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Academic freedom
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A recent incident at the University of Oklahoma should have all people concerned, but for more reasons than you may think. A journalism professor made the comment that saying ”OK, Boomer” to old people is the same as saying the “N-word” to black people. There were two problems for the professor. One, he did not say “N-word” but actually said the word. Secondly, for many there is no comparison. There are calls for his removal and many are angry that he is protected by tenure. More recently, a history professor at the same university read a document containing the same word. Again, students were offended and there have been calls for the professor’s removal. This of course has brought up the controversy of the tenure system and academic freedom. What may be difficult to understand is that, historically speaking, tenure is necessary, even when the offenses are unpopular.  

Tenure is difficult sometimes to understand today. It has been applied to people it was never intended to apply to, and many see it as a way for professors to start phoning it in and live the easy life. Yet there was a reason for tenure that still should apply today. Tenure was meant to protect the ideas of academics. An academic’s job is to think, to question, to challenge the status quo, and sometimes even defend the status quo when the world is changing. If academics have to worry about offending and losing their positions, their ability to challenge is put in jeopardy. Let me give some examples.

During the Civil Rights fights of the 1950s and 1960s, often some white professors at southern universities joined with civil rights workers in pushing for integration and change. Today we see civil rights workers as heroes, but then, many white southerners saw integration as wicked and civil rights workers as agitators. To these southerners, the college professors were trying to destroy the southern way of life and wanted the professors removed from tax-supported state universities. Had the professors not had tenure, they might have been too worried to fight for change. Tenure was needed then just as it is needed today. 

The issue that truly came to define academic freedom was evolution. Professors from Vanderbilt in 1878 and Lafayette College in 1913 were fired for teaching evolution and suggesting that social evolution shaped truth, not divine revelation. In both cases, the dismissals were popular among the population at large. As will be seen in the Scopes trial in 1925, political correctness among the masses required dismissal of academics. It was academics who came to their aid. After the Lafayette incident, the American Association of University Professors was formed to protect academic freedom. Neither professor was given their position back. It was determined that religious schools did have the right to fire the faculty members. However, schools that received public funds could not restrict a tenured professor’s academic freedom.

An important part of a liberal arts education is having ideas challenged. Note I am saying challenged and not changed. It should not be the job of the university to change a student’s mind, but students should have to examine why they believe what they believe. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” something you will learn in your liberal arts education. No matter what your major, a proper education will help you question some of your beliefs. Some you may find incorrect, while others after examination you can hold even stronger. One of my current fears, however, is that students entering college with more liberal beliefs are leaving their schools never having been challenged. If we truly believe in the examined life, then all beliefs need to be challenged. Even those that may not be politically correct.

This brings us back to the University of Oklahoma case. The use of the “N-word” is offensive and should be for all people. He should have said “N-word” and not the word. However, maybe his point was to shock. In context, it was being used as a teaching moment. The professor was challenging students’ ideas. I write an entire column based on making historical comparisons. The idea that a racial slur and “OK, Boomer” are in any way equal may not be popular today, but the idea of protection of ideas was not meant to be popular. Tenure is there to protect against the current trends and political correctness. As for the history professor, the point of such a document, often in a history class, is to stir emotions. My class is currently reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, possibly the most important book of the 19th Century. The “N-word” is used often in that book. I hope it disturbs students. I hope they are shocked and offended by the treatment of slaves. That was the point of the novel. Stowe wanted people shocked to the point where they turned their shock into action.

We need to accept that protection of ideas means all ideas. The ideas of professors challenging religion or gender identity have become so common they are expected. These ideas are currently politically correct. Historically speaking, the real test of academic freedom is when ideas are challenged that are not popular or politically correct. For this reason, we still need tenure so freedom and unpopular speech is not thwarted.    

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.