… “Academic freedom now confronts challenges powerful enough to ask not what its future will be,” writes Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, in No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (2010), “but whether it will have a future at all.
Nelson’s warning is timely. But his analysis is incomplete. Focusing on how political, corporate, and administrative intrusions threaten academic freedom, Nelson casts professors as victims of powerful anti-intellectual forces. But that’s not the whole story. And if academic freedom is to be saved, the whole story must be told.
… Academic freedom belongs to the public — it is not the property of academics. Professors must explain why academic freedom is vital to our democracy — and prove that they deserve it.
Beset by budget shortfalls, rising tuition, poor learning outcomes, and scandal, our colleges and universities are under more scrutiny than ever. Demands for accountability have never been louder. Failure to meet those demands has never had a higher price tag.
Professors must decide how much academic freedom is worth to them. Is it worth policing themselves — consistently, consequentially, and transparently? If so, academic freedom might just have a future after all.
Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black are research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.