Academic Freedom vs. Resource Allocation: The state of Georgia and Queer Theory

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Today, an article came across my Facebook news feed about Georgia legislators trying to stop the funding of research areas deemed “unnecessary”, such as Queer theory. The argument is framed as an economic one – the lawmakers are tired of “spending state dollars on close studies of oral sex and male prostitution.”  Some who commented on the article interpreted it as a religiously, rather than an economically driven action, even though there is almost nothing to suggest that in the language of the legislature.  Others brought up the issue of academic freedom.  So, is this an attempt to spread a particular religious agenda couched in economic terms?  Or, is it an economic argument to be taken at face value? And is it an ideologically motivated attack on academic freedom, or is resource allocation part of the state’s job?

My initial reaction to the article was that this is a case of academic homogenization – a teleological approach to education that seems to be the result (the goal?) of an advanced capitalist system and evidenced by the number of MBA degrees awarded every year. I took issue, specifically, with the statement by State Rep. Calvin Hill that “our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, math…”  Really?  Because one look at University of Georgia’s Mission Statement suggests otherwise.  Until you get to #4 – “a commitment to excellence in public service, economic development, and technical assistance activities designed to address the strategic needs of the state of Georgia” – all of the wording is about excellence in teaching and research and diversity of thought, with little indication that profitability is a goal.  I can understand the argument that Queer theory does not contribute to the economic development of the state of Georgia, but this begs the question whether or not academic activity has an economic responsibility, and whether or not it has to defend its right to existence in those terms.  Regardless, clause #4 is an AND, not an ONLY.

Edit 2/26:  Apparently, the NYT believes that the Humanities must indeed have to justify their worth.  I’ll save a more elaborate response for my next blog post, but I’m glad the issue is being discussed.

The fact that the politicians are arguing for dismissal of faculty teaching “racy” topics, rather than for an amendment of the university’s mission statement to better reflect the “needs” of the state makes me think that this is as much, if not more, about politics than it is about economics.  The fact that the legislators are turning to conservative Christian organizations supports this interpretation, although why the state’s Board of Regents, who is currently fighting back, would be more likely to agree if these organizations were involved is unclear.  And finally, and perhaps most obviously, the fact that this is calling for firing faculty teaching Queer theory, and not other, potentially even more “useless” majors supports my friend’s argument that this is LGBTQ bigotry, which is difficult to separate from the religious right’s position on homosexuality.

While it is certain that this move is loaded, whether or not this is a case of infringement of academic freedom deserves some analysis.  Universities and affiliated institutions such as the Board of Regents make decisions all the time about what programs to fund.  It can’t be that each time they decide not to fund a program, or to shift funding away from one discipline towards another, that they are attacking academic freedom.  At a state funded university, I think it can be argued that state officials have a say of how the money is allocated just as private donors at private universities can choose to fund a specific program without being accused of attacking academic freedom.  I read all of Stanley Fish’s blog posts on the subject as well as the definition of academic freedom on wikipedia and here is my conclusion: I think it can be argued as a case of infrigement on academic freedom if it can proven that the motivations behind the motion are not purely economical, which is difficult given the actual text of the legislation, but easy given the context.

Yet even if this is not an attack on academic freedom, I find it ironic that the very disciplines most in need of government support are the targets of the budget cuts.  “Practical” disciplines such as engineering and business are often funded by the industry, while the humanities, being valued lower on the market, don’t have this luxury.  If the state government of Georgia is looking to cut the budget, perhaps they should encourage departments better positioned to receive outside funding to look for it…or gasp! consider taking a salary cut themselves.

If the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) gets involved, as one reader (#14) suggests they should, it will be interesting to follow how they go about interpreting the case.  I would also love to hear from Stanley Fish on this subject. And, of course, from you!

Note:  Apparently, part of the controversy concerns a Georgia State University annual guide to its faculty experts, which lists a sociology lecturer as an expert in oral sex and faculty member as an expert in male prostitution. That’s pretty funny.  Instead of the professors, perhaps whoever is responsible for this wording should be asked to leave.