What Academic Freedom is NOT

1) Academic freedom is not to be compromised in collective bargaining agreements and faculty handbooks that perfunctorily affirm an institutional commitment to defend academic freedom, yet declare the faculty has a responsibility to be civil, accurate and professional in all matters. Conditionality in academic freedom statements is a ruse to sanction those who deviate from the prevailing narrative on a host of issues.

2) Academic freedom is not unambiguously codified in statute law or constitutional law despite Sweezy v New Hampshire, Keyishian v Board of Regents, and the academic escape clause and Souter dissent in Garcetti v Ceballos. In Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution, Stanley Fish contrasts the United States with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Germany that have enshrined academic freedom in basic law as a statutory right. In the United States, its status is more tenuous, and the American Association of University Professors is its chief advocate that sustains its presence across the academy.

3) Academic freedom is not an iron-clad principle that applies to most tenured faculty. Aside from faux financial exigencies, and program elimination as evidenced with censured National Louis University, tenured faculty self-censorship is an unreported threat to academic freedom. I refer to the neo-probationary status of tenured associate professors, the most common rank among those holding a tenure line. Many seek promotion to professor, and are reluctant to antagonize a provost, dean and chair. Tenured associate professor self-censorship disrupts academic freedom on many campuses, and deters intellectual and pedagogical risk taking vital to progressive education. I would like to see more research and panel presentations on this issue.

4) Academic freedom is not protected during state-sponsored murder, the underlying principle of war. While the American empire rarely has peace, there are periods of some diminution of aggressive state nationalism. I have written as a revisionist historian on this blog, how the A.A.U.P. in its formative years, under the impetus of co-founder Arthur Oncken Lovejoy during World War I, persecuted and targeted antiwar faculty including many on the basis of national origin. Especially during our celebratory centennial, “heroes” such as Professor Lovejoy have provided a teachable moment resulting from their oppressive tactics to silence antiwar dissent during The Great War. The diminution of academic freedom during war is striking with perfervid demand for militant nationalism and the demonization of the latest non-white enemy or “terrorist.” The primary threat to America during its current crusading wars with drone attacks, HELLFIRE missiles, black sites and SEAL Team ruthless killings, is the enemy within: the liberal-conservative axis that seeks to govern speech and set limits on academia’s range of protest.

5) Academic freedom is not viable as post-secondary institutions increasingly construe themselves as businesses beholden to donours, legislators and the corporate world domination of many boards of trustees. This is affirmed by the Steven Salaita suspension and summary dismissal. The corporate university, as an agent of capital, casts itself as a marketer of education that covets a growing income stream from ever rising student tuition and donours. The latter derives a benefit in addition to tax deductions for their largesse: control and influence. Negative publicity emanating from a professor’s controversial teaching, or extramural utterances threatens the institution’s marketing prowess, the inflated salaries of administrators, and ambitious expansion plans. The latter frequently invade surrounding communities, displace vulnerable populations and triumphantly proclaim themselves on websites as “the u on the move.” The only “movers” are displaced residents either through the university wrecking ball and gentrification.

6) Academic freedom is not sustainable without tenure and shared governance. These are core principles of the A.A.U.P. universe and faculties must be willing to demand it. Understand! The A.A.U.P. cannot have a universal presence. It’s folks on campus who must lead the struggle with strikes, civil disobedience, no-confidence votes, office occupations, and demands that academic freedom is safeguarded as an essential component of the institution’s mission. The nature of bureaucracy is power maximizing. While there are many excellent administrators who advocate for and recognize the essentiality of teaching and improving instruction, as a class, as a subset, their role is not to empower faculty but to control and dominate decision making. Many institutions are committed to power sharing–which is the essence of shared governance–but there is an inevitable class struggle between the professoriate and administrators that requires resolve and persistence. Without academic freedom, highly trained, dedicated professors whose chosen careers are to educate the emerging generation, will fail in their mission of instilling critical-thinking skills.

7) Academic freedom is not a gratuitous entitlement for privileged faculty but essential in achieving societal progressivity. Those with academic freedom are more likely to produce higher quality research and effective teaching that benefits society, if not always the ruling elites. I frequently state in class: “If I am not free, you aren’t free! For me to do my job, I must speak freely and teach outside the lines to help you expand your frame of knowledge and question your world.” There may not be a” truth, however earnest the search, but the attempt to find it must be unfettered. Society spends billions of dollars on higher education, and the investment is more likely to reap dividends if revisionism, and not orthodoxy, prevails.

8) Academic freedom is not intended to serve the interests of only activist faculty. Some aver that the vast majority do not need tenure to sustain academic freedom, because they are ideologically centrist or liberal and less assertive in their professional demeanor. They miss the point. It is a matter of choice: some educators perform under the radar and teach between the lines. Some evolve over time and become more engaged in controversial research, campus politics and organizing. The silent majority of academic moderates benefits as much from academic freedom as do movement-oriented academicians. The former need the security that academic freedom provides when that day arrives, and for many it will, when they support unionization, a campus protest and defend a colleague under ideological assault.

