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.