Academic Freedom and the Obligation to Earn It

By Weidner, Donald J. | Journal of Law and Education, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and the Obligation to Earn It


Weidner, Donald J., Journal of Law and Education


I. INTRODUCTION

The typical faculty justification for academic freedom is utilitarian, and suggests a variant of the "trickle-down" economics not otherwise in fashion on most campuses. If faculty are left to their own curricular, pedagogic and scholarly devices, it is suggested, everyone-students, faculty, staff and indeed all of society-will be better off because of the ideas, energies and freedoms that result. Like many businesses, many faculty want more subsidy and less regulation. A related notion is that faculty votes should determine major policy decisions within the university, including decisions about faculty appointments, retention, discipline and tenure.

Academic freedom is not defined nearly as much as it is discussed. Although many assume that academic freedom is based in law, no one is quite sure what that law is. Finally, the suggestion is rarely made in polite academic conversation that academic freedom resides, not in individual faculty members, but in the central administration.

Interest in academic freedom, and in tenure, which to me is a separate question, tends to be episodic. The McCarthy era, for example, saw an outpouring of writing on academic freedom, much of it with an emphasis on the need to protect free expression on campus.1 Decades later, books such as Profscam2 both reflected and encouraged a movement to hold the professoriate more accountable. That movement is very much alive, although with varying emphasis and intensity around the country.

Increased demands for institutional accountability, and increased competitiveness among academic institutions combine to put today's deans under pressure to increase and enforce expectations for faculty. We are managers of institutions populated by, and most of us have come up through the ranks of, faculty who believe they should be treated as something more than "mere" employees. As we attempt to hold faculty accountable to the interests of the university and of the public, claims will be made that we are violating academic freedom. If we fail to be accountable, we will lose the academic freedom we have enjoyed.

A. European Roots and the American Association of University Professors

All agree that notions of academic freedom in the United States find roots in European universities. Indeed, the only major disagreement on this point seems to concern whether European universities protected academic freedom despite their religious roots or because of them.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many American professors were attracted by their understanding of academic freedom in German universities.3 The pathbreaking American expression of academic freedom was the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure4 (Declaration) for the newly-founded American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The 1915 Declaration did not directly define academic freedom,5 but Arthur O. Lovejoy, a celebrated philosopher and founder of the AAUP, offered what became a well-known definition:

Academic freedom is the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher institutions of learning to investigate and discuss the problems of his science and to express his conclusions, whether through publication or the instruction of students, without interference from political or ecclesiastical authority, or from the administrative officials of the institution in which he is employed, unless his methods are found by qualified bodies of his own profession to be clearly incompetent or contrary to professional ethics.6

This definition was said to reflect "the classical Lehrfreiheit of the continental academicians."7

B. The Principle of Neutrality

The faculty who drafted the Declaration thought the university as an entity should be a nonpartisan community detached from the political struggles of the outside world. "In their view, while individual professors could express their opinions freely on controversial subjects, academic institutions should observe a strict neutrality toward all political, economic and social issues. …

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