This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of SAFS (Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship). I'm a lifetime member of the group. This year's meeting consisted of numerous ivory-tower-type discussions of the meaning of academic freedom and how it can be preserved. To me it was a big yawn, even though I strongly believe that academic freedom, by some definition, is extremely important.
And today I see the Trono Globe and Mail has a column about academic freedom. The G&M column makes explicit what was an underlying theme at the weekend conference: concerns about funding affect people's decisions and behaviour. As an economist, my reaction is.... "well, duh."
I love the idea of competition in the marketplace of ideas. I love the notion that better ideas will eventually conquer less-good ideas. I realize this is a long, painful, costly process, however. And I realize that universities, taxpayers, donors, parents, and students are not terribly eagre to fund the process.
In economics, neoclassical thought gave way to the Keynesianism of the 50s and 60s, which gave way to monetarism of the 70s and 80s, which gave way to rationalized expectorations rational expectations, which has now given way to ???
Each time the prevailing orthodoxy was challenged successfully, it was because scholars have felt free to challenge it, to explore, to learn, to create, to develop. I'm grateful there is funding available to support scholars who challenge the orthodox.
At the same time, I can assure you that if I had a cool $20m to donate to a university, I'd want to attach some strings to it. I'd want to be able to name the majority of the people who would oversee the stewardship of my donation. I would not want my money "squandered" (as it would be, in my view) on supporting a centre for the study and dissemination of, say, mathematical game theory (certainly a worthy endeavour, but not with my money, thank you). And I wouldn't want my money to be used for things that would ordinarily come out of the general budget so the funds from the general budget could be used to support such a centre.
In my mind, academic freedom is not the same thing as open funding of whatever I want to study and teach. And once others acknowledge this distinction, we can begin to talk about what it should mean.