Thoughts on Academic Freedom

Thoughts on Academic Freedom

It seems to me we need some clarification of the idea of academic freedom, so I am throwing out these thoughts, rather tentatively, to get the ball rolling. I welcome discussion on this, though keep in mind this is a blog post and not an academic paper. Links to helpful resources as well as discussions elsewhere are also welcome. Ok, so here goes:

Academic freedom protect academics on two fronts: in their capacity as academics and in their capacity as citizens. As academics, it protects them from some restrictions on and punishments for engaging in and discussing their work as academics, typically meaning their research and teaching. As citizens, it protects them, to some extent, from institutional sanction, for expressing their opinions, especially in regards to political questions (broadly construed).

Note that even within the domains of research and teaching, academic freedom does not grant academics the permission to research whatever and however they want, or teach whatever and however they want. If your appointment is in Classics, yet you spend all of your research efforts on Kim Kardashian, academic freedom will not protect you from sanction. If you are in psychology and attempt to run an experiment on human subjects without first getting the approval of an IRB, academic freedom will not protect you from sanction. If your position is in chemistry and your teaching consists solely in showing your students Scooby-Doo cartoons, ruh-roh, academic freedom will not protect you from sanction. If you are in philosophy and spray-paint the conclusion of your latest article on the wall of the library, academic freedom will not protect you from sanction. So, even within the limited domains of academic activity, it does not mean academics are free to do whatever they want.

Once outside these limited domains, academic freedom still does not mean being able to act however you please or say whatever you want without risk of institutional sanction. So, a university may permissibly have all sorts of rules and regulations and norms and expectations regarding how its members ought to treat one another. Some of these are analogous to time, place, and manner restrictions in U.S. First Amendment law. Some may be more substantive. If you attend faculty senate meetings and sing arias loudly throughout them, only stopping to fart in the general direction of the faculty president, academic freedom will not protect you. If you walk around the quad hissing “you’re a man-hating lesbian” at each student who walks by, academic freedom will not protect you. If you routinely yell at your colleagues during department meetings, shouting them down into submission, academic freedom will not protect you. If you send an email to your colleague’s students telling them that their professor is an idiot, academic freedom will not protect you.

More generally, while academic freedom has served in disputes to give a presumption of liberty to members of the academic community and place the burden of proof on the sanctioning institution, if your behavior can be shown to be at odds with the mission of the academic institution that employs you and the ways the institution goes about executing that mission, academic freedom will not protect you from sanction.

Please note that none of what I’ve said so far implies that being appropriately subject to sanction means that any sanction would be appropriate.

What does academic freedom protect you from? One thing it does is protect you from an overly narrow construal of the acceptable subjects you may work on, the approaches you may take, the positions you may consider and defend, the means by which it is appropriate for you communicate these things, the expression of political views (including views about institutional governance), etc., and that this has typically been understood to place a very high bar on sanctioning members of the academic community for the content of their views. This is rather vague, I know, and perhaps the devil is in the details. Help with the details would be appreciated.

For those curious, I repost from the AAUP website a section from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, including the endnotes from that section (which are important):

Academic Freedom

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.4 Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.5
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.6


4. Second 1970 comment: The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

5. Third 1970 comment: Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 “Statement,” and we do not now endorse such a departure.

6. Fourth 1970 comment: This paragraph is the subject of an interpretation adopted by the sponsors of the 1940 “Statement” immediately following its endorsement:

If the administration of a college or university feels that a teacher has not observed the admonitions of paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom and believes that the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure. In pressing such charges, the administration should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens. In such cases the administration must assume full responsibility, and the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges are free to make an investigation.

Paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom in the 1940 “Statement” should also be interpreted in keeping with the 1964 “Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances,” Policy Documents and Reports, 31, which states inter alia: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”

Paragraph 5 of the “Statement on Professional Ethics,” Policy Documents and Reports, 146, also addresses the nature of the “special obligations” of the teacher: “As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution. When they speak or act as private persons, they avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university. As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.”

Both the protection of academic freedom and the requirements of academic responsibility apply not only to the full-time probationary and the tenured teacher, but also to all others, such as part- time faculty and teaching assistants, who exercise teaching responsibilities.

(art: detail from Flags by Jasper Johns)

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