Administrators and Academic Freedom

Peter Wood

Is academic freedom only for faculty members? Anyone dipping into the hundreds of books and thousands of articles written on the topic might easily think so. Those who look very, very closely might discover that the doctrine traditionally extends to students as well. The German term Lernfreiheit, freedom to learn, designates a component of academic freedom that today is largely ignored by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), though it was acknowledged in the AAUP’s original 1915 Declaration of Principles.  

But apart from faculty members and students, does anyone else deserve the supposed protections of academic freedom?  

In “Academic Freedom and Discontent” last year, I mentioned some others to whom academic freedom, rightly understood, ought to apply, including invited lecturers, visiting researchers, and speakers who come to campus under the auspices of the university. I also mentioned that college presidents and academic administrators “are widely regarded as possessing this freedom.” An article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, however, calls this notion into question. 

Albert DeSimone Jr., a communications officer at the University of Georgia who describes himself as “a midlevel bureaucrat,” has been publishing articles on his specialization, information technology, and has recently turned to writing about what he sees as the “overapplication of business practices” at the University of Georgia. DeSimone didn’t get into trouble, but he wondered if an administrator like himself could expect to be covered by the principle of academic freedom.  

DeSimone learned to his alarm that the AAUP doesn’t think so, and that other knowledgeable observers such as the Chronicle’s Robin Wilson concur. DeSimone reports that the prevailing view is that academic freedom is “inexorably tied to tenure.”  

Whoa! What point could there be to a concept of academic freedom restricted to a class of individuals who already enjoy the strongest job protections this side of a lifetime appointment to the federal courts? If academic freedom means anything at all, it is the principle of protecting the rights of those who are vulnerable to seek knowledge, publish, and teach. Surely tenured professors rightly enjoy academic freedom, but it is much more to the point that untenured faculty members, including adjuncts and teaching assistants, enjoy that protection too.  

But let’s focus on administrators. It seems self-evident to me that college presidents and provosts enjoy academic freedom. Many of them speak and write frequently on controversial topics. Sometimes they take heat for their opinions. Lee Bollinger’s remarks on the occasion when Columbia University invited President Ahmadinejad to campus caused some consternation, but Bollinger rode it out. In contrast, Larry Summers was forced from the presidency of Harvard for his indiscretion in mentioning at a conference that superior mathematical and scientific ability is more common among men than women.  

The Summers case might be taken as evidence that college administrators operate at their own risk when they express ideas that might offend some segment of public opinion, and that therefore what DeSimone heard was true: no academic freedom for these folks. But I think that’s the wrong lesson. What the Summers case really shows is that the reign of political correctness in American higher education has seriously eroded the principle of academic freedom. Summers was apparently invited out of office by the Harvard Board of Overseers after a vote by the faculty. In an important sense the faculty declared their monopoly on academic freedom and saw no need at all to protect the right of free expression of scholarly ideas by an administrator.  

My own experience as an academic administrator at a research university and then at a small college persuades me that academic freedom is a crucial part of the job. Administrators need to engage substantively with the disciplines, the intellectual trajectory of academic departments, the quality of faculty research and publication, and the debates that shape the curriculum. This is most forcefully true of academic administrators, but it has some bearing as well on almost every university administrator. The athletic coaches that truly grasp the academic mission of their institutions contribute far more than victories on the playing field. No one truly grasps a mission that is locked away as the exclusive province of specialists. I don’t expect that administrators in charge of dorms or parking lots or cafeterias or bond offerings or real estate deals will often find themselves in the position of joining the key intellectual debates on campus. But those who, like Albert DeSimone, who are moved to think these things through and express careful arguments should certainly expect a full measure of academic freedom.  

In 2007, the University of Delaware attracted a great deal of criticism for having instituted in its dorms a mandatory system of ideological indoctrination. The architect of that system, Kathleen Kerr, had presented her vision of “citizenship” training at meetings of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). Kerr had a theory and was an outspoken advocate for a way of building a certain kind of “community” on campus. As it happens, the National Association of Scholars, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) were the leading critics of Kerr’s approach. NAS published a policy statement inspired by the events at Delaware, “Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative.”  

But we have never objected to Kathleen Kerr’s right to express her views and to advocate to the best of her ability the merits of her ideas. Ms. Kerr as an administrator deserves the full protections of academic freedom. To be clear, we think the higher administration of the University of Delaware was irresponsible in adopting Kerr’s approach without consulting with the faculty or presenting Kerr’s radical ideas to the advanced scrutiny of students and their parents. Academic freedom protects the expression of ideas, not the usurpation of authority.  

Faculty members often feel vulnerable to the whims of administrators and are therefore reluctant to concede how important it is that administrators also enjoy the license to argue their ideas without fear of reprisal. From the faculty point of view, administrators already have too much power and little need to fear consequences. That’s a distorted picture, though it’s easy to understand why it exists. In truth, most college administrators hunker down in their assigned responsibilities and rarely join the larger conversation. Our colleges and universities would be better places if they did.  

In calling for more academic freedom for college administrators, I don’t mean to ignore that cumulonimbus cloud looming overhead. I refer to the Supreme Court’s 2006 Garcetti decision (see the AAUP’s report, “Protecting an Independent Faculty Voice: Academic Freedom After Garcetti v. Ceballos”). Garcetti declares that when public employees speak “pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”  This decision originally had nothing to do with higher education. But plenty of people noticed that faculty members at public colleges and universities are in fact “public employees” and might possibly be snared in the Garcetti net. That has now happened. A few weeks ago a judge in federal district court in North Carolina cited Garcetti in a decision declaring that a faculty member at UNC-Wilmington, Mike Adams, could not expect his expressions of opinion to be protected under academic freedom. That case will probably be appealed. But if faculty members at public universities now find that their academic freedom is weakly protected under law, surely the danger to administrators at public universities is even greater 

Being right in principle doesn’t mean we have the law on our side. But that in turn simply means the law must be changed.  

Academic freedom is not just for the guild of tenured professors or even for the faculty at large. It is a constitutive principle of higher education itself. Anyone who is committed to the search for truth through rational inquiry and dispassionate and scrupulous use of evidence deserves that protection. In practical terms, academic freedom is a doctrine rooted in the academic institution par excellence, the university, but it is a doctrine, rightly understood, with a large penumbra. Society benefits when we understand that academic freedom is an indispensable adjunct to intellectual freedom and freedom of conscience.   

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