Academic Freedom and the Research University1

By Atkinson, Richard C. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and the Research University1


Atkinson, Richard C., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


WHEN WE IMAGINE creating the modern research university de novo, the first cornerstone to be laid is that of academic freedom. The American idea of academic freedom originated in Europe; it was faculty trained in European universities who brought with them the concept to American universities. About half of the members of the 1915 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Committee that first articulated a statement of academic freedom in the United States were graduates of German universities.

Academic freedom was critical in enabling faculty first to free themselves from sectarian, religious domination and later to resist secular, political control. The modern research university could not have emerged absent this commitment to academic freedom. However, I believe that the principles upon which academic freedom is founded must be elaborated and modified in ways that are relevant to the responsibilities and circumstances of today's universities.

In spring of 2003 I proposed that the University of California adopt a new statement on academic freedom. The policy was approved by the Assembly of the Academic Senate on 30 July 2003 by a vote of forty-five to three, and became official university policy thereafter. This new policy is both traditional and innovative. It respects tradition in that it affirms the three components of academic freedom-freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression and publication. It breaks new ground in that it explicitly recognizes the means of maintaining those freedoms. The policy embraces the concept of the faculty as members of a profession with distinctive competencies and responsibilities; this concept is essential for the university to carry out its fundamental mission and essential to our policy on academic freedom.

COURSE ON PALESTINIAN POETICS

The new policy emerged from debates sparked by a recent and heated controversy over a course on Palestinian literature. In spring 2003, a graduate student instructor at the Berkeley campus posted a description of his freshman composition course on the English department's Web site. The title of his course was "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." The course description explained that students would examine how Palestinians created literature "under the brutal weight of the Israeli occupation." The instructor's description made it clear that he was a staunch supporter of Palestinians. His course description ended with the suggestion that "conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections" of the course.

On its face, the instructor's course description was outrageous. It raised several immediate concerns: departmental oversight of the course; senior faculty supervision of graduate student instructors; the bases on which an instructor may limit enrollment; student rights and how they are protected. Berkeley chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, working closely with the Academic Senate, resolved these questions quickly and