9) Academic freedom is not invoked by those who claim an American exceptionalism. In fact, it is deemed a threat to American-imperial hauteur. Not since the brutal purges of McCarthyism have we experienced a comparable period of challenges to academic freedom. Perhaps 1,000 post-secondary and secondary-school educators were purged during the reign of ideological terrorism in the 1950s. Today tens of thousands of college and university educators cannot teach or publish freely. The vast majority of educators are at-will labourers with some 70-75% off the tenure stream. The quality of instruction and student outcomes in the United States are inversely proportional to the outsourcing of teaching to non-tenured full time “term” appointments, and part-time faculty. This is a purposeful effort to control educational outcomes in the United States.

10) Academic freedom is not free.

5 thoughts on “What Academic Freedom is NOT

  1. Lovejoy’s AAUP wartime errors are mirrored in the AAUP leadership of this century as this centennial has been marked by its own sad tradition of suppressed speech against its “dissident” membership ranks.

    So, in honor of the centennial, here are the links that got one member of the AAUP banned by the AAUP hierarchy from an official Association listserv less than a decade ago:

    From http://www.unionreports.gov go to Union Search at http://kcerds.dol-esa.gov/query/getOrgQry.do and choose the Abbreviations drop-down menu for AAUP.

    The financial form published there of the finances of the organization reportedly did not match the presentation by the AAUP hierarchy at the Annual Meeting — so the AAUP member who posted the link was denied academic freedom and freedom of speech as punishment for revealing public information from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Website.

    The important point about Lovejoy’s legacy is his dogged criss-crossing of the country defending academic freedom cases onsite in universities — the fore-runner and founder of today’s Committee A investigations — which some might say helps to outweigh his World War I errors.

    Some of us in AAUP are still hunting for “counter-balances” for the errors of the contemporary AAUP leadership, many of whom were on Council or in officer positions when this type of censorship was a common occurrence in AAUP — yet who said and did nothing to oppose it. As the saying goes: Qui tacet consentire. Those who are silent, consent.

    The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!

  2. As is apparent, this essay assumes that academic freedom is a privilege associated with tenure. Nowhere in this essay are non-tenure faculty (the new faculty majority) even mentioned, nor are untenured assistant professors. And that is because far too many tenure faculty refuse to acknowledge the existence of nontenure faculty in the academy or the importance of untenured assistant professors, must less their right to academic freedom.

    Instead, this essay “bleeds” for poor tenured associates who are afraid to speak their minds for fear of losing a PROMOTION to full professor. Meanwhile untenured assistant professors and non-tenure professors risk LOSING THEIR JOBS should they speak their minds in a way that offends those in power.

    From this viewpoint, freedom of speech is a “right” only for a tiny percentage of the American population. Every other segment of the workforce works without the guarantee of job for life, and apparently, it is perfectly acceptable to silence or censure these lesser mortals at will.

    If you don’t agree with the above paragraph, then the whole point is protecting freedom of speech in the workplace, not protecting tenure entitlements.

  3. I have written quite a bit about non-tenured faculty and adjuncts on this blog and elsewhere. I have testified before the National Labor Relations Board in defence of adjunct faculty on my campus exercising the right to unionise. Our university chapter, that I am president of, has strongly endorsed adjunct faculty rights on campus. You might also wish to consult the Iymen Chehade case at Columbia College Chicago to see the role that AAUP Illinois played in the restoration of his section on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

    Your point, however, is accurate as far as it goes. I do think, however, if we ignore the challenges to academic freedom for those who are probationary or even tenured, then the capacity of the professoriate to speak truth to power and engage in collective action will be even more attenuated. We need to convince tenured/tenure-track faculty, such as those at the associate rank or those on probationary status, that academic freedom is a perishable commodity.

    The result might galvanise greater awareness among the more privileged that contingent faculty exploitation is not an isolated issue. That even those with a tenure line need to ally themselves with those off the tenure stream and pursue the “One Faculty” concept.

  4. If i may add. I don’t think Denise read my blog post. She states:

    It is apparent, this essay assumes that academic freedom is a privilege associated with tenure. Nowhere in this essay are non-tenure faculty (the new faculty majority) even mentioned, nor are untenured assistant professors. And that is because far too many tenure faculty refuse to acknowledge the existence of nontenure faculty in the academy or the importance of untenured assistant professors, must less their right to academic freedom.

    I wrote in paragraph nine (9)

    9) Academic freedom is not invoked by those who claim an American exceptionalism. In fact, it is deemed a threat to American-imperial hauteur. Not since the brutal purges of McCarthyism have we experienced a comparable period of challenges to academic freedom. Perhaps 1,000 post-secondary and secondary-school educators were purged during the reign of ideological terrorism in the 1950s. Today tens of thousands of college and university educators cannot teach or publish freely. The vast majority of educators are at-will labourers with some 70-75% off the tenure stream. The quality of instruction and student outcomes in the United States are inversely proportional to the outsourcing of teaching to non-tenured full time “term” appointments, and part-time faculty. This is a purposeful effort to control educational outcomes in the United States.

  5. Pingback: It’s Been Much Too Long And Now There Are Much Too Many Links | Gerry Canavan

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.