The Future of Academic Freedom

centennial image

The author, AAUP Vice President Henry Reichman, with AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum and AAUP-CBC chair Howard Bunsis (left to right) at last summer’s centennial reception.

Culminating AAUP’s centennial year, the November-December issue of Academe looks forward to the future.  My lead article asks, “Does Academic Freedom Have a Future?”  I argue that AAUP can look back with pride on its efforts to support academic freedom.  Thanks to our Association, today “even the enemies of academic freedom are often compelled to disguise their assaults on it by employing the language of academic freedom itself.”

But academic freedom has always been “contested and vulnerable.”  As we look back on a century of progress and accomplishment, it is difficult not to recognize that, in key respects, our situation is painfully reminiscent of that faced by our founders. In 1915, a mere handful of prominent professors at elite institutions held appointments carrying indefinite tenure.  Today most colleges and universities provide tenure protections, but for an ever-shrinking segment of the faculty. At present, only about a fourth of all those who teach in higher education are included in the tenure system. If, as the AAUP has argued, the tenure system provides the most reliable protection for academic freedom, then academic freedom today may be as endangered as it has been at almost any moment since the AAUP’s inception.

The AAUP was created in the context of the expanding economic and social inequality and concentration of corporate power associated with the Gilded Age. Current conditions are eerily similar. Economic inequality has reached a level not seen since the 1920s or earlier.  John Dewey and his colleagues might have found much in our current system of higher education that is new and improved, but they would surely recognize the profound dangers posed by corporatization.

In its first hundred years, the AAUP became justly renowned for its defense of individual faculty members whose academic freedom was violated, an activity that we are committed to continue and, where feasible, expand. But as legal scholar Geoffrey Stone points out in a recent essay, “The real threat to academic freedom comes not from the isolated incident that arises out of a highly particularized dispute, but from efforts to impose a pall of orthodoxy that would broadly silence all dissent.”

My article examines from whence today such broader threats might arise and finds them in “the expanding and corrupting influence of money;” in controversies about race, Israel-Palestine relations, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or terrorism that may roil campus conversations in ways that lead to efforts that chill freedom; in the rapidly expanding use of social media that has seemingly intensified so many disputes; in the mounting invocation of “hostile learning environments,” which may be defined not just by disrespect or abuse but by the mere creation of discomfort; and in the use of overly broad harassment policies, in particular the apparent misuse of Title IX, to chill expression.

The article concludes with a call to action: “too many faculty members take the AAUP and, more important, the very existence of academic freedom for granted. Too often they regard academic freedom more as an inviolable inheritance from the past than as an imperiled gain that must always be won anew. . . .  US institutions of higher learning desperately need a renewed commitment from faculty, students, and community allies to reclaim the possibilities threatened by corporatization.”

In short, the answer to the question posed by the title of my essay is quite simple: “It is up to us.”

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.

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