The Media View of Academic Freedom, a Century Ago


Today marks the 100th anniversary of a famous editorial in the New York Times denouncing academic freedom, one that I quote in my article about the media and academic freedom in the new issue of Academe. Reacting to an AAUP report about the firing of Scott Nearing by the University of Pennsylvania, the New York Times attacked “the Professors’ Union” and the concept of academic freedom:

“Academic freedom,” that is, the inalienable right of every college instructor to make a fool of himself and his college by vealy, intemperate sensational prattle about every subject under heaven, to his classes and to the public, and still keep on the payroll or be reft therefrom only by elaborate process, is cried to all the winds by the organized dons.

This is a wonderful definition of academic freedom. That’s exactly what academic freedom is, when you strip away the lofty rhetoric: It is the right to say foolish things and keep your job, and the requirement of elaborate due process. Protecting the genius who says brilliant things is easy. It’s the fool who tests our commitment to academic freedom and this key principle.

Unfortunately, the New York Times was declaring this in order to denounce academic freedom. And perhaps today, most of the public and the media would take a similar stand: “Parents will not send their sons to, will withdraw their sons from, colleges which are afflicted with one of these rash and sudden utterers of flubdub.”

We need to explain why we need to protect “the utterers of flubdub”: First, that the attack on “flubdub” is often a cover for firing politically controversial professors with no regard for their academic qualifications. Second, that “flubdub” is in the eye of the beholder, and if you allow “flubdub” (or today’s equivalents) to justify dismissal, it can easily be turned against those whose views you like. Third, banning “flubdub” has a slippery slope, because it makes professors afraid to speak out honestly for fear of punishment.

One point I make in my Academe article is that social media don’t fundamentally change the principles of academic freedom, but they do make it easier to professors to write something deemed foolish and have the news about it spread widely. And that means we’re likely to see more professors suspended and fired for their utterances, whether it’s David Guth at the University of Kansas, Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, or the latest case, Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College.

Social media only change academic freedom if you endorse the position of the New York Times a century ago that foolish comments provide a good reason to fire professors. We need to defend academic freedom, and we need to defend (and encourage) the right of professors to participate in all aspects of communicating ideas to the public.

4 thoughts on “The Media View of Academic Freedom, a Century Ago

  1. “Academic freedom” seems to be a little slippery. While every pronouncement of he principles of academic freedom appears to support Prof. Salaita’s right to comment on Israel/Palestine issues, I am not sure that some of the pronouncements of the principles of academic freedom over the years do protect Prof. Hawkins at Wheaton College. I think of the 1940 AAUP statement, for example, which includes the following:

    “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

    I’m no expert here, but it seems to me that a political scientist pronouncing on a theological issue is drifting into “controversial matter which has no relation to their subject”, and may also bump up against the “stated in writing” religious or other aims of Wheaton College. I think we can agree that Wheaton College treated Prof. Hawkins badly, even bizarrely, but I am less confident in appealing to a concept of academic freedom to protect her right to offer such “flubdub” in her role as a faculty member. That said, I’d be happy to see her exonerated, whether through a concept of academic freedom or some other principle.

    • I think the AAUP principles definitely cover Hawkins for two reasons. First, Wheaton’s actions violate the “clearly stated” requirement, since nothing in their Statement of Faith prohibits opinions about the beliefs of other faiths. Second, the AAUP’s 1970 Interpretive Comments amended and completely reversed this section of the 1940 Statement, declaring that “Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 ‘Statement,’ and we do not now endorse such a departure.” But this is another reason why we need to protect “flubdub”: because those who express it, like Hawkins, are sometimes correct.

      • Thanks for your reply, John, though the “clearly stated” requirement is independent of “academic freedom,” as far as I can tell. I cannot offer an opinion on whether Hawkins’s statement was correct or not, and cannot for precisely the reason that she should probably have offered at best a qualified opinion: neither Hawkins nor I are theologians. Anyway, we share the conviction that punishing her for such a statement is outrageous.

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