UAA sponsors academic freedom forum

Freedom of speech has become quite the issue at the University of Alaska Anchorage. UA President Mark Hamilton's response to Sept. 11 and his statement last spring regarding UA professors lobbying President Bill Clinton to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the choice of a pro physician assisted suicide speaker for the Bartlett Lecture Series and the controversy over publication of UAA professor Linda McCarriston's poem “Indian Girls,” has sparked debate throughout the statewide system.

Hamilton has emphatically stated his belief in the First Amendment.

“What I want to make clear and unambiguous is that responses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech cannot be qualified,” Hamilton wrote on March 13.

UAA Chancellor Edward Lee Gorsuch sponsored the Fall Forum on Academic Freedom Nov. 2 in the Arts Building.

“It appears, through our history, that when there are national, either wars or significant sentiments, that the issues of free speech and academic freedom seem to be the most significantly contested,” Gorsuch said in his introduction.

Walter Metzger, professor emeritus at the Columbia University history department and author of “Academic Freedom in the Age of the University,” was the keynote speaker. Metzger has also been a member of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A since 1957. His presentation was followed by a panel discussion on the issues of academic freedom. Metzger, visibly worn from many hours of travel, dissected Hamilton's statements in his letter of March 13.

“I would call it President Hamilton's epistle to the chancellors,” Metzger said.

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“A president who doesn't waffle, or temporize, in protecting academic speeches from would be sensors and who I think…he'd be quite short with pussy-footers and procrastinators, that sort of president I want to talk quite a lot about,” Metzger said.

Metzger says the prevalent references to free speech in Hamilton's March 13 letter are not as significant as his exclusion of any reference to academic freedom. He quoted from Hamilton's letter:

“However personally offended we might be, however unfair the association of the University to the opinion might be, I insist that we remain a certain trumpet on this most precious of Constitutional rights.”

“Any academic heart that doesn't beat faster after reading this quote is made of stone,” Metzger said. “But any academic mind that maintains a critical distance from this quote, despite its moving quality,will also see that something in it is significantly amiss.”

What is missing, Metzger says, is in interpretation.

“The part that's amiss is the presumption that the First Amendment, as, of course, interpretated by the Supreme Court, is as uncompromisingly libertarian as the president of the University of Alaska,” he said.

Metzger says the Court has never defined the First Amendment as absolutely as Hamilton has but weighs the importance of opposing sides.

“In First Amendment cases involving national security judicial deference to governmental power tends to overweigh concern for civil liberties,” he said.

Metzger pointed to the difficulty of this balancing act at the civic level. Do the responsibilities of elementary and high school administrators and faculty to teach and maintain order outweigh the student's right to free expression?

There are similarities and differences between freedom of speech and academic freedom Metzger says.

“Those terms are not identical and not interchangeable, though there are ways in which they overlap conceptually and are to some degree mutually reenforcing, there are also ways, important ways, in which they are conceptually far apart and even work at cross purposes,” Metzger said. “Freedom of speech is a term deeply engraved in the Constitution, academic freedom is a cherished artifact of the American academic profession.”

Metzger says the term should be plural, academic professions. One is to teach students, the other is to “improve the quantity and quality of knowledge in a particular speciality.” In short, a faculty profession and a disciplinary profession.

He discussed the difficulty of balancing civil liberties with academic responsibilities and what he calls “extramural freedom of speech,” that talk that is outside the physical limits of the university employer.

In the end, freedom of speech and academic freedom are more similar than not.

“It is profoundly wrong when the way to deal with issues that offend us is to suppress them,” Metzger said.


Walter Metzger, Professor Emeritus in the history department at Columbia University, lectures on academic freedom Friday in the Arts Building at UAA. A panel discussion on academic freedom issues followed Metzger's speech. The panel included Metzger, JPC professor and mayor of Seward Edgar Blatchford, attorney and president of the ACC Federation of Teachers Robert Congdon, retired judge Karen Hunt, attorney and UAA adjunct professor John McKay and attorney and former UAA counsel Jean Sagan.

Though each had different takes on academic freedoms, all agreed that the greatest threat to academic freedom and freedom of speech is the balance between national security and traditional free speech ideals.

All agreed civility is a necessary part of discourse, but it occasionally falters.

“We fail to qualify our opinions as opinions,” Sagan said.

While freedom of speech provides an outlet for opposing viewpoints, academic freedom is more complex.

“Academic freedom is the freedom to look at everything we call truth,” Hunt said.

For Congdon academic freedom means more.

“Academic freedom means there isn't an employer viewpoint,” he said. “Academic freedom means faculty designed curriculum. Academic freedom means faculty should have some security in their employment.”