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Sunday, May 17, 2015

We've come a long way, but in which direction?

It appears that a political science professor at Duke University is under the gun, and perhaps has been placed on leave, over an online response to a New York Times editorial about racism and Baltimore. It is not entirely clear what has happened-the professor has told some media outlets that he was placed on leave; Duke declined to comment on his status, while condemning the remarks as "noxious, offensive, and hav[ing] no place in civil discourse" and calling on the Duke "community to speak out when they feel that those ideals [of inclusiveness] are challenged or undermined, as they were in this case."

Because Duke is a private institution, the First Amendment is not in play here. Nevertheless, I hope that principles of free expression, academic freedom, and tenure prevail and keep Duke from sanctioning Hough. In fact, I hope Duke would borrow a page from my alma mater.

For years, Arthur Butz has been an electrical engineering professor at Northwestern, despite having authored a 1976 book denying the Holocaust. In 2006, Butz supported Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, prompting sixty engineering professors to call for Butz's censure. The response, from then-President Henry Bienen, is reprinted in full after the jump. Importantly, it includes lines such as "he is entitled to express his personal views" and "we cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust - however odious it may be - without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect."

It will be interesting to see whether Duke understands intellectual and academic freedom in similar terms.

Update: This Washington Post story, echoing what several people said in comments, states that Hough himself has disavowed reports (such as the Slate piece) that he was placed on leave following the comments, telling an area newspaper that he already had been on academic leave this year and that he is due to stop teaching in 2016. So, I guess, good for Duke.

Northwestern University Associate Professor Arthur Butz recently issued a statement commending Iranian President Ahmadinejad's assertion that the Holocaust never happened. Butz is a Holocaust denier who has made similar assertions previously. His latest statement, like his earlier writings and pronouncements, is a contemptible insult to all decent and feeling people. While I hope everyone understands that Butz's opinions are his own and in no way represent the views of the University or me personally, his reprehensible opinions on this issue are an embarrassment to Northwestern.

There is no question that the Holocaust is a well-documented historical fact. The University has a professorship in Holocaust Studies endowed by the Holocaust Educational Foundation. Northwestern offers courses in Holocaust Studies and organizes conferences of academic scholars who teach in areas relating to the Holocaust. In addition, Northwestern hosts a summer Institute for Holocaust and Jewish Civilization. And most recently, a fellowship in the political science department has been established in my name by the Holocaust Educational Foundation. In short, Northwestern University has contributed significantly to the scholarly research of the Holocaust and remains committed to doing so.

Butz is a tenured associate professor in electrical engineering. Like all faculty members, he is entitled to express his personal views, including on his personal web pages, as long as he does not represent such opinions as the views of the University. Butz has made clear that his opinions are his own and at no time has he discussed those views in class or made them part of his class curriculum. Therefore, we cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust - however odious it may be - without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 17, 2015 at 01:40 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


It doesn't appear that Duke has done anything to punish Hough (the leave was in place before his statement, and is unrelated), and has publicly stated professors are free to "speak in his or her capacity as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline.”

They did call out Hough's comments as "noxious," but calling a scumbag a scumbag is the their right just as Hough is free to comment on "the blacks."

Posted by: Jerry Vandesic | May 18, 2015 6:01:06 PM

I have nothing against a teaching professor model, but let's be honest that's not what's in place in most places -- certainly not at Duke. Tenured professors with a 2/2 or better are not supposed to be adjuncts that just make a lot more money, they are supposed to be contributing to a scholarly enterprise.

Whatever percentage of published scholarly work is "bunk" it is surely the case that pretty close to 100% of unpublished scholarly work is not advancing the field. Perhaps in some cases service, especially supervising graduates and post-graduates in their own research, can be nearly as meaningful to the field as publication, but in my experience "dead wood" aren't doing a whole lot of that either.

If entire fields can't be trusted to produce anything of scholarly value or have internal institutions to fairly reliably separate out the wheat from the chaff, perhaps that indicates that universities should consider eliminating those departments.

Posted by: brad | May 18, 2015 5:29:40 PM

Taking a hard line 'publish or perish' approach comes with a ton of potential problems.

First, there's all the external consequences, the things that don't relate to the issue of trying to drive out the kooks. That would include things like diverting professor attention away from the classroom.

But those issues aside, I don't know that the publish or perish approach would get it right enough of the time. There are some very niche fields where it may be hard to publish in general, and people going against the mainstream will have a harder time publishing. And if this model were adopted, we'd likely see a lot more political decisions in the publishing process.

But it's not just false negatives, there's false positives as well. There's the recent study that found 98% of law journal citations to be bunk (makes you question the quality of the text just a bit), not to mention publications such as Social Text.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 18, 2015 5:08:21 PM

You'd kill two birds with one stone if you revived the notion that non-publishing professors could be fired ("encouraged to retire") notwithstanding tenure.

If you aren't getting published because your field doesn't buy I Ching-based engineering, that means you aren't publishing. If a school fired dead wood uniformly you could be included without trampling the notion of academic freedom, I would think.

