Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues

By Hamilton, Neil | Academe, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues


Hamilton, Neil, Academe


Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues Richard T. De George. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1997, 231 pp., $25.95

MANY FACULTY MEMBERS HAVE AN extremely limited understanding of academic freedom, its rights and correlative duties, and its relationship to tenure and shared governance. They do not seem aware of the continuing struggles for the principles of academic freedom and tenure, nor are they able to make a reasoned defense of the principles to educate an increasingly skeptical public. For example, a 1987 Carnegie Foundation survey asked professors, "Academic freedom is important to the profession. What does it mean in your work?" The responses indicated a general conception of the rights and duties associated with academic freedom that is so vague and uncertain that it lacks the power to guide conduct or motivate commitment.

This is not surprising, since graduate students and professors are socialized into a discipline, not into the academic profession, and, with few exceptions, neither students nor new faculty are offered courses or formal training in the ethics of the profession. Many faculty members apparently believe that novitiates will learn about professional values, ethical standards, and academic traditions through informant interaction with and informal instruction by senior faculty. This education, it is assumed, occurs through "osmosis-like-diffusion," which, if it ever worked, has broken down as the professoriate has dramatically increased in numbers over the past forty years.l

Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues is an excellent resource to help imbue in future members of the profession a sense of the academic culture that cuts across disciplinary lines. University of Kansas professor Richard T. De George includes useful chapters on the justification for academic freedom and tenure and on related ethical issues. Four chapters of text are followed by four AAUP statements and four reprinted thoughtful essays on academic freedom and tenure by Ralph Fuchs, Robert McGee and Walter Block, Richard Rorty, and John Searle.

The book starts with a discussion on tenure, but a teacher using the book for instruction may wish to assign first the chapters on academic freedom. As De George recognizes, academic tenure is a corollary of academic freedom. From a pedagogical standpoint, the progression of topics would include an understanding, first, of the liberal intellectual system in which knowledge reflects an evolving critical consensus of a decentralized community that adheres to the principle that all truth claims must be capable of being checked regardless of the source of the claim; second, a tradition of academic freedom in which faculty members enjoy exceptional vocational freedom of speech, teaching, research, and extramural utterances as individuals, and adhere to standards of professional competence, ethical conduct, and self-regulation through peer review as members of a collegial body; and, third, a system of peer review that is the linchpin for academic freedom and tenure. …

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