Different Understandings of Academic Freedom

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.

8 thoughts on “Different Understandings of Academic Freedom

  1. This is a very thought-provoking discussion.

    But I am not sure that the illustrations in the following two sentences get at the crux of the issue: “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.” I don’t think that anything expressed over a personal media account or in a distinctly personal way, such as in a post to this blog or in a newspaper op-ed in which a faculty member dos not purport to be speaking on behalf of his or her university, should be a matter for dismissal, or even for consideration by a university administration or a faculty body.

    But a more difficult issue might be the degree to which a professor should be allowed to address a topical issue in a course that has no connection to that issue. I think that most of us would say that it would depend on the way in which the comment was expressed and the length at which it was expressed.

    For instance, I think, again, that David Guth’s Twitter post should have been treated as a non-issue. I also think that if he had made just that comment on a university listserve, it should be treated as a non-issue. Moreover, if he had simply made the comment or even if he had elaborated on it at length in a course on current social issues–or in a course in which such issue are used illustratively (such as a composition course focusing on argument)–it should again be treated as a non-issue. Indeed, even in a course completely unrelated to the issue, I would consider the comment to be a non-issue if he simply made it or elaborated on it briefly. But if he spent much or most of a math class addressing the issue of gun violence in very vehement terms, I would think that he had exceeded what most people would consider a reasonable exercise of academic freedom. It would still not be reasonable to dismiss him for such an incident, but it also would not be unreasonable to point out why such a use of class time is professionally inappropriate.

    There has to be some measure of reasonableness and professional responsibility. Most faculty handbooks and contracts contain language that indicates an expectation of some degree of professional civility among faculty, even when they disagree very strongly on an issue. Certainly, an extension of that expectation to our interactions with our students is not unreasonable.

    As in most things, context is very important. This issue is very comparable to our previous exchange on the degree to which speakers ought to be allowed public space on campus in order to express their views however they might like. While I agree that universities have often unreasonably suppressed such free expression by segregating it to far corners of the campuses, I think that defending speech that is very disruptive to classes that are in progress will eventually push many people who normally would defend free expression on campus to agree to segregate it, even very unreasonably or to the point of suppressing it.

    In effect, if we operate from the premise that any and all limits on free expression will be abused by those either ideologically opposed to the views being expressed or those who wish simply to avoid all discussion of contentious issues, we often end up defending extreme cases that just make it easier for the opponents of free expression to suppress it.

    I think that it is not coincidental that the concepts of academic freedom and shared governance developed somewhat in tandem and that AAUP is committed to defending both principles. In institutions with meaningful shared governance, the chances that academic freedom, or free expression, would be unreasonably constrained would seem much less than in institutions in which shared governance has not remained an honored principle.

    Moreover, trying to defend academic freedom in an absence of meaningful shared governance is almost always a losing proposition. I am not suggesting that such defenses should not be undertaken–but simply that we need to be aware of the political ramifications of what we are doing and that how we go about doing something may be the determining factor in whether our intervention is productive or not, or even counter-productive.

    • The danger of your “evolved” definition, John, is that it threatens to conflate freedom of speech and academic freedom. Though the concept certainly can evolve, its very meaning and reason for being dissipates as it moves away from the “original intent.” In addition, we start getting caught up in debates which have nothing to do with how academic freedom is still defined by many, causing confusion and, as we have seen, leading to desire to junk the whole concept.

      • I think the real danger is if we limit the meaning of academic freedom. I’m not conflating academic freedom and freedom of speech. I’m saying that academic freedom includes freedom of speech and goes beyond it. If you have a concept of academic freedom that doesn’t protect basic freedom of speech in extramural utterances, then you will have a dangerously narrow vision of academic freedom.

        This originalist notion that our concepts are best when they conform to the ideas of the founders of our institutions is pure hogwash, whether you’re talking about the Constitution or the AAUP. Diverging from originalist frameworks about academic freedom doesn’t “dissipate” the idea, it strengthens it. Remember, just three years after the founding of the AAUP, its leaders issued a report of the “Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime” that endorsed massive repression during wars, declaring that all professors must “refrain from public discussion of the war.” By your originalist logic, the AAUP should have called for a ban on academics discussing the war in Iraq. Why should the flawed ideas of the AAUP’s founders about academic freedom restrict what we think today?

        I’m sure that the ongoing debate about the meaning of academic freedom does cause more confusion than if we all agreed on the same terms. But that’s part of the nature of any intellectual discussion. If you prefer to avoid confusion, then you’re welcome to agree with my definitions about everything.

        • John, that’s nothing more than a straw-man argument, using “originalist” that way. You address nothing, only divert attention from the question of just why you think the definition of “academic freedom” needs changing. I would argue that it does not, but that has nothing to do with “originalism” but with what I see as the value of a clearly defined faculty right. Change for its own sake makes no sense. Convince me that change in the definition of academic freedom serves a real, definable purpose. From what I’ve seen, all that change in the definition of “academic freedom” has done is allow David Horowitz to get into the fray, confusing the issue further.

          Also, avoiding confusion is best done if we don’t revert to Humpty-Dumpty-isms: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'” I know you are trying to be cute, but… what you are doing, I believe, is making “academic freedom” so broad in its meanings as to denude it of all meaning. It becomes not your meaning, but meaningless.

    • The issue of Prof. Guth is a political one, not an Academic or Constitutional one. He never said he was posting under the auspices of KU, nor did he say it was with their blessing. He posted as an individual. He was responding to similar comments made by members of the NRA, albeit a little too heated. But that is our rights under the Constitution.

      It took individuals who were pro-NRA time to discover who he worked for. This I attribute to stalking. May I also point out that members of the NRA have in the past called for death of those who do not like their organization and those who of particular racial profiles to have their lives terminated. But you don’t hear anyone calling for them to be censored. It is also those Politicians who are given monies by the NRA who are complaining the loudest. Those who are given campaign contributions should be silenced as their positions are severely tainted and biased.

      The 1940 Statement is a bit dated and should not be used as a Litmus Test against that which the SCOTUS has already said and ruled on. it is a document which, over time, needs to be reviewed and revised. In the 1940’s Blacks were still segregated. Do we still do that? No. Just because it is a document created from the Halls of Academia does not mean it is no less subject to review as the interpretations of the Constitution. It is not the Golden Fleece. Tenure is no longer a God-given right.people should not be silenced just because it goes against what some Lobbying Group things.

  2. understand something – notion of academic freedom does not devolve to the level of the K-12 public school, where parents, administrators and outsiders can and do insist on punitive measures for those who raise controversial subjects that are not SPECIFICALLY in the material designated to be taught. Also remember that many public schools are controlled by school boards elected by activist small portions of the local population. Thus those of you, particularly in public institutions, will encounter the phenomenon of the student who has never heard a controversial idea express in a class and who will therefore strongly object. And of course you do experience the phenomenon of state legislators attempting to limit your academic freedom.

    I am unusual among public school teachers in that I have always been supported by administrators, both within my building (so far 4 public and one charter) and at district levels (so far 3 in two different states) in broaching controversial topics within class, and in my freedom of expression outside of class.

    Understand that there is a real movement to suppress critical thinking or challenging the status quo, although I do not know how it is possible to teach history, literature, science or economics without critical thinking and challenging the status quo. But maybe it is because having graduated from high school in the 1960s and lived through both the civil rights era while in public school and the many changes since I strongly believe in both.

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