Posted by: brad | May 18, 2015 3:22:34 PM


I think you may be right re: disciplinary consequences. Got a bit tripped up talking about discipline within the discipline.

But, I don't think that necessarily changes the question too much, it just raises a new question.

(Original) Can universities remove kooks while maintaining academic freedom? And if so, what distinguishes kook views from the type of fringe views academic freedom is designed to protect?

(Extra Crispy) What if the kook just doesn't care about being included in "serious discussion"? This strikes me as a rather plausible scenario. If a professor should go full Storm Front, how likely is he to care about being shunned by the main stream professoriate?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 18, 2015 1:53:21 PM

Derek, I think when Paul says "disciplinary consequences" he means "within the discipline that the professor teaches." In other words, the professor will be effectively excluded by his peers from serious discussion. He does not mean that the University can take recourse against the professor. (Correct me if I'm wrong Paul.)

Paul, let me see if I understand what you're saying. There are (using really big brush strokes) two types of speech for professors: disciplinary speech (speech that discusses the issues in the Professor's fields) and extramural speech (speech that has nothing to do with the Professor's work and is "off campus"). You think AF ought to extend to both of these. Do you also think other companies or employers ought to extend protection to "extramural statements?" For example, should Amazon have a policy of permitting employees to express whatever view they have as long as they aren't at work? I don't think that's an unreasonable position to take. But if you think it isn't as important for that to apply to other types of employees (not just professors) I'd be interested to know what the distinction between academics and regular joes is that warrants extraordinary protection for academics.

Posted by: Bryan G. | May 18, 2015 11:10:50 AM


Why would the engineering professor be kicked out for his views on levitation and I Ching-based engineering? Why would that not be covered by academic freedom?

I'm not saying that it ought to be protected. That probably is the type of kook who shouldn't be teaching or kept on payroll. But, how do universities distinguish between protected, minority, extreme positions, and genuine kookiness?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 18, 2015 9:32:17 AM

You're right about AF being especially relevant as a protection for disciplinary statements--or, to put it in terms of allocation of authority, as saying that the remedy for lousy disciplinary speech lies primarily with the discipline, not the university. An engineering professor who says we should build bridges by levitation and calculate their numbers by throwing the I Ching, for instance, can, should, and will face disciplinary consequences up to being drummed out of the discipline. But remember another relevant fact about academic freedom. Some of the key early episodes in its development in this country involved professors who were disciplined or fired for extramural political reasons or statements, despite the fact that they continued to meet the standards of their discipline in their professional work. In other words, another aspect of academic freedom is that it may protect against University discipline for extramural statements--not for reasons of expertise, but to make sure that *only* reasons of expertise or satisfaction of their duties as a professor form the basis for hiring, promotion, and tenure.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 18, 2015 8:43:59 AM

I've thought that the blanket rule that tenured faculty should be able to say whatever they want is a bit odd, and I think Professor Butz's case highlights the oddity well. It is my impression that the primary argument that tenure provides a tangible benefit (as opposed to merely a job perk for academics) is that it lets a professor explore thought and idea that might be offensive to some. This allows the professor the freedom to push the envelope and contribute to the marketplace of ideas. But that assumes that the professor has some expertise or investment on the subject so that there envelope-pushing actually contributes to the marketplace.

That;s not the case here. Professor Butz teaches in Electrical Engineering, a field totally unrelated to the topics he is commenting on. It seems that he has no expertise in history or sociology and is immensely under-qualified to discuss these issues. So why should tenure protections actually apply in this case? Is it just a concern that if there is any exception to tenure protection that it will swallow the general rule? I can see arguments about line-drawing, but is there something else I'm missing? Because it seems to me we have a man vastly intelligent in one field making ignorant assertions in another field that the University did not hire him to explore the boundaries of.

Posted by: Bryan G. | May 18, 2015 12:14:55 AM

Interesting. One early story:

"Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, responded to Hough's comment on the editorial in an email Friday evening.

"The comments were noxious, offensive and have no place in civil discourse. Duke University has a deeply-held commitment to inclusiveness grounded in respect for all, and we encourage our community to speak out when they feel that those ideals are challenged or undermined, as they were in this case," he wrote.


"Media reports stating that Hough was suspended as punishment over his comment section flub are incorrect, Schoenfeld said. The professor was already on planned academic leave."


Schoenfeld also explained that "at the same time, as noted in the Faculty Handbook, every faculty member at Duke has a right 'to act and to speak in his or her capacity as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline.'"


Doesn't quite sound like they "declined" to talk about his status & though the "noxious" remarks would not appeal to some per recent posts, again, reaffirmation of his right to speech.

Posted by: Joe | May 18, 2015 12:09:22 AM

This must be a mistake. When dozens of Duke professors intervened in the lacrosse players non-rape case by loudly proclaiming the students' guilt without a shred of first hand knowledge about the case, not a single one was censured and several received promotions.

Posted by: PaulB | May 17, 2015 11:00:31 PM

He should call FIRE.

Posted by: TS | May 17, 2015 8:22:00 PM

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