Academic Freedom: Do Religious Universities Shape Up?

By Tatum, Lynn | Conscience, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom: Do Religious Universities Shape Up?


Tatum, Lynn, Conscience


THIS JOURNAL HAS BEEN DESCRIBED as Catholic, pro-choice, and pro-feminist; I, however, teach at Baptist Baylor University, which is not particularly prochoice, would rarely be described as feminist, and is certainly not Catholic. How can I do this without getting fired ... or at least my pay docked? Academic freedom. But while I am assuming that the following article will fit into my university's views of what constitutes academic freedom, do all academics in the United States experience such freedoms--including and especially those at religious universities? The question is particularly pressing at Catholic universities which have, due to the acceptance of Ex corde Ecclesiae in 2001, been in the forefront of recent debates on the issue.

FREEDOM DEFINED

Though professors and academics often talk about academic freedom and its importance, if pressed on the issue, few could actually give a clear definition of what academic freedom is. They just "know it when they see it," or, to be more accurate, "they know it when they don't see it." The closest that one can get to an "official" definition of academic freedom is the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This statement was jointly produced by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), the professional organization of college administrators. Thus it is a statement of principle that was jointly formulated by both faculty (AAUP) and administrators (AACU) and has been endorsed by virtually every major American academic organization. The statement is referenced specifically, and by name, in hundreds of university handbooks, including those of many Catholic universities. However, it is a document that lays out principles for protecting academic freedom, rather than precisely defining academic freedom.

Thus the definition that follows is my own; though I believe it comports well with the 1940 Statement: Academic freedom is the right, indeed the obligation, of professors to teach, read and research on the best that is known in their field without fear of inappropriate, non-academic interference. Or as one acquaintance of mine has described it: "studying and teaching without blinders on."

Academic freedom is not, by the way, the same thing as freedom of speech. It is simultaneously both narrower and broader. Freedom of speech is broader in the sense that it covers all types of speech: artistic, political, social, commercial, etc. Academic freedom, however, covers only academic speech. But in another sense freedom of speech is narrower. Freedom of speech only protects you from actions by the government. In other words, if you call the president of the United States the "handmaid of the anti-Christ," the government can't put you in jail. However, if your church doesn't like what you say, it can kick you out; your spouse can divorce you; and your children can refuse to be seen with you in public. Freedom of speech only protects you against actions by the state. Academic freedom, on the other hand, strives to protect the professor against actions from any improper, non-academic source. Sometimes professors must be protected from their own university administrations and sometimes they must be protected from their own church or denomination.

So what does it mean to say that academic freedom only covers academic speech? It means that a professor does not have a right to say just anything. For example, a professor does not have the academic freedom right to use racial slurs, or to deny the Holocaust, or to physically threaten friends or students. Nor does academic freedom protect "stupid speech." A professor does not have the academic freedom right to assert that the moon is made of "green cheese," or to advocate that the earth is flat, or that the sun goes round the earth. Such ideas are wrong, and have no place in the academy. Academic freedom doesn't mean you can say just anything.

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