Students, Professors, and Academic Freedom

Academic freedom image - raised hands

I would like to begin by thanking Ken Marcus for giving my colleague Avi Snyder and me the opportunity to guest-post for the Brandeis Center.

Avi and I work for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a Washington, DC-based non-profit dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability in higher education.

Earlier this year, ACTA published Free to Teach, Free to Learn: Understanding and Maintaining Academic Freedom in Higher Education. Free to Teach integrates classic texts in the history of academic freedom—some stretching back nearly 100 years—with commentary from scholars and advocates who work on academic freedom issues. It also incorporates a series of case studies that examine particular controversies which posed challenges to advocates of academic freedom. In this way, Free to Teach aims to offer broad-based guidance to trustees, administrators, and the public on key issues related to academic freedom.

We published this new guide because we believe that academic freedom has come to be gravely misunderstood. As former Harvard president Derek Bok has pointed out, the main threat to academic freedom today comes not from without, but from within, the university. The privileges of the faculty, created to protect academic freedom, have come to threaten it for everyone else.

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors adopted a “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” The “1915 Declaration,” which has become the guiding document for the American understanding of academic freedom, called on the AAUP to establish two professional committees: one would evaluate faculty rights and the other, faculty responsibilities.

In 1993, Edward Shils of the University of Chicago described the results:

Sidney Hook once told me of an observation made by John Dewey in his last years. Dewey…remarked wryly that, when the American Association of University Professors was formed in 1916, a committee A and a committee B were established. One was intended to deal with academic freedom and tenure and the other with academic obligation. The activities of the committee on academic freedom and tenure made up most of the agenda of activities of the Association; the committee on academic obligations had never once met, according to Dewey’s recollection.

You can read Shils’s reflections on this state in ACTA’s guide.

Committee B did eventually meet, but aside from a couple of periods of intermittent activity it has been largely moribund.

The story of the two committees epitomizes the challenge facing academic freedom today. As professor Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin points out in Free to Teach, Free to Learn, American professors were originally granted special privileges in order to advance the common good. These privileges include lifetime tenure and, in many cases, the right to control hiring of new faculty in the department. But professors frequently have not used those privileges to advance human knowledge, protect the free exchange of ideas, or pass on their learning to their students. They often used it to protect their own interests and to ensure that only a narrow range of political, social, or religious ideas would be permitted within their departments.

In this Chronicle of Higher Education piece, Gary A. Olson recounts abuses of academic freedom. One professor claimed that academic freedom would protect her if she engaged in slander. Another, a senior professor, missed numerous classes. When confronted about her absenteeism—and the possibility that it might cost her job—not only did she insist that academic freedom gave her the right to skip her classes, but she honestly seemed to believe it.

ACTA’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn reports on a 2005 documentary film called Columbia Unbecoming that rocked the Columbia University campus and alumni community. The film recorded interviews with fourteen Jewish students and recent graduates who testified that they had experienced an atmosphere of intimidation and indoctrination in the university’s Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures. They said that professors had shouted at students, berated them, and in other ways violated students’ rights to a free, respectful classroom atmosphere.

In the wake of the controversy, Columbia president Lee Bollinger put in place a new policy to protect students’ rights. The university created three new grounds for students to express grievances against professors who misuse their classroom authority when speaking of political or social issues.

Campus incidents like this are far too common. Rather than use the great privilege that academic freedom affords them in order to push the boundaries of their disciplines, ask difficult questions, and ensure a vigorous debate, many academics behave unprofessionally or worse—and then retreat to the cover of “academic freedom” when they are challenged. In reality, of course, those professors are violating academic freedom—specifically, the academic freedom of their students.

Cases like these demonstrate how important it is for university trustees, presidents and other administrators, and faculty to understand what academic freedom really means, how closely it is tied to professional standards, and how carefully it must be balanced against the rights of students to an education marked by intellectual liberty.

Over the next several weeks, my colleague and I will post about several issues covered in Free to Teach, Free to Learn, including violations of academic freedom in the classroom, issues related to controversial speakers, and issues related to freedom of conscience. We will also offer some suggestions about steps that trustees, alumni, and the public can take to protect real academic freedom on campus. I hope you will all come along for the ride—and I look forward to reading your comments!



Students, Professors, and Academic Freedom — 1 Comment

  1. We Jews must never take for granted the freedom and security America has offered us … After all, many other countries have welcomed us and then we were demoniaed, expelled and slaughtered in those lands. Vigilance should rule the day in our community!!!


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