Academic Freedom: A Right Worth Protecting

By Galambos, Colleen M. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom: A Right Worth Protecting


Galambos, Colleen M., Journal of Social Work Education


Academic freedom refers to a civil right of academicians to engage in research, teaching, and scholarly production free from control or restraint from their college and university employers (Columbia University Press, 2009). Connected to the right of tenure of office, the philosophical premise of academic freedom is the open investigation of data in search of objective facts and to engage in the inquiry process, apart from personal considerations.

An ideal that originated during the Enlightenment period, academic freedom supported the scientific method of the development of hypotheses and the analysis of data in pursuit of the truth. Before academic freedom could be wholly embraced, the secularization of education was necessary (Columbia University Press, 2009). The concept flourished in the Progressive Era, and the formation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), along with the 1915 adoption of a Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, codified its principles (Calhoun, 2009; Scott, 2009).

These principles provided a model for university governance in which academic freedom was regarded as a moral obligation (AAUP, 1915). Progress was measured by the degree to which there was "complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results" (AAUP, 1915, p. 28). Critical thinking became the primary function of the university. In its purest form, the philosophy of academic freedom emphasizes both freedom in inquiry and freedom of learning in which students actively shape their own course of learning (Calhoun, 2009).

As early as 1902, John Dewey, who became president of AAUP, worried about the effects of money on the pursuit of knowledge, and he warned of the impact of the quest for money and funding on the educational mission of the university (Dewey, 2000). Others shared his concern, with recognition that the more a university is organized as a proprietary entity, the less it can be organized around the principles of academic freedom (Calhoun, 2009). Trustees or donors who demanded loyalty to a certain position, approach, or philosophy were always a threat. The withdrawal of funding or support if such positions were not honored was the presented risk at that time.

Some believed that the social sciences and humanities were particularly vulnerable because they were emerging disciplines at the time. It was recognized that because the social sciences examined the moral and social needs of society, their research was more likely to be both disturbing and transformative, and therefore needed academic freedom protection more than the mathematical and physical sciences. By its very nature, academic freedom was designed to protect academicians perceived to be the most radical, those immersed in social criticism and social reform movements (Scott, 2009).

Indeed, during the McCarthy era the social sciences were particularly under attack. During the 1950s Senator Joe McCarthy led a movement that resulted in the blacklisting and firing of identified dissident intellectuals. During this period faculty members were fired, and others, particularly junior faculty, censored themselves and disallowed political dissent in the classroom (Giroux, 2006).

Even though the McCarthy era was half a century ago, threats to academic freedom continue to emerge. There have been recent examples of external politics affecting university decision making. Attacks on professors and curricular content have occurred as a result of the Patriot Act and corporate fundamentalism (Giroux, 2006; Lukianoff, 2005). Academic leaders are particularly concerned because the attacks on higher education have moved beyond academic freedom and have expanded into the firing of dissenting professors, control of the hiring process, curricular content, and academic pedagogy. Cole (2005) points out that there is a growing effort for universities to monitor classroom discussion, create speech codes, and censor the expression of ideas that are found to be disagreeable. …

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