Academic freedom, perhaps the Ivory Tower’s most hotly disputed, misunderstood concept, is its most important one. It’s also the right most frequently invoked by university professors as their protection from unjust penalty. Today it occurred in the news and in blogs in a variety of contexts. The Indiana branch of the AAUP declared that censoring President Obama from speaking at Notre Dame’s commencement is a violation of academic freedom. An anonymous blogger bragged, “I’ve always been in trouble throughout my corporate work life for being ‘verbose,’ ‘glib,’ and ‘mouthy.’ Thank goodness for academic freedom where I can now get away with it.” Students and professors at the University of California at Berkeley worried that the university’s recent $500 million deal with British Petroleum will threaten academic freedom. And UC Santa Barbara is getting keyed up for its upcoming forum to discuss the principle.
Everyone talks about it. But what does it really mean? In our article “Freedom Bound,” Peter Wood and I wrote that academic freedom is one of those terms that can be used to mean two opposite things—it’s an antagonym, like “sanction,” which can mean both support for actions or penalty for actions. Or if someone says that it’s “all downhill from here,” he may mean either that the going will be easy or that a bad situation will only get worse.
When it comes to academic freedom, the going isn’t easy. In 1915 the AAUP set the bar by defining academic freedom in its Declaration of Principles, which noted that traditionally the term had two applications: “to the freedom of the teacher and to that of the student, Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit.” With these two freedoms come both right and responsibility. NAS holds to the designations explicated in the 1915 document. This spring, NAS Chairman Steve Balch was honored with the Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award; in his acceptance remarks, he spoke about academic freedom as a public trust rather than a an absolute right bequeathed to professors. Furthermore, he said, academic freedom exists for the sole purpose of allowing the academic community to freely pursue the truth.
But the AAUP has adopted an evolving concept of academic freedom. Their current version of the principle takes the ideal of truth and puts it in scare quotes, turning it into a social construct open to definition and redefinition of each disciplinary community. At our national conference in January, NAS president Peter Wood debated AAUP president Cary Nelson on “The Meaning of Academic Freedom.” Dr. Wood has also written extensively on the role of NAS as the principal defender of genuine academic freedom today.
In light of all this, we welcome a new publication from the John William Pope Center called Academic Freedom: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Tell the Difference. This paper by NAS Peter Shaw Award recipient Donald Downs defines academic freedom and systematically analyzes who may claim it, how tenure and speech codes fit in, and four examples of academic freedom issues. The abstract acknowledges, “Thus, many academic freedom issues exist in an uncertain, gray area. Even so, there are principles that can guide one in judging who has the freedom in any particular circumstance.”
The paper does not try to be a definitive work; it recognizes that academic freedom disputes will continue to trouble American higher education and indeed, many of its issues will remain ambiguous. But it is a serious and thoughtful contribution to this discussion that we recommend to our readers.