A recent short news item in the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. A professor at Santa Barbara Community College had written what is described as a ‘scathing internal memorandum’, seriously attacking his head of department and accusing him inter alia of ‘lewd behaviour’. The whole episode made its way into the Californian courts, and there not was ruled that there was no defamation because the memo had been written ‘without malice’.
I won’t suggest whether the court was right or wrong, not least because I don’t know enough about the details of the case to be able to do so. But it does strike me that what one might euphemistically describe as frank expressions of opinion are common currency in academic exchanges of views, partly because academics are encouraged to present and defend their views and positions in a robust manner. For anyone involved in management positions in universities it is not a rare experience to hear from colleagues who have been hurt or who feel stressed by such experiences.
Of course as academics we value freedom of speech and academic freedom. But I wonder whether we sometimes care enough about the way in which the exercise of these freedoms can undermine those other key characteristics of successful academic institutions, collegiality and goodwill. Is it really an expression of academic freedom to launch personal attacks, and is there not a risk that these will generate an atmosphere in which less forceful faculty retreat from participation in discourse so as not to find themselves in the firing line? In fact, can this problem be aggravated by the use of email, particularly when widely circulated, to launch harsh criticisms of others?
I am quite willing to believe that the Santa Barbara professor did what he did without malice. But I don’t think he was setting a good example. And I don’t think people should hide behind academic freedom when launching personal attacks.