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October 22, 2005


The University of Chicago: Has Academic Freedom Become a Deceptive Facade?

The University of Chicago:
Academic Freedom or Facade?

Some observers are speculating about a number of very curious events that have been occurring behind the scenes at the University of Chicago. There was the widely publicized dismissal from the University's Department of Psychiatry of an internationally renowned psychiatrist, with the University later officially admitting that the action had been taken without cause; the documented admission of "no cause" for the dismissal was formally published in in at least one of Chicago's leading newspapers (The Chicago Tribune). It was intriguing to note that this newspaper article was never mentioned in the section of the University's website devoted to recent publications about the University.

The dismissal of this eminent psychiatrist almost immediately resulted in the leaving, en masse, of a number of important members of that Department and their move, as a body, to another major university's medical school. The Department of Psychiatry has been decimated; some perhaps overly-optimistic observers are hoping that, at this point, things are just about as bad as they will get.

Not much later, there was an announcement of the sudden, seemingly unexpected resignation of the University's current President, which was especially peculiar since it "just happened" to coincide with the stagnation of the University's current two billion dollar fund drive.

However, the latest incident at the University has burst plainly into public view, i.e., the denial of tenure for Daniel Drezner, assistant professor of political science:

"I shouldn't be doing this. I'll be going up for tenure soon."

It was with those words of self-reproach that Daniel Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, inaugurated his Web blog in September 2002.

As thousands of his online readers know, Mr. Drezner didn't heed his own advice. Instead, he rose to blogosphere prominence. His site is perhaps the most widely read blog focusing on the international political economy, turning scholarly research on issues like outsourcing, the politics of trade, and monetary policy into pieces of analysis for a wider audience.

Mr. Drezner's first blog entry came back to haunt him: Recently, his department informed him that he was denied tenure and would have to look elsewhere for a job. Usually, a scholar who is denied tenure assumes that the decision was simply a reflection of a department's assessment of scholarship. In this case, Mr. Drezner and others are wondering whether the blog may have had an impact on his tenure status.

News of his tenure denial has struck a nerve in the growing community of academic bloggers, who are aware that blogging can be a double-edged sword: a powerful way to communicate scholarly ideas to the public and increase name recognition, and a risky venture in a field where every idea - even those roughly thrown together at 3 a.m. - matters.

While refusing to go into specifics about Mr. Drezner's tenure case, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Chicago, Dali Yang, dismissed the notion that his department considered Mr. Drezner's blog in making its decision. "I can assure you it's not specifically about the blog," he said. [Note the obviously devious response: "not specifically"].

Academic bloggers interviewed say the most common problem they face is convincing their colleagues that their online activity does not come at the expense of scholarly research. While some of the nation's most prominent scholars have started their own blogs, most notably Chicago giants Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and Richard Posner, a federal judge, blogging is still perceived by some academics as a slight activity lacking in intellectual value.

Another blogger, Sean Carroll, a physicist at the University of Chicago who was [also!] denied tenure in May, said some of his colleagues have the opinion that blogging means "spending time as an educator or a public intellectual that you could be spending as a researcher." Mr. Carroll, who contributes to the science-themed blog Cosmic Variance, said he "balanced things fine, but there was a question of what other people think." He defended his contributions to the blog, which joyfully tackles topics such as extra dimensions of space, dark energy, and galaxies, as "part and parcel of being a professor," giving him a powerful tool to interact with other physicists and to communicate complicated subjects to the general public.

Colleagues of Mr. Drezner insist that he has sustained an impressive level of academic output since starting his blog. He's published essays in refereed journals, such as Political Science Quarterly, and has written pieces for other prominent journals, including Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. He's also completed a book titled "Who Rules? The Regulation of Globalization," for which he received an advance contract from Princeton University, according to his curriculum vitae.

The debate over academic blogging has been a heated one in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, where a passionate response was elicited from an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, Henry Farrell, who contributes to the blog Crooked Timber. "To dismiss blogging as a bad idea altogether is to make an enormous mistake," he wrote. "For these academics, blogging isn't a hobby; it's an integral part of their scholarly identity. They may very well be the wave of the future."

Revised by the Author, 10/22/2005

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