti-semitic character.  At least one of her posts (which was later removed) went beyond criticism of Israel and her embrace of the view that ISIS is a Zionist Plot, to the posting of a blatant anti-semitic trope about Jewish bankers, of the sort that one would expect more from the far right and not from a person professing progressive values. As some may recall, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, then candidate Donald Trump accused President Obama of being the “founder” of ISIS. At first, Oberlin’s President affirmed her right to post on her Facebook page free of institutional censure, but Oberlin’s Board, and some of it’s Faculty and Students, saw the matter otherwise. Whether an academic institution, public or private can or  should terminate employment for off campus bigoted speech is an interesting question. However, in this case, the end result, at least according to published reports, is that she was fired for “intellectual dishonesty”, which raises two other interrelated issues.

The first issue is the interpretation of the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom and its relationship to  the The AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics (for an analysis of the relationship between Academic Freedom and the First Amendment, read this). The second issue issue is more complex and centers on what kinds of propositions we are justified in dismissing out of hand as absolute nonsense, and what kinds of propositions are actually worthy of serious consideration, even if such propositions have been relegated to the margins of political discourse. In order to keep this post to a reasonable length, I will address the first set of issues in this post with the goal of addressing the latter problem in more detail separately in the near term.

Though as an employee of a private college, Professor Karega had no First Amendment rights with respect to her employer, Oberlin College nevertheless promised, as a condition of Professor Karega’s employment, to honor the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom. It also appears that Professor Karega had rights to due process that in many cases are not accorded to untenured faculty. The accusation of “intellectual dishonesty” is a fairly common one in academia, but it is only on rare occasions that faculty are actually sanctioned for incompetence or dishonesty with respect to teaching and research (an exception to this is the curious case of   Ward Churchill ). In some instances at least, efforts to publish “conspiracy theories” or material that is generally not up to snuff in academia, means that one does not publish, and is consequently denied tenure. In most instances, the ability to publish material in the appropriate journals is sufficient for tenure as it is the standards of the relevant journals in one’s area that for all intents and purposes, self defines appropriate academic standards for one’s area. One may still, as in fact happens, believe that a discipline’s standards are not what they should be,, but that does not change the fact that in the end, it is mostly the discipline that determines the appropriate criteria for what constitutes legitimate classroom discussion and scholarly research.

But the issue in this case was not about Professor Karega’s teaching or research, or any other speech made in the course of her professional obligations, but about statements she made on her personal Facebook page. All indications are that Professor Karega was meeting the relevant standards for making progress towards tenure at Oberlin. Yet Professor Karega has had the misfortune of being part of a trend of sorts towards sanctioning faculty for their comments on social media. There have been several other cases in the last  years where faculty have been fired or denied employment on the basis of comments made on social media (for some details, see my  previous post on a similar topic).

Though I have linked to the full AAUP statements above, I will excerpt what appears to be the relevant portion in this, as well as some other cases:

From the Statement on Professional Ethics:

  1. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry

And from the Statement on Academic Freedom

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Without access to all of Oberlin’s policies, investigation guidelines and the final investigation report, it is not possible to judge whether or not Oberlin College acted in accordance with its stated policies. In addition, there may be details to this matter on both sides that have not been reported. That said, based on the actual knowledge I do have, the attempt to apply a standard of “intellectual honesty” to the social media posts of college professors, has problematic implications.

As a way of understanding this, let’s suppose (which I stress is a completely hypothetical example) a psychology professor, in  contrast to established curricular guidelines, decides to teach a class of students that mental illness is caused by demonic possession and then proceeds to teach his students exorcism rites along with accepted clinical methods. In this case, I think an institution would be justified in taking action against the psychology professor. But if in contrast, the psychology professor is meeting the Institution’s standards for teaching yet publishes about demonic possessions and exorcisms on his Facebook page and clearly accepts this as true, as silly as I may find such posts, I can see no reason why the AAUP statement should be applied to the Professors’ social media posts.

In the case of Professor Karega, at least some of her posts entailed criticism of Israel, Mossad and the US, of the sort that Professor Karega is completely and unquestionably within her rights to make and do not make her an anti-semite.  The matter is complicated  however, in that in advancing these criticisms she also endorsed a proposition, which to me seems at best dubious-that Mossad and the CIA are actually actively and directly involved in the creation and ongoing operations of ISIS. The matter is complicated by the addition of what most reasonable people would regard as an acceptance of an overtly anti-semitic trope of Jewish bankers manipulating world events. Though again, its worth emphasizing, that by all reports, she was not found responsible for ethnic based harassment. For the record, I believe there are good reasons to reject the assertion that ISIS is a CIA-Mossad front, but this is in my view a judgement that follows as a matter of the application of the relevant facts, rather than as an a priori judgement of the nature of the proposition itself. Whereas in contrast, the assertion that there are secret pedophile colonies on Mars, is at least, within the boundaries of our current technology, simply impossible.

That research and teaching are and should be subject to standards of intellectual honesty and academic rigor, in contrast, posts on social media are by their nature of a very different sort.  I think, or at least I hope, that as academics, we try to bring our education and skill, where relevant, to our social media posts. This still leaves open the very complex issues of what kinds of propositions we should reject out of hand, what kinds of propositions hinge on matters and interpretation of “facts” and how it is we know that we have the facts correct.  But if we interpret and apply the AAUP statements to social media posts, we will give faculty committees or University administrators the power to determine when or whether we are intellectually honest or dishonest about the “facts” . And the result will be an imposition of  an unwarranted level of self censorship on social media and choke off discussion that is legitimately critical and dissenting of officially sanctioned interpretations of world events.

Before signing off on this post, I’d like to address a few stray points.

  1. Since this blog is at least in part an outgrowth of my teaching and research, and sometimes of my role in the faculty union, I do see an obligation to be intellectually honest in my posts, though by its nature, a blog is not intended to meet the same requirements as publications.
  2. I have not addressed the issue of whether or not social media posts might in some very limited circumstances, directly create a discriminatory or threatening educational environment as that is a separate issue and in the end, was not what this case was apparently decided on.
  3. Since this post addresses an occurrence at Oberlin College, some might wonder what my opinion is of the defamation suit brought against Oberlin. I think that this post elsewhere addresses the matter very well. I think this also is a dangerous precedent.

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