Ethics at Work: Academic freedom is sometimes academic

Instructors have no business haranguing students about their beliefs, or even about their dress when no regulations are violated.

asher meir 88 (photo credit:)
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
College lecturers are workers too, and the recent conflict between lecturer Nizar Hassan and the administration at Sapir College is an employer-employee conflict with ethical considerations worthy of discussion. I will try to focus on the ethical issues and steer clear of politics, which are the context but not the content of the conflict. Nizar Hassan is a lecturer in film at Sapir College in Sderot. Several months ago a student in Hassan's class arrived wearing his army uniform - hardly an unusual situation in Israeli academia, where almost all the male students serve in the reserves and often are able to squeeze in a class or two before or after duty still wearing their uniforms. Hassan has ideological objections to the IDF and initially refused to teach the student, Eyal Cohen. (Eventually he relented when Cohen refused to leave.) It is important to note that the refusal was not due to Cohen's service in the IDF but explicitly to his wearing the uniform to class. Hassan even offered to allow Cohen to defend his position in class, when he returned wearing civilian garb. Since there is no rule against wearing army uniforms at Sapir, Hassan's conduct was brought to the administration, and after a hearing he was ordered to apologize to the student. All this is well and good; instructors have no business haranguing students about their beliefs, or even about their dress when no regulations are violated. However, Sapir dean Ze'ev Tzachor went farther and demanded that Hassan also declare that he "honors" or "respects" the IDF uniform. A demonstration in favor of Hassan emphasized the principle of academic freedom, which holds that academics should not be chosen based on their political opinions. A very similar situation arose when Bar-Ilan University lecturer Yair Wiseman harangued a student (in writing, not in public) for taking part in the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip. Wiseman was also asked to apologize for his remarks; in his case also, those who rose to his defense cited the principle of academic freedom. In my opinion, academic freedom is the wrong ethical principle; the operative consideration here should be ordinary employer-worker relations. Academic freedom is the idea that academic institutions cannot fulfill their function as a forum for the free development and discussion of ideas if ideological considerations are a factor in hiring and firing. This means that academics should be protected from sanctions if their professional work is influenced by an unpopular ideology. Academic freedom is not germane to opinions not related to researchers' academic endeavors. Regarding ordinary employees, the consideration is just the opposite. It is understood that an employer will have regard to the opinions of a worker to the extent that these affect his work. One would hardly want an anti-vivisectionist working at a slaughterhouse, for example. By contrast, we expect that employees should be free to participate in civil discussion beyond the workplace in any matter that doesn't touch on their employment. A clerk shouldn't be fired because of his political or religious views. Considering that Hassan is an instructor of film, and Wiseman of computer science, it's clear that their opinions of the IDF are pretty much irrelevant to their actual professional competence. So academic freedom should not protect their views, but ordinary standards of employee rights should protect their views. Of course these standards protect only their views, not their actions. Students have a right to be free of political harangues from overbearing instructors, and the demand to apologize was in both cases completely justified and quite necessary. In this context, I find Tzachor's demand that Hassan declare that he "respects" the uniform somewhat disturbing. It sounds like he wants Hassan to espouse a particular political view. But it may be that the demand is only that he respect students who wear the uniform, which is a totally proper demand on an employee of an organization with hundreds of customers who do regularly wear an IDF uniform. I will mention in passing that another very disturbing recent intrusion of ideology into academia is the case of Swede Karl Svensson. Svensson was convicted of a murder with neo-Nazi motivations and served a long prison sentence, during which he studied diligently and was able to meet the admission standards of the Karolinska Institute, considered Sweden's most prestigious medical school. When his past became known, the school sought - and eventually found - a pretext to expel him. I find it shocking that a student was expelled from university because of political opinions he is known to have adhered to in the distant past, and even more that this one student was singled out for this treatment; there is no general policy that neo-Nazis are unwelcome at the school. The bottom line is that ideology cannot be kept out of academia to the extent that it influences research. But to the extent that it is extraneous to the subject matter, ideology should be kept out of any workplace. That is why Hassan, who brought his ideology into the classroom, should be required to apologize to Cohen, but also why he should not be required to affirm any political principle as a condition to continue as a teacher of film. The author is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.