Finding Academic Freedom

Peter Wood

The National Association of Scholars is pleased to offer “Charting Academic Freedom: 102 Years of Debate.”  This is our chart of ten major statements on academic freedom, broken down into 25 categories. It enables the reader at a glance to see who wrote the statement and why; who endorsed it; what key arguments it presents; and where it is meant to apply. We have published Scrollable and Printable versions.

We hope it will be helpful not only to scholars interested in how the debate has shifted in the 100+  years following the AAUP’s foundational 1915 Statement of Principles, but to legislators, jurists, all participants in the current debates, and members of the general public. Even those of us who follow these debates closely can struggle at times to recall the many different reasons that have been put forward for protecting academic freedom—or for limiting those protections. Our chart, of course, does not take the place of careful reading of the original statements. It is merely a handy way to keep in mind some key distinctions. We intend it as a public service.

Its value lies in part in the highlighting of elements that are missing from some well-known and influential statements. For example, the AAUP’s 1915 Statement of Principles grounded academic freedom in the pursuit of truth, but the AAUP’s even more influential 1940 statement omitted the pursuit of truth, as did seven of the other nine statements analyzed in the chart.

Only four of the ten statements call for sanctions against those who willfully violate the principles of academic freedom. Eight of the ten statements make no mention of tenure for faculty members—a surprising absence in view of how often tenure comes into the public discussion of academic freedom.

We leave to the reader the discovery of other salient patterns and subtle differences.

We release “Charting Academic Freedom: 102 Years of Debate” knowing that it is not complete. We have in hand three other documents that could be added:  The John William Pope Center’s 2016 “Academic Freedom in the Age of Political Correctness;” the University of Chicago’s 2017 “Report of the Committee on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct;” and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act.”  Doubtless there are still others we have not found. Our intention is to release a “2.0 version” of the chart that includes such additional items as seem broadly comparable. We also trust that readers will point out to us any errors that have crept into this first version of the chart so that we may correct them.

A word or two on our principles of selection thus far. Debates about academic freedom in the United States have continued for over the years. OCLC’s WorldCat lists nearly 100,000 volumes written on the topic. Some of these have attained the status of classics. Frequently these books include extensive and valuable commentary on some of the statements we have analyzed, but we have focused on the statements themselves, not on the scholarly literature surrounding them. Our criteria for including a statement on the chart are:

  1. The statement was originally presented as speaking with institutional authority. Thus we exclude statements that represent primarily an individual author’s views.
  2. The statement stands as an attempt to present a comprehensive view of the topic. Thus we exclude supplementary statements from the AAUP, such as its 1992 statement, “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes.” 
  3. The statement is intended to supply or has generally been understood as an articulation of principles that apply to all of higher education. Thus we exclude the statements of individual colleges on academic freedom, except in those cases such as the Kalven Report, the Woodward Report, and the Stone Report, where the university’s statement has been embraced as a model by many institutions.

Even within these boundaries, it seems likely that we have overlooked some important statements, and it might be best to add a fourth criterion:

        4. The statement has had some lasting historical significance. It is, of course, too soon to tell which of the statements issued in the last several years will pass that test. For recent declarations on academic freedom, we err on the side of inclusion.

Statements on academic freedom are proliferating at a rate far above that of the last century. From 1915 to 2014, we found five. In the last two and a half years, there have been five more we included on the chart and at least three others we have not yet added. This sudden increase in statements on academic freedom clearly is a reflex of new worries and concerns. We hope that our chart will be of some value to those who are wrestling with these issues.

View a scrollable version of the report here.

View a printable version of the report here.


Image: Lecture Lecture by Alan Levine // CC0

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