“Some of the most creative minds I know are repelled by the universities and run screaming to other places – even law firms. Believe it!” Law Prof. Catharine MacKinnon, said yesterday at the University Senate’s Davis, Markert, Nickerson Annual Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
In her lecture, titled “From Powerlessness to Power: The Uses of Academic Freedom,” MacKinnon criticized the academic community, accusing the nation’s universities of limiting the freedom of thought that they claim to defend by imposing standards of uniformity through grading and tenure.
“Almost no one who has academic power thinks thoughts, or at least publishes them, that challenge the established orthodoxy,” MacKinnon said. “Those who could most often use (academic freedom) seldom have it, and those who most often have it, seldom use it.”
MacKinnon, a nationally renowned professor, taught at Yale University, Harvard University and the University of Chicago among others before her term at the University of Michigan.
She has also gained attention through her extensive experience representing sexual harassment victims in the United States and abroad, and through her strong public stance against sexual discrimination.
Yesterday’s lecture also addressed uses of academic freedom to protect professors accused of sexual harassment, saying that such use of the 1st Amendment defended the rights of professors to use suggestive speech in the classroom, but that it failed to defend “the rights of the student to learn.”
“We have focused on inviting students to the lecture series because academic freedom is an ambiguous notion, but it would be tragic if we were to lose our freedom of expression,” said Peggie Hollingsworth, president of the Academic Freedom Lecture Fund that co-sponsored the event.
“What we hope to do is to show the great value of academic freedom and the responsibility that we have to protect it,” Hollingsworth added.
Also present for MacKinnon’s address was lecture namesake H. Chandler Davis, a former University mathematics professor who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 regarding his involvement in the Communist Party. He claimed that because of his 1st Amendment rights, he was not legally compelled to speak.
The University dismissed Davis shortly afterwards when he refused to testify before a similar committee within the University.
Davis served a prison term in 1960 after being convicted of contempt of Congress. He is currently a professor at the University of Toronto. After yesterday’s lecture, he commented on the current state of academic freedom.
“Danger to academic freedom is greater now than it was in the 1960s and threatens to be greater than it was in the 1950s,” Davis said.
He attributed this claim to federal policy makers and their willingness to compromise individual rights.
“We have now a much worse statutory situation. Many protections of the law were declared inoperative in the fall of 2001 because many officials have shown themselves to be extraordinarily willing to take an ad-hoc approach to individual rights,” Davis said.
LSA senior Lindsay Hollander said MacKinnon’s lecture drew attention to a side of academia that many undergraduates do not consider when exposed to academic works.
“Next time you read a paper of someone in your field that you really respect, think about what they might rather be writing about and what is stopping them,” Hollander said.
The American Association of University Professors Ann Arbor Chapter, the University Law School, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and the University Office of the President also co-sponsored the lecture.