What Is Academic Freedom?
Published on June 9, 2021
- Academic freedom enables faculty to explore ideas without fear of recrimination.
- Racial slurs and other terms that create a hostile learning environment are not protected.
- Republicans have tried to block discussions of critical race theory on campuses.
- Academic freedom faces grave threats from both sides of the political spectrum.
The recent tenure battle at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill involving Nikole Hannah-Jones has once again thrust into the national spotlight the issue of academic freedom.
But what is academic freedom exactly? What is it designed to protect? What are its limitations? And what is threatening its very existence?
Academic Freedom Definition
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) — the organization that defined the concept in 1915 — academic freedom enables faculty to explore ideas and seek the truth, both within and outside the classroom.
Academic freedom permits scholars to conduct research freely and publish their results without fear of retribution.
Specifically, academic freedom permits scholars to conduct research freely and publish their results without fear of retribution. It safeguards their right to speak on social, political, economic, and other interests to the larger community, while guaranteeing their right to select course materials, determine their approach to a subject, make assignments, and assess students' academic performance. And it provides faculty a voice in governing their institution.
Academic freedom, however, isn't blanket protection. It does not, for example, allow faculty to harass or intimidate students or to promote dogmatic doctrines. Nor does it shield incompetence or let professors flout institutional regulations or commit scientific misconduct with impunity.
Universities should be "a place where easy and settled answers can be challenged," writes Matt Reed, a college dean, "where ideas can be tried on and discarded, and where students and professors can follow ideas and facts where they lead."
In short, academic freedom isn't a "license to spout whatever you want," Reed notes, but rather a "hunting license for truth."
The Role of Tenure in Academic Freedom
The primary guarantor of academic freedom is tenure. Because tenured faculty can't be fired for unpopular or controversial speech, research findings, or publications, they're free to pursue and transmit knowledge without fear of recrimination from university administrators, government officials, and other external forces.
"Without tenure there will be no academic freedom," claims Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg. "And without academic freedom universities would be controlled by their administrators, and intellectual life would suffer."
Does that mean untenured faculty, including adjuncts, lack the same rights and protections? Not necessarily. Some institutions don't offer tenure but can create a culture through contracts and peer review that effectively upholds academic freedom even where tenure does not exist.
The Limits to Academic Freedom
In a classic defense of academic freedom, Yale's 1974 Woodward Report defined the university as a place to "think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable."
Yet when mentioning the unmentionable threatens to create a hostile learning environment, the limitations of academic freedom become evident. Certain words, when uttered in a classroom setting, can prove volatile and even result in a tenured faculty member's dismissal. The most notable example is the N-word.
Certain words, when uttered in a classroom setting, can prove volatile and even result in a tenured faculty member's dismissal.
Central Michigan University fired its tenured journalism department chair for using this term while quoting a basketball coach. Duquesne University did the same to a tenured education professor who repeatedly used the word "in a pedagogical sense."
A St. John's University professor, albeit without tenure, was fired for reading a passage from Mark Twain's anti-slavery novel "Pudd'nhead Wilson," as was an Emory University law professor who used the word in a class discussion.
At Augsburg University, a professor was suspended for using the term in a class discussion about a James Baldwin book containing the word. In a subsequent letter to his class, he characterized the classroom as a "place where any and every topic can be explored, even those topics considered to be taboo."
At the same time, the professor wrote that he was "struggling to understand how it may be better not to explore some taboo topics, and to weigh the consequences of absolute academic freedom versus outcomes that lead to hurt, racial trauma, and loss of trust."
Rising to his defense, the AAUP condemned "rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content" and claimed a university "fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas — and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant."
To prevent or mitigate student reactions to potentially volatile content, colleges have asked professors to include trigger warnings in syllabi.
What about a repugnant statement denying that a mass shooting of children ever took place? James Tracy, a communication professor at Florida Atlantic University, was terminated following his accusation that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — where 20 children were murdered — was a hoax. The public firestorm trumped any protections offered under the blanket of academic freedom.
To prevent or mitigate student reactions to potentially volatile content, colleges have asked professors to include trigger warnings in syllabi, flagging "material that might cause distress or discomfort, or possibly trigger a panic attack in students with post-traumatic stress disorder."
The AAUP claims trigger warnings create a "chilly climate" and "suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education."
The gray area at the intersection of propriety and censorship extends to the online environment as well. Last year, the video-conferencing provider Zoom attracted ire for refusing to stream a San Francisco State University event including a member of a terrorist organization. Critics of the move called it a "dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom, and an abuse of [Zoom's] contract with public university systems."
Academic Freedom Faces Threats From Left and Right
Threats to academic freedom span both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives accuse the left of propagating political correctness and "cancel culture," while liberals point to the right's attempts to quell campus discussions of diversity and inclusion.
In red states nationwide, legislators are attempting to influence the teaching of social justice and historical topics, and discussions of privilege and freedom of expression. Republican opponents of critical race theory have introduced bills in a dozen states to block what they consider divisive discussions of race and gender in public colleges.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a watchdog group that defends campus free speech, calls such encroachments "chilling."
College campuses must be places where faculty and student discussions of racial and sexual inequality are unencumbered from government interference.
"College campuses must be places where faculty and student discussions of racial and sexual inequality are unencumbered from government interference," writes Joe Cohn, FIRE's legislative and policy director. "In order to ensure that faculty and students have the necessary freedom to explore these issues, legislatures need to avoid statutorily deciding how those issues are taught on campus."
With faculty autonomy under siege from all quarters, academic freedom itself is on trial.
"My sense is that there has never been as great a threat to academic freedom in the past century as we are now experiencing," said William G. Tierney, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of Southern California.
When faculty can no longer choose who teaches, determine what is taught and how, explore and promote ideas and ideologies unpopular with the governing party or fringe groups, and invite and celebrate conflicting viewpoints, academic freedom becomes a toothless concept. And a core element of higher education — the unfettered pursuit of truth, however elusive — is immeasurably diminished.
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