Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Other Side of Academic Freedom Is Academic Responsibility

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Other Side of Academic Freedom Is Academic Responsibility

Article excerpt


This article argues that academic freedom is not absolute, but is delimited by legal, bargained and social factors. Further, it is argued that academic freedom implies certain obligations on university faculty, and in doing so recognizes the legitimate role of political correctness in the modern university, Given these limitations, the article considers some of the appropriate limits to political correctness, and argues that what are needed are the proper place and procedure to debate the balance between academic privilege and responsibility.

The current series of articles was based upon a symposium at a recent Canadian Psychological Association on political correctness in academia. Political correctness has become a charged focus of discussion in modern universities, and is certainly worthy of scrutiny. The term itself has become politicized, in that the juxtaposition of two unrelated terms: "political" and "correct", has lead to of what can (and should) be deemed as "in accordance with a good standard of taste" (Concise Oxford English Dictionary) or correct, as modified by a political agenda (see also Kramer, 1994; Neufeldt, 1996; Stark, this issue). In this article, I will take the term to refer to "the imposition of politics (i.e., the taking of sides on issues) onto what is deemed correct or proper behaviour". In this regard, political correctness does not apply only in the context of academia, although it is to this context that this article will focus its attention.

Examining the issue of political correctness in a university context inevitably leads to a review of what is purported to be affected by such correctness; in this case, academic freedom. It has been reasonably argued that academic freedom is one of the major achievements of the modern university, and that due to academic freedom faculty members are able to investigate various ecclesiastical, political or moral issues that might otherwise go unstudied for the fear of retribution that might accrue to the investigators. It has been further argued that academic freedom has been the major vehicle for advancing knowledge, particularly in politically or morally sensitive areas. Similarly, it has been argued that efforts to constrain the work of university faculty is dangerous, because any such efforts potentially undermine academic freedom. In this regard, such developments as the promotion of nonsexist language or the need to create learning atmospheres free from harassment -- generally referred to as the development of "political correctness" -- has been suggested as a potential threat to academic freedom.

In this article I will argue that although academic freedom is an important attribute of the research and investigatory aspects of the functioning of contemporary academics, such freedom is not absolute, and that there are a number of legislated and bargained limits to this freedom(f.1). If sustained, the implication of such limits is that there is a legitimate role for political correctness in many aspects of the academy's functioning.

The nature of academic freedom

The exact nature of academic freedom is basic to any inquiry of political correctness and its justification. An early and often-cited definition is that academic freedom is the:

freedom of the teacher or research worker in higher institutions of learning to investigate and discuss the problems of his science and to express his conclusions, whether through publication or in the instruction of students, without interference from political or ecclesiastical authorities, or from the administrative officials of the institution in which he is employed, unless his methods are found by qualified bodies of is profession to be clearly incompetent or contrary to professional ethics. (Lovejoy, 1930).

In a 1954 address to the American Civil Liberties Association, Albert Einstein stated that "By academic freedom I understand the right to search for the truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. …

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