Harvard President Larry Summers comes under fire for trying to provoke debate at a scientific conference and wins a no-confidence vote from members of his own faculty. The University of Colorado is barraged by critics calling for the head of Ward Churchill, a tenured professor who made comments that seemed to justify the 9/11 attacks. And campus Democrats nationwide blast legislation in 16 states proposing an 'academic bill of rights' championed by conservative students demanding a greater diversity of views in academe.
What do these three cases have in common? They all raise the question of academic freedom -- that elusive independence on which universities rely in the pursuit of knowledge. If you've been reading the newspapers much recently, you could be forgiven for wondering what's going on with this once sacrosanct concept. The widespread condemnation of Churchill, in particular, seems to indicate that the general public thinks academic freedom has gone too far, and that it's giving professors license to play politics at whim.
But the current danger for academic freedom is not that it has been carried too far and that we have too much of it. The danger is that we have too little and that it is under subtle attack. And the attack from within the university is even more pernicious than the attack from without.