I’m going to disagree with the arguments in Aaron Barlow’s post earlier today about the meaning of academic freedom. When Patrick Deneen described academic freedom as permitting “the airing and defense of any and all views,” I think he was absolutely right (although Deneen did it in order to criticize academic freedom, arguing that “academic freedom is not a particularly conservative principle”).
Barlow tells us that academic freedom “was intended as a particular right of the faculty granted for quite specific purposes–and with clear limitations.”Indeed, that’s quite true, but only if you keep the past tense intact.
Over the past century, the AAUP has sought, with great success, to have the idea of academic freedom embraced and protected. But over that century, the idea of academic freedom has also evolved. Up until 1960, for example, the AAUP generally believed that extramural utterances were only protected if they met academic standards. That quickly changed, and the 1970 Interpretive Comments enshrined that doctrine, along with reversing other key parts of the 1940 Statement of Principles, such as its hatred of “controversial matter.”
Barlow argues, “In terms of the 1940 Statement, academic freedom is nothing like Deneen describes it.” But Barlow’s mistake is thinking that academic freedom today means exactly what it meant in 1940, and nothing more. It would be strange in a country where the idea of freedom of speech has been revolutionized in the past 75 years, that the related concept of academic freedom has not changed at all. But it has. Academic freedom today is radically different from what it was in 1940.
Some critics might imagine that this broader definition of academic freedom means that anything goes. But the kind of academic freedom that applies in any particular situation requires context. A professor receives a great deal of latitude to express ideas in the classroom, but they are obligated to respect to teach the courses assigned to them, and to respect the rights of others. A professor has enormous freedom to research, but that does not mean that all ideas “have equal weight” as Barlow puts it. When professors are being hired and evaluated, the quality of their teaching and research (which is, literally, the quality of their ideas) is subject to close scrutiny and evaluation (but still protected by a kind of academic freedom). However, when it comes to extramural utterances, academic freedom is extraordinarily broad in protecting freedom of speech. So what makes this freedom of non-academic speech a kind of academic freedom? The fact that it occurs in academia, and the fact that the job being protected is an academic one.
There will be some who agree with my notion of freedom on campus, but insist that it should be called “intellectual freedom” rather than “academic freedom.” I can’t understand that. After all, we’re talking about freedom in the academic environment, in order to protect the furthest reaches of academic work, and extramural utterances are one of the three fundamental components of academic freedom.
But the bigger disagreement will come from those who think that academic freedom has severe limits and disagree with my belief it protects “the airing and defense of any and all views.” Here’s a simple test of my approach: tell me what idea, if expressed by a tenured professor in, say, a comment on this blog, would justify the dismissal of that professor. Tell me what speaker should be banned from speaking on a college campus. If you don’t believe that professors should be fired for expressing their ideas, and if you don’t believe that any speakers should ever be banned on a college campus, then you believe in this broader principle of academic freedom.
As the AAUP starts to celebrate its centennial, it’s important to remember its history, but it’s equally important to understand that some things about the AAUP are ancient history for a good reason. Rather than imagining some kind of original intent for academic freedom that must be frozen in stone, we need to see the different understandings of academic freedom that have evolved over time, and argue about which interpretation is the best way to protect academic freedom.