The Responsibility Behind Academic Freedom

This is a version of a piece I posted six years ago on my own blog, One Flew East. I am offering it again now as a way of introducing myself to the Academe blog:

How can we in academia make the case for “academic freedom” to the broader public and move our own understanding forward, back towards the old function of academic freedom within the public sphere?

Too many of us in academia, and for too long, have looked upon “academic freedom” as a right, forgetting that it carries specific responsibilities.

As we all know, when the concept of “academic freedom” was introduced through the AAUP’s 1915 “General Declaration of Principles,” it was presented within the context of purposes:

These are three in number.

A. To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge.

B. To provide general instruction to the students.

C. To develop experts for various branches of the public service.

Each leads to a specific enunciation of academic-freedom rights and the reasons for them that stem from these purposes:

In all[…] domains of knowledge, the first condition of progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results. Such freedom is the breath in the nostrils of all scientific activity.[…]

It is clear[… that] confidence [of students in their teachers] will be impaired if there is suspicion on the part of the student that the teacher is not expressing himself fully or frankly, or that college and university teachers in general are a repressed and intimidated class who dare not speak with that candor and courage which youth always demands in those whom it is to esteem.

It is obvious that[…] the scholar must be absolutely free not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion. To be of use to the legislator or the administrator, he must enjoy their complete confidence in the disinterestedness of his conclusions.

In three areas, and for reasons long clear to us in academia (at least), scholars need the protection of the right of academic freedom.


We must be active in the wider world if we are to continue to be provided such protection. We cannot claim “academic freedom” protection under the First Amendment assumption that almost any expression warrants protecting; we can only claim protection when we are providing something more than individual participation in the debates within the public sphere.

Not all of us in academia are involved directly in scholarly pursuits, so we can’t consistently claim protection via “academic freedom” for the needs of scholarship. It has to be more than that.

Almost all of us do teach. We need “academic freedom” in our classrooms or we become nothing more than “facilitators,” the word used in some of the new for-profit online “universities” for the people who oversee courses. The community of inquiry becomes a purpose-driven institution concentrating on pre-defined skill sets.

Each of us, through our research and through our teaching, performs an important role within the public sphere; we operate in a role slightly different from that of the citizen (which, of course, we also are). We carry a burden of responsibility to the peer structures that certify us, to the students who have relied on us, and to those in the public sphere who rely on the honesty of our contributions.

“Academic freedom” is no special freedom, but a recognition of the purposes and responsibilities behind our efforts.

But academic freedom is more than a facet of successful research and teaching. It makes possible–no, demands–our participation in the public sphere.

We in academia have been looking inward too long, protecting our right rather than using it. There are too few of us, these days, who can honestly wear the mantle of “public intellectual,” participating in the public sphere in a manner demonstrating just what it is we do when we participate in our research or even when we teach. As a result, we have been open to caricature, to the cartoon image (among other things) of professors making six-figure incomes and working only nine hours a week.

We are coming into a time when academics either take control of the agendas of their institutions or run the risk of being eclipsed by the reactionary agenda that has dominated the American public sphere for a quarter of a century. This agenda has cowed academia, sending too many of us scurrying for the protection of our ivory towers. If we do not reassert ourselves, our universities are going to become merely the diploma mills they are already so often accused of being.

We must assert the importance of academia within American society. It is time to act—outside the walls of our schools. It is time we started taking John Dewey, and his concept of the integral contribution of education to a successful democracy, seriously.

Academic freedom will start to mean something, and people will begin to see it as worth protecting, only when we make it so.

Academic freedom is up to us.

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