Lobby group pressure hinders academic freedom

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A recent call to defend academic freedom might be guilty of perpetuating its own agenda, according to a Brescia professor.

Professors from Princeton University, Harvard University, University of California, Santa Cruz, Institute for Advanced Study and Columbia University have started a petition calling for increased academic freedom.

The group, called the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University, is concerned with recent academic trends it feels stifle fair and balanced debate.

Steve Caton, a social anthropology professor at Harvard University and petition member, said he is especially concerned with lobby groups putting political pressure on scholars and institutions.

Caton noted special interest groups have the right to persuade academics to a particular viewpoint, but he questioned the methods groups use.

“The question is: when is making one’s views known an exercise of free speech " something I obviously condone " and when does it constitute intimidation?”

The petition lists a range of questionable tactics lobby groups use to shut down opposing viewpoints: circulating unfounded accusations on the Internet, threatening to withdraw alumni donations and filing lawsuits defending the “right” of individuals to not hear ideas that may challenge their beliefs are a few of the problems outlined in the petition.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been a particularly controversial topic, Caton said. Many professors are denied tenure or banned from speaking based on their stances on the issue.

“Watch-dog groups such as Campus Watch are trying to intimidate scholars from lecturing on subjects that are deemed politically detrimental to Israel,” he said.

Dennis Hudecki, professor of philosophy and religion at Brescia University College, questioned the legitimacy of the petition.

“To me it seems one-sided,” he said. “Israeli speakers run into the same troubles. Everybody should be allowed [the same] freedom of expression.”

Bailey Koplowitz, president of Western’s Israel on Campus club, defended the rights of special interest groups.

“In a democracy, citizens get together and try to instigate change,” she explained. “This ‘lobbying’ is a basic tenet of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

“It is highly disingenuous for a group of academics to lash out against its fellow citizens simply for exercising their fundamental freedom.”

“This group is not a neutral defender of free speech, and it is disappointing that they frame themselves that way,” Hudecki added.

Caton recommended students stand up for academic freedom by demanding more transparency from university institutions.

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