An Imperfect Defender of Academic Freedom

By Bernstein, Carol | Black Issues in Higher Education, July 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

An Imperfect Defender of Academic Freedom


Bernstein, Carol, Black Issues in Higher Education


An Imperfect Defender of Academic Freedom

The high quality of scholarly activity -- including scientific discovery in the United States -- relies on the considerable academic freedom enjoyed here. Academic freedom allows scholars to follow their independent judgment on what research avenues to pursue, and to report results without undue concern about political consequences.

Academic freedom depends to a considerable extent on the practice of tenure. Tenure allows scholars to disagree with their peers and to follow unconventional research paths without putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.

The scholarly activity that has flourished in the United States is due in large part to the American Association of University Professors' vigorous advocacy of academic freedom and tenure.

Unionization, Bureaucratization, and the AAUP: A Professional Professoriate thoroughly documents the inception and history of the association from 1914 to the late 1990s, with nearly 1,000 explanatory footnotes and about 1,000 references in its bibliography. A major and recurrent theme of the book is the inherent difficulties the association faced in trying to protect professionalism within the academic bureaucracy -- a difficulty that physicians are now facing, with much of physician decision-making being controlled by HMO bureaucracy.

This book points out that academic freedom and tenure recognize the professionalism of faculty members who are authorities in their areas of study.

But oh, the bureaucracy of a higher education institution.

Faculty members are unlike other professionals such as lawyers and physicians, who can operate outside a bureaucratic structure. As stated by the author, Philo A. Hutcheson, the basic idea of professionalism is that professionals have autonomy, expertise and a lack of specified work rules. However, the administrative structure in which professors are embedded invites conflict, since the essence of bureaucratic administration is set up to control employee activity and such control conflicts with autonomy.

As chronicled in the book, the early approach of the association was to invite membership into the organization only upon proof of excellent, long-term scholarly credentials. Prospective members had to apply, and only those with 10 years or more at an academic institution were accepted. This restriction on membership emphasized the prestige of the association.

Their prestigious image was repeatedly used to influence decisions made by institutional bureaucracies, governing boards, legislators and courts. The association continued to depend on an image of prestige even when it expanded to include all tenure track, non-tenure track, part-time and adjunct faculty who applied for membership. This influence and prestige was significant in establishing and institutionalizing academic freedom, tenure and other important aspects of higher education, and thereby the vitality of scholarship in the United States. …

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