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April 12, 2008

Academic Freedom is Alive and Well at Boalt Hall


The dean of Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley's School of Law), Christopher Edley, has published an open letter on the school's website in response to a number of appeals to fire John Yoo, a tenured professor, and the principal author of the now infamous "torture memos" (PDF).  These memos seemed designed to give legal cover to the Bush Administration to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected terrorists. A number of organizations and individuals, including The National Lawyers Guild, a human rights group, have criticized the university for keeping Professor Yoo as a faculty member.

The letter is a valuable read for a number of reasons, not the least of which being as a reminder of the purpose of tenure at a university.  All too often tenure has come to mean a kind of guarantee for permanent employment.  The dean reminds us otherwise.

Without tenure, professors in universities might tend to shy away from controversial issues.  They might "play it safe" and in so doing short change their students by denying them a rigorous airing of various issues that emerge from any meaningful dialogue in the classroom, or in the world for that matter.  And they may become reticent to research "controversial issues".

Here is a snippet:

It seems we do need regular reminders: These protections, while not absolute, are nearly so because they areessential to the excellence of American universities and the progress of ideas. Indeed, in Berkeley's classrooms and courtyards our community argues about the legal and moral issues with the intensity and discipline these crucial issues deserve. Those who prefer to avoid these arguments--be they left or right or lazy--will not find Berkeley or any other truly great law school a wholly congenial place to study. For that we make no apology.

The dean for his part is not at all reticent to take issue with, or at least raise serious questions about, Yoo's tortured legal wrangling that sought to place the President beyond the law in his role as Commander-in-Chief, even to the point of ignoring treaties and other international agreements that according to the Constitution are the supreme law of the land. He writes:

There are important questions about the content of the Yoo memoranda, about tortured definitions of "torture," about how he and his colleagues conceived their role as lawyers, and about whether and when the Commander in Chief is subject to domestic statutes and international law.

The dean is reluctant, no adamant against, initiating any proceedings to strip Yoo of his tenured faculty position. In doing so, Dean Edley has demonstrated the clear thinking, and determined leadership that apparently was so lacking in Yoo's memos. 

Academic freedom is still alive and well...and we suspect not just at Berkeley. Oh, and "Go Bears!"


Again here is a link to the letter.