E-mail from Dennis

Reviewed by Cat Warren

For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.

Dennis and his wife, Joan, had just given $50 million to the top-ranked UNC School of Public Health to get the family name on the door and a rather large foot in it as well— through a new “business literacy” curriculum, advisory boards stocked with current and former Quintiles executives, and a notable shift of interest to clinical trials, which form the bulk of Quintiles’s annual estimated $2 billion revenue.

UNC–Chapel Hill is the public research university that law professors Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post feature at length in the introduction to their invaluable 243-page book, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. Finkin, an endowed professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, and Post, an endowed professor of law at Yale University— both of whom are consultants on the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure—use the volatility of public opinion and inevitably conservative attacks on faculty and universities to frame the introduction to their short but authoritative treatise.

UNC–Chapel Hill has long been a favored target for the political right. In 2004, the “Committee for a Better Carolina” attacked the political “indoctrination” of having first-year students read and discuss social critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on the working poor, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Associated groups the year before had also attacked the university for its choice of Islamic history and literature professor Michael Sells’s critically acclaimed Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. David Horowitz was a frequent visitor and commentator about our state’s universities, and sympathizers managed to get his bill introduced into a state senate committee, although it languished and expired there.

All of this noisome activity, unlike Gillings’s concurrent sotto voce communications with university administrators, was public—full-page newspaper advertisements, talk radio attacks, Fox News on the prowl, editorial pages brimming, legislators pontificating. The usual. Here in the shallow South, we’re grimly familiar with the culture wars. Finkin and Post use them to great advantage to frame their book’s raison d’être: “Our concern in this volume is that these allegations represent a striking new turn in the American saga of academic freedom.” I’m not fully convinced of the newness of this turn—feminists and ethnic studies faculty have been hazed in this manner for decades—but certainly, the new “intellectual diversity” legislation is worrisome, as are the number and intensity of the attacks.

In this book, Post and Finkin elucidate academic freedom’s history, clarify the oft-misunderstood distinction between free speech and academic freedom, and caution faculty that academic freedom has become a “hortatory ideal without conceptual clarity or precision.” They show how the God term of “academic freedom,” to which everyone in education has pledged allegiance, has sometimes strayed far afield from its original conceptions.

I have but one respectful bone to pick. Finkin and Post do note briefly that conditions placed on university funding are a great threat. But despite Harvard University humanities professor Homi K. Bhabha’s declaration that “there is no better corrective— or alternative—to the ‘corporate’ university than this courageous book that redefines the spirit of ‘academic freedom’ for our times,” this book is no such thing. There’s an excellent reason for that: we need a fuller set of policies to emanate from the AAUP. Although the AAUP has addressed corporate funding and conflicts of interest in Committee A casework, the Association’s policies and statements of principles, which form the core of Finkin and Post’s book, have only started to address the pervasive dangers inherent in private funding issues. The AAUP’s Policy Documents and Reports does have a Statement on Corporate Funding of Academic Research, which was adopted in 2004, and a Statement on Conflicts of Interest, adopted in 1990. These relatively brief statements and an earlier report published in Academe in 1983 are a beginning, but they are far from sufficient. Issues of corporate funding and conflicts of interest will, I believe, be critical to the next chapter in the annals of academic freedom.

While Finkin and Post couldn’t write at length about corporate and private funding, they clearly flag the subject. And their book’s conclusion briefly points to the early concern of the founders of the AAUP that the prerogatives of Gilded Age supporters of our colleges and universities carried with them the right to demand conformity to their own particular views: “Although this quasiproprietary claim is not trumpeted today as it was a century ago, it has revived in a new, more subtle, but no less dangerous, form. Donors may no longer claim the prerogative to proscribe dissent, but they may assert the right to prescribe the content of the programs they fund.”

The few passages in the last chapter, devoted as they are to this entirely different kind of danger, provide a marvelous coda to the book’s introduction, which concentrates on the threats from North Carolina conservatives and their friends in the legislature, the “raw political force” of public opinion that Finkin and Post describe so well. The Gillings discussions weren’t trumpeted. They were much quieter than the raging culture wars—numerous obsequious emails and letters, dinners, smaller donations, and finally, the big “ask”: a $50 million “transformative gift” in 2007, the largest single gift in UNC history. That gift would, according to the then-chancellor’s agreement letter, meld “business principles firmly with Public Health fundamentals” and “require alignment of faculty behind focused programs,” including “methodologies to speed clinical trials.” The Gillings family received all that, plus basketball tickets “throughout your lifetimes and the lifetimes of your children.”

The dangers inherent in these agreements do go beyond what Finkin and Post, as well as Berkeley historian Katherine Fydl, note: that the greatest challenges to academic freedom in our era are worked out in Excel spreadsheets, not in who is fired, but who is hired. Because in addition to Excel spreadsheets, some of the early proprietorship has returned, and it’s not always so subtle.

An AAUP colleague from the UNC–Chapel Hill School of Public Health and I wrote a fairly mild piece for the local newspaper that questioned some of the shifts in curriculum and priorities that were occurring. The day it appeared, an “infuriated” and “embarrassed” administrator from the school e-mailed Gillings, assuring him that the school would respond immediately to this “stunt.”

Gillings e-mailed back quickly and with equanimity: he “had not been impressed” with my colleague, the respected epidemiologist Steve Wing, and his “left-wing views” when he met Wing several years ago. He went on, “Is he still a professor at the school? If so, in the corporate world we would expect senior people to support the policy adopted. If not, we would advise them to work elsewhere!”

This is not Alexis de Tocqueville’s “tyranny of public opinion.” This is the soft despotism of private funding.

That e-mail exchange was more than a year ago. Wing is still a professor at the school, researching public health and air quality around factory farms, among other topics.

The stated mission of the UNC School of Public Health continues to be “to improve public health, promote individual well-being, and eliminate health disparities across North Carolina and the world.” Gillings, however, knows better. In a recent blurb for an upcoming forum, Gillings, or perhaps his publicist, reworded the mission: “In September, 2008, the School of Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill was named the Gillings School of Global Public Health. The mission is to advance the impact of economic and methodological research on health in both the developed and developing world.”

Cat Warren is associate professor of English at North Carolina and immediate past president of the AAUP’s North Carolina conference. Her e-mail address is cwarren@unity.ncsu.edu.

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture.
Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.