Misunderstanding Academic Freedom… Again and Again

Last month, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, who should know better, described academic freedom as permitting “the airing and defense of any and all views.” It is not so simple as that, of course. As the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure puts it, there are (as most of us know) three parts to academic freedom. They should be repeated, and often, so that we can concentrate on what academic freedom really is, and not on what so many (and not just Deneen) imagine it to be:

  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. 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.

  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.

Though academic freedom has been conflated with freedom of speech over past decades (and, in many minds, has been extended to students), it was intended as a particular right of the faculty granted for quite specific purposes–and with clear limitations.

In terms of the 1940 Statement, academic freedom is nothing like Deneen describes it. Nor it is at all related to the “academic justice” that Harvard undergrad Sandra Y. L. Korn wants to replace it with. Nor is it the sort of smokescreen that Ross Douthat imagines it to be when he is writing that:

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

In all three instances, the writers are positioning academic freedom as some sort of generalized right defined along the lines of freedom of speech, community mores, or institutional responsibilities. They would more accurately depict it as a tool for the unhindered advancement of research and teaching and promotion of the public good on the part of our academic faculties.

Deneen looks at the first AAUP point on academic freedom as license to posit and argue any point of view. It is not that. Instead, it is a guarantee of space to experiment, to try out possibilities–as long as the researcher is fulfilling his or her other academic duties (generally teaching and service) adequately. It does not say that any view should be tolerated or that all have equal weight. As much as anything, it is simply the right of the scholar to explore and then to make the results of that exploration public.

Korn seems to want to move academic freedom from a right of the teacher to a right of the classroom community, expanding the limitation presented in part 2 to a communal determination of what is just or, at least, not controversial. That, of course, would turn academic freedom on its head.

Douthat find institutions, not individuals, responsible for the exercise of free speech and academic freedom, thinking in terms “of how universities should approach academic freedom” instead of how faculties (and their professional organizations) should present it. He’s more interested in what the institutions do in the public sphere than in the role of the faculty. This has nothing to do with academic freedom–not unless the action is an infringement on a faculty member’s right to academic freedom. Not granting an award, to use one of his examples, is not a contravention of academic freedom.

Yes, academic freedom should be a topic of discussion. It would help, though, if we talked about it when it is brought up–and not so often about tangential issues.


3 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Academic Freedom… Again and Again

  1. The most controversial cases have often involved all three of the misunderstandings about academic freedom that you have considered, and academic freedom as it should be understood has become an appropriate issue more in terms of the institutional responses to those inappropriately framed cases.

    The common denominator among all three types of misunderstandings of academic freedom has been the expectation that academic freedom requires an acquiescence to or a pointed rejection of a particular ideological viewpoint.

    So when David Guth tweeted on his own personal Twitter account that proponents of gun rights might have a different perspective if it were their children being slaughtered in school shootings, his personal right to free expression was inappropriately framed as an issue testing the boundaries of academic freedom. Indeed, those ideologically opposed to his position found it all too convenient to frame the issue as such a test, and his institution then inappropriately rose to the bait and felt that it had to respond to the criticism of his expressed position on a non-academic issue as if it were an appropriate criticism of the institution itself, as if it could be legitimately framed as a reflection on the institution’s ideological stance–as if such a stance can even be defined for more than a handful of institutions for which a specific ideology has been identified a defining element of their core missions.

    So, in many, if not most instances, we are being forced to defend academic freedom in terms of individual cases that, I think, have quite deliberately been framed to most obscure the boundaries between academic freedom issues and broadly similar types of issues. In such defenses, we are literally starting out on the defensive. We are, in effect, allowing the opponents of academic freedom to frame the debate, and entering into the debate at a decided disadvantage.

    It is comparable to trying to defend collective bargaining rights and fair share in response to “right to work” talking points, where even the basic terms used in the debate have been coined and then fixed by one’s opponents.

    Most ideologically driven commentators prefer not just to simplify complex issues but to distort by simplification concepts such as academic freedom that have evolved to allow meaningful responses to complex issues.

  2. Pingback: Different Understandings of Academic Freedom | Academe Blog

  3. Pingback: Academic Freedom for All Academics | The Academe Blog

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