An Emerging Community of Scholars: An Interview with Professor Christopher Tollefsen

Jan 17, 2023 | Opinion & Commentary

An Emerging Community of Scholars: An Interview with Professor Christopher Tollefsen

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Christopher Tollefsen, a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. I was able to interview Professor Tollefsen to ask him his thoughts on academic freedom, the AFA, and about a recent series that he facilitated entitled “Free Speech and Open Inquiry in the University.”

Howard Muncy: Professor Tollefsen, in 2021 you joined the Academic Freedom Alliance as one of the original 217 founding members. What attracted you to the organization and what are your thoughts about the AFA’s first two years of existence and activity?

Christopher Tollefsen: I was delighted when Robby George invited me to sign on as a founding member of the AFA; its value seemed to me threefold. First, it promised – and has delivered on the promise! – to be a consistent non-partisan public voice not just for academic freedom, but for the value that underlies that freedom, commitment to inquiry into the truth. Second, it suggested the possibility of an emerging community of scholars whose common good was precisely that underlying value of honest inquiry. And finally, it offered the hope of legal assistance to scholars who are judged to have meritorious legal cases for the protection of their academic freedom rights. Universities rely on the great disparity of legal and financial resources between them and their faculty to prematurely end conflicts over academic freedom. AFA is an important step in leveling that playing field.

HM: As a professor in philosophy and the humanities, what do you view as the biggest threats to academic freedom in the current environment? Are there any examples of specific incidents that you can point to that should alarm other scholars?

CT: A significant threat comes from a general confusion about the relationship between the fundamental purposes of the university – research, discovery of truth, and teaching – and justice. Justice plays an essential role in a university properly understood, but largely as a set of side constraints that emerge from the special purposes of the university. Researchers need to be just in their acknowledgment of the work of others, and honest in the pursuit and presentation of their findings; students must be treated with respect in the classroom and graded fairly on the basis of their work; excellence in teaching and research should be rewarded, and misconduct in both areas disciplined. And of course, more general norms of justice, not related to the purposes of the university, also apply: for example, sexual harassment and assault by either students, faculty, or staff, are rightly prevented and punished.

But the purpose of the university is neither to do justice in some larger social sense, nor to make its members just or more generally virtuous. Treating the primary purpose of the university as the pursuit of equity, or imposing a particular vision of what perfect racial, sexual, or economic justice must look like, and expecting university members to adopt that vision in their research or teaching subverts the proper ends of the university.

One pernicious aspect of this is the loss of institutional neutrality. On matters of social justice, or any other matter of controversy, neither my department, nor my college, nor my university can, or should attempt to, speak for its members. Sometimes collective action, or shared policies, are needed, but these should be carefully distinguished from a collective statement or an effort to enforce a collective viewpoint. But pressures on departments, for example, to issue diversity statements or statements about the justice or injustice of this or that current topic of importance threaten this needed neutrality.

Many administrators, faculty, and students have come to share this vision of the university as an engine for the pursuit of justice. The result is inevitably a pronounced lack of diversity of the kind essential to a university. Diversity statements from job candidates, for example, must converge with diversity and equity goals of departments and universities, leaving little or no room for dissenting or independent-thinking applicants, resulting in an increasingly intellectually and politically homogeneous faculty.

Let me mention two additional, though related, threats. First, a rhetorical collapse of offense into harm has created a way for defenders of the justice paradigm to deny academic freedom to some while claiming to be its advocate. A harmful environment is obviously not one in which any kind of worthwhile freedom is fostered, and so speech that is harmful cannot be the kind of speech that is protected by academic freedom. If offense is a form of harm, this quickly serves to rule out speech on many controversial issues.

The recent case at Hamline University is extreme, to say the least, but displays both the conflation, and its consequences. Hamline’s president wrote, in defense of the firing of an art instructor who had shown her class, after repeated cautionary heads up, a medieval painting of the prophet Mohammed,

“It is never our intention to deliberately harm others. Yet, this harm is real and, when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm. We must always strive to do better, to listen more, and to not knowingly offend… We believe in academic freedom, but it should not and cannot be used to excuse away behavior that harms others.”

There is not much more to say about this than that it shows that Hamline’s president does not, in fact, believe in academic freedom. But neither, it needs to be stressed, do state legislators in some more conservative states who seek to suppress the teaching of controversial or “divisive” concepts. Kudos to the AFA for speaking out about both the Hamline and the “divisive concepts” abuses.

Second, there has been a huge change in the way accusations of offense or harm or, for that matter, heresy have been adjudicated. It now seems necessary to a large number of people that such accusations be aired and adjudicated on-line, by an electronically mediated mob. It’s the opposite of rational discourse and dialogue, and an abandonment of procedural fairness for the accused. The upshot is to create a pervasively threatening atmosphere in which people worry that whatever they say might offend a student, a colleague, a member of the public who will quickly go on-line with their grievance. None of this is good for academic freedom or inquiry.

HM: Last year you hosted a series of talks entitled “Free Speech and Open Inquiry in the University.” This three-part series featured Professor Molly Worthen of UNC, Professor Daniel Jacobson from the University of Colorado, and Heterodox Academy President John Tomasi—all AFA members themselves. How did the overall series go, how was the reception on campus, and were there any particular insights that still stick out in your mind?

CT: The series accomplished the three goals I was hoping to achieve. First, the three talks represented a range of approaches to questions about academic freedom and inquiry. Dan Jacobson, for example, focused on the classic defense of freedom of expression found in the work of John Stuart Mill, and its relationship to “compelled speech” within the university, while Molly Worthen framed her outstanding talk around the necessity of, and challenges to, empathy in the classroom. John Tomasi’s lecture on curiosity generated a lot of subsequent conversation in my department.

Second, the very fact of the series brought attention to the problem: each speaker made clear that there are real challenges to the freedoms of faculty, students, and even staff in the current academic environment.

Finally, the talks brought people together – faculty and students — who might not have known of one another’s existence otherwise. I think that is essential: defenders of academic freedom need to know one another’s names on campus and be ready to offer support if and when it is needed. I met faculty (and students) at the talks whom I had never met before and with whom I am still in regular contact about these issues.

One unexpected bonus is that Tomasi’s visit prompted an uptick of membership to HxA here at USC, and just this week, on January 9th, it was announced that my university is now a member of the HxA Inaugural Cohort of Campus Communities.

HM: Where do you think academic freedom is headed in the short- and long-term? Do you think groups like the AFA can make a difference?

CT: I think they are making a difference! They are drawing attention to the problem, offering principled arguments, and bringing people together (on a much larger scale than my lecture series). The question is whether it will make enough of a difference, and I will say that I am cautiously optimistic. AFA membership includes scholars notably on very different sides of a number of important and controversial issues, and it is essential to show that cooperation can be sustained even in the face of serious disagreements.

I think that covid posed a real challenge to sustaining the kind of communities in which academic freedom can flourish by reducing the amount of time scholars spend with one another. It is hard to hate people with whom you break bread, and a university experienced mostly on-line will lack the personal connections that make living with disagreement possible. I am optimistic that with a return to “normal”, scholars will relearn that disagreement, even over matters of fundamental importance, is compatible with the existence of a community built around the pursuit of truth.

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