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Some personal remarks for the
Davis, Markert, Nickerson Symposium on Academic and Intellectual Freedom
Steve Nickerson - October 7, 2000

No doubt you are expecting me to say something enlightening about my father but unfortunately, I never felt I really knew the man. Perhaps then I should say something about Academic Freedom but what could I know about this? I'm certainly no academic. In fact my life thus far could easily be described as a quest for Freedom from Academics. Still the opportunity to address this gathering, fondly referred to by my father as the annual "Rabble Rousers" Symposium, was not to be missed. So I'll see what I can do.

My father was, above all else, an academic and I used to attribute my lack of educational zeal to the fact that his life was not something I wanted to emulate. Why this was so would be hard to explain in a few minutes but, at least in part, it was his reaction, perhaps over reaction, to the events here in Michigan. Something which left him little time for interaction with me.

He had been quoted as saying that he was completely neutral about what career path we might take - he didn't care what branch of science we went into - and he was particularly distressed by the fact that none of his children were pursuing academic careers. In fact, of the three Nickerson siblings I am the only one that completed university at all and that a measly BA when I was almost fifty. Disappointingly, my experiences as I worked on this degree did not do much to soften my view of the academic community.

I had dropped out of high school and later university but gone on to develop a modest career using computers, then still a fairly new tool, to document heritage architecture. I wanted to expand this capability to archaeological sites, a field that would normally be pursued in a university environment as it involves considerable experimentation, invention and expense and brings in very little money. I was doing a project for a prestigious American school when it was suggested that, if I had a degree, they could pay me more and might even find a graduate position for me to carry on my research.

Thus I found myself in one of those ivy-covered halls where I overheard one of my professors tearing a strip off her graduate student. The transgression responsible for this outburst was that the student had asked a question of an Internet news group on a subject that the supervisor thought of as her personal territory. I was amazed by the violence of the attack but even more so by the shallowness of her argument, which went something like:

Your project concerns (... some tiny detail ...) everything else is mine Mine MINE!

As it happened, I had been thinking about this question of Academic Freedom. The director of the project, supervisor to the supervisor guarding her turf, had recognized my name from the book No Ivory Tower, a copy of which he had lent me and which I had been reading just the night before. When I asked him about the incident he dismissed it as just an extreme example of a common situation brought on by the lady's need to publish something original. It seemed to me that her need to publish was resulting in a gross infringement of a much more basic academic freedom than security of tenure, the simple freedom to ask a question.

Though my relationship with the instructor cited above soon fell apart I did finish the program this time and I have been working the peripheries of the academic world ever since. I know that this was not an isolated incident nor is it the only or worst manifestation of the damage done by the "publish or perish" imperative. The competition for publication topics and tenure creates an environment of rivalry and secrecy that is the antithesis of what one would wish for in an academic community where "academic freedom", the open sharing of information and the encouragement of questions, and answers, of all kinds, must be given the highest priority.

But this is academic freedom for the student! What heresy! The next thing you know this lunatic will be suggesting that the university is here for the students instead of the faculty.

Well this is the "Rabble Rousers Symposium" or did my father mislead me on that point? If not, perhaps this Symposium could, in some future session, consider how the measures now in place to protect the academic freedoms of the faculty encroach on those of the students and how the greater goals of learning, discovery and public access to information might be restored to the system.

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