William A. Fisher

Presented at the SAFS Annual General Meeting (May, 2004), in a symposium entitled: Limits to Academic Freedom.

            In my thirty-odd years as a researcher in socially sensitive areas of human behavior—including sexual behavior and HIV/AIDS risk and transmission—I have formed the settled impression that there is far too little academic freedom. I have also formed the settled impression that there is far too much academic freedom. And I have concluded that it is difficult to confront attacks on academic freedom, and impossible to police exploitation of academic freedom for nefarious ends.

          Let me explain.

There is Far too Little Academic Freedom

         It has been my observation—and doubtless the observation of many SAFS members—that there is far too little academic freedom accorded to research and teaching that has the temerity to be disagreeable to someone with the power to punish such misbehavior. While we have each likely observed and/or been victimized by the lack of genuine freedom to explore areas of scholarship that are disagreeable to some, I would like to suggest that we can categorize some of sources of the academic freedom drought.

Institutional Ignorance and Cowardice

       Some of the institutions at which we work are simply ignorant of the role of the university as incubator of new and sometimes difficult knowledge; some institutions cower in fear of public and government opinion; and some institutions happily embody both of these estimable qualities in full measure. A classical clinical presentation of syndromic ignorance and cowardice occurred at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1990s. James Miller, a professor in the humanities, assigned his graduate seminar to collect AIDS prevention posters from around the world, and this resulted in the creation of an exhibit, “Visual AIDS,” which was of such quality and impact it was circulated in museums in major capitals. Arriving back home in southwestern Ontario after this tour, “Visual AIDS” was posted in Western’s campus library, where the police—alerted by a vigilant citizen—threatened to bust the university on obscenity charges unless the offending exhibit was taken down. Ignorance and cowardice ruled, the exhibit was taken down, and repositioned—behind locked doors—in an out of the way corner of campus. Irony ruled too—to visit the exhibit one had to step on a mosaic of the University of Western Ontario’s motto—“Veritas et Utilitas”—confirming once and for all that Western served neither.

University Speech and Harassment Codes

With the best of intentions (note that these can be used to pave the way to…never mind), many Canadian universities have established speech and harassment codes that are designed to create a warm and supportive climate and to outlaw sexual coercion and sexual bribery. Look closely at speech codes and harassment guidelines, however, in relation to your course content or research interests. Western’s sexual harassment regulations stipulate that sexual harassment involves, among other things, “Repeated behavior, verbal or physical, that by denigrating a group on the basis of sexual orientation or gender, interferes with the academic or work environment.” When I examined the course content of an award-winning human sexuality course that is taught at Western, it occurred to me that scholarly discussions of the neurobiology of premenstrual syndrome, sex differences in sex drive, and failures to empirically confirm feminist hypotheses concerning assumed negative effects of pornography, could be construed as “Repreated behavior….that by denigrating a group….on the basis of gender…interferes with the academic or work environment.” Checking with the framers of the sexual harassment guidelines at Western, I found that my course curriculum could clearly merit consideration of sexual harassment charges. I was assured, however, that no reasonable person would ever find against me. However, when asked whether the university would pay my legal bills, the answer was a muffled guffaw, and mention that the money the university invested in sexual harassment adjudication would go to pay the salary of the persons considering charges against professors.


Politically Driven Research Funding

 A less-often recognized limit on academic freedom comes from the politically driven decision making of research granting agencies. To cite a major example of research funding bias that was harmful to both science and public health, I note that of the hundreds of millions of dollars invested—appropriately in my view—in the global fight against AIDS, there was essentially no research funding invested in studying unsafe sex among people living with HIV for the first two decades of the AIDS epidemic. Astoundingly, and directed by liberal preoccupation with not “blaming the victim,” from the identification of AIDS as a clinical entity in 1981 until just about 2000, essentially no funding went to researchers who wished to focus on HIV transmission risk and associated HIV prevention requirements among people living with HIV/AIDS. Just as astoundingly, hundreds of millions of dollars went to study the promotion of safer sex among HIV-people who—while they could become infected—could not transmit the virus to others. Grant funding in this area finally began in the US in about 2000, and US—but not Canadian—HIV prevention efforts now focus heavily on what the Centers for Disease Control call “Prevention for Positives.” Note well that research funding biases emanate not only from the political left but also from the political right. For example, HIV prevention researchers have been encouraged  not to distribute effective AIDS prevention materials—developed with research grant funding--on the basis of fear that right wing legislators will turn off funding taps when offended by such materials which, in the words of one right wing observer, “Teaches people how to sin with impunity.


      It is clear to me that there is far too little academic freedom accorded to those whose work is perceived to be disagreeable. Institutional ignorance and cowardice, speech and harassment codes, and research funding that is politically driven, all circumscribe our ability to teach and to do research. Moreover, attacks on academic freedom are often difficult to confront and engender personal suffering, financial loss and stigma on the part of those who are attacked. Tenure is often but not always an effective firewall, but it does not diminish the personal anguish and financial costs of defense of those attacked.      

  There is Far Too Much Academic Freedom

         Even though I just said that there is far too little academic freedom—a belief I cling to strongly—I also believe that there is far too much academic freedom. For example, scholars and teachers are often completely free to publish work that violates moral absolutes and to exploit teaching and research opportunities to expound political as opposed to scholarly positions.

 Research and Teaching that Violates Moral Absolutes    

         Again citing personal encounters in the HIV/AIDS research area, I note that I acted as consulting editor for a manuscript submitted to the Journal of Sex Research in the mid-1990s by a distinguished team of Columbia University researchers. Entitled, “Effects of Testosterone Replacement Therapy on Sexual Interest, Function, and Behavior of HIV+ Men,” the study reported on an experimental effort that sought—quite successfully—to ameliorate the suffering of HIV afflicted men by supplying them with androgen therapy to improve their sex drive, erectile firmness, and sexual behavior overall. Reviewing this manuscript through raised eyebrows, I noted that that work—funded by a respected granting agency--had succeeded in increasing the likelihood of sexual activity—hopefully but not necessarily safe--among men who carried a then always lethal sexually transmitted pathogen. Academic freedom is accorded—in excess—to those who may be skirting violation of such controversial moral sentiments as as “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and “First, Do No Harm.”

  Exploiting Teaching and Research Opportunities to Expound Political Views

        Especially in academic areas whose designation includes the word “studies”—Latin American Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Women’s Studies—academics are accorded an excess of freedom to exploit teaching and research opportunities to expound political views rather than scholarship. We can all come up with personal examples, but my recent academic sojourns have exposed me to Latin American Studies courses that involve exultation of Fidel Castro’s worker’s paradise such as makes one hanker for the balance and thoughtfulness of  North Korean political reeducation camp; Middle Eastern Studies teachings by the likes of Edward Said (shown below throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border) and Women’s Studies pronouncements that have everything to do with political agendae and nothing whatever to do with scholarship.



      There is far too much academic freedom. It is sometimes accorded uncritically to scholarship and teaching that violates fundamental moral principles, and often accorded uncritically to those who exploit teaching and research opportunities to assert political agendae rather than scholarship. There is no obvious way to police this – tenure is the best protection for these folks too – and perhaps this is the price we pay for whatever academic freedom we actually do have. Maybe my father was right: there is no free lunch. But there is free advice…

 Free Advice

        Academic freedom is a very fuzzy category. There is too little of it, and too much. It is very difficult to confront situations in which there are excessive limits on academic freedom, and nearly impossible to police situations in which there is too much. We must also note that academic freedom is a principle and as such can come into conflict with other principles. Maybe it is time to acknowledge that we live in a multiply principled campus and maybe it is time to propose some formulae such as:

            Academic Freedom > Comfort
         Academic Freedom > Efforts to Prevent or Disrupt Discussion
         Academic Freedom < Tolerance for Lethal Behavior

William Fisher, is a professor at the University of Western Ontario in the Department of Psychology, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Center for HIV Intervention and Prevention, University of Connecticut, also a SAFS member.

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