Perspectives on Academic Freedom

ACTA Report cover, via their siteOne of my favourite blogs is Erin O’Connor’s Critical Mass, a blog dedicated to commentary on the state of academe in general and American higher education in particular. She is invariably interesting and unfailingly provocative, if not always right; and her discussions of academic freedom in all its guises have helped to clarify what I think about such matters. Last week, she blogged about a new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA, where she is a Research Fellow) on Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas. How Trustees Can Advance Intellectual Diversity on Campus (pdf); its abstract:

This report features ten best practices, gleaned from colleges and universities across the country, for promoting the free exchange of ideas in and out of the classroom. Since intellectual diversity is at the core of any true university education, the report commends institutions that have taken action, urges them to keep at it, and exhorts other boards to play their proper leadership role–working, of course, with administrators, faculty, alumni, and donors–in guaranteeing and enriching the intellectual environment on campus.

The ten principles discussed in detail in the report are

  1. Survey the campus climate.
  2. Incorporate intellectual diversity into institutional statements and policies.
  3. Hire administrators who are committed to intellectual diversity.
  4. Incorporate intellectual diversity into the university’s strategic planning.
  5. Vet (and amend, if necessary) student grievance guidelines.
  6. Eliminate speech codes and other policies that restrict freedom of expression.
  7. Encourage visiting scholar programs and guest lecture series.
  8. Utilize orientation programs for discussion of intellectual diversity.
  9. Include statements on course syllabi indicating a commitment to the free exchange of ideas.
  10. Encourage the president to take a stand for intellectual diversity.

Academic Freedom postcardAs usual with her posts, this got me thinking about academic freedom. As with all other rights, it is quite easy to take it for granted right up until someone wants to take it away or infringe it in some way. And as universities are faced with reform, consolidation, alliances and cutbacks, their core mission will increasingly come under threat. So, for example, the here‘s the Guardian has run a campaign called FREE-D, speaking up for free debate in universities. According to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, academic freedom

is the liberty of thought which is claimed by teachers and other elements of the educational community. While the claim to freedom of the mind has a very long history—it was asserted in ancient Athens, for example, by Socrates—academic freedom, as the more specialized concern of the schools, is a rather modern phenomenon, having been first recognized in some of the universities of Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. … Academic freedom is usually described as the right of each individual member of the faculty of an institution to enjoy the freedom to study, to inquire, to speak his mind, to communicate his ideas, and to assert the truth as he sees it. In the United States, the professor’s academic freedom is often defined in terms of full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, in classroom discussion of his subject, and in the exercise extra-murally of his basic rights as a citizen. But in America, and increasingly in other parts of the world, the concept of academic freedom has been broadened to include students as well as teachers. The freedom of the professor to teach is merely one side of the coin of academic freedom, the other side being the freedom of the student to learn.

The fullest modern formal codification of the concept is the 1940 Declaration by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for whom academic freedom is a core concern and who have recently hosted an international conference on the issue; a similar statement from the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) is here, as is one from the International Association of Universities here (building upon the famous principles stipulated at the International Conference convened by UNESCO in 1950 in Nice). In Ireland, it is protected by section 14 of the Universities Act, 1997 (also here); and it is protected constitutionally or legislatively in other EU countries as well. In light of two recent Irish stories about academic freedom, it is timely that the the current issue of the British Journal of Educational Studies is devoted to the issue (see also these papers via SSRN), and three important recent books sketch out very different conceptions of academic freedom.

Book cover of Matthew W Finkin and Robert C Post (just announced as incoming Dean at Yale Law School) For the Common Good. Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale University Press, 2009):

Debates about academic freedom have become increasingly fierce and frequent. … This book offers a concise explanation of the history and meaning of American academic freedom, and it attempts to intervene in contemporary debates by clarifying the fundamental functions and purposes of academic freedom in America … The authors discuss the four primary dimensions of academic freedom—research and publication, teaching, intramural speech, and extramural speech. … The authors strongly argue that academic freedom protects the capacity of faculty to pursue the scholar’s profession according to the standards of that profession.

Book cover of Here‘s an interview with the authors from Inside Higher Ed; here‘s Stanley Fish on typically acerbic form discussing the book; and here‘s Paul Caron’s equally mordant reply to Fish, who had set out his very different conception of academic freedom in detail in his earlier book Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford University Press, 2008):

Stanley Fish argues that … there is but one proper role for the academe in society: to advance bodies of knowledge and to equip students for doing the same. … academic freedom, correctly understood, is the freedom to do the academic job, not the freedom to do any job that comes into the professor’s mind. He insists that a professor’s only obligation is “to present the material in the syllabus and introduce students to state-of-the-art methods of analysis. Not to practice politics, but to study it; not to proselytize for or against religious doctrines, but to describe them; not to affirm or condemn Intelligent Design, but to explain what it is and analyze its appeal.”

Book cover of Here are three wonderful reflections on Fish’s provocative book. One of his targets is David Horowitz‘s Academic Bill of Rights; Fish characterises Horowitz’s concept of “intellectual diversity” as a trojan horse of a dark design. Now Horowitz has written Indoctrination U. The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom (Encounter Books, 2009), which, according to the abstract

… unveils the intellectual corruption of American universities by faculty activists who have turned America’s classrooms into indoctrination centers for their political causes. It … is also a riveting account of the reaction to Horowitz’s campaign by professor unions and academic associations, whose leaderships have been taken over by the political left. …

Finkin and Post’s balanced account of academic freedom is an excellent antidote to polemics such as those by Fish and Horowitz. But all are valuable in what they contribute to a debate which will become increasingly sharp in Ireland as the core functions of the university are increasingly evaluated.