The Ideal of the American University: A Primer (Part 2)

“It need scarcely be pointed out that the freedom which is the subject of this report is that of the teacher,” says the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Freedom.  The 1940 Statement follows up:

  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.

A teacher, in this context, is a leading participant in the activities of an institution of higher education. The role of “teacher,” in relation to academic freedom, then, is one not of an individual but of a critical participant in a process. Rights adhere to that individual in relation to the activities of that role and not to the role itself. In the views of the authors of both statements, it is the act of teaching that necessitates academic freedom.

We sometimes manage to forget that. We talk of principles and ideals, of rights and prerogatives–but we can ignore the basis all of these arise from, the necessity of providing an education of as high a quality as possible for the citizens of a democracy.

At its base, again, academic freedom is not an individual right, but a responsibility of the collective participants in higher education. Protecting it should not fall on the faculty alone, but on students, administrators, parents and politicians as well.

The strength and stability of American higher education is possible because of the solid and inter-braced four legs of the table it rests upon. These are:

  1. Diversity of options;
  2. shared governance;
  3. academic freedom; and
  4. tenure.

This diversity is exhibited in everything from the breadth of institutional profiles to the range of syllabi for individual courses. It keeps higher education from being regimented into a single vision and leaves the system open to experimentation and bottoms-up change. Shared governance, of course, also keeps institutions from top-down lockstep that hinders innovation and promotes conformity. Academic freedom allows faculty members to pursue lines of inquiry that might make others uncomfortable, to say the least, keeping the boundaries of higher education from closing in and constricting intellectual activity. And tenure, finally, provides necessary institutional and individual stability allowing both teachers and institutions to act for the general good and not simply for survival.

Each of these in under attack today, greater attack than any has ever before seen. It’s almost as though the nation as a whole no longer recognizes to tremendous success this system has engendered over the past century. It’s almost as though people see American higher education as a failure rather than our country’s pride. It is easy to blame this on the free-market, neoliberal agenda of the past thirty years or so that has facilitated the corporatist mind-set that has taken over most of our institutions, but some of the responsibility lies in a lack of vigilance on the parts of many involved in higher education, particularly the faculty. We’ve become more interested in protecting our rights than in protecting higher education as a whole, even forgetting that those rights are best protected when the institutions (as they should be, not necessarily as they are) are defended. Our loyalty, too often, has turned to ourselves and away from the responsibilities of our profession.

The AAUP is dedicated to the profession and not just to individual issues or cases, though its most prominent public position, often, is in protection of individuals whose academic freedom has been abrogated. The rest of us need to follow its example, working through the profession to defend and better our system of higher education but also to stand up for the individuals whose cases are examples of attacks on the profession.

If our great college and university system is to survive and thrive, each of us needs to be involved in both protecting it and improving it.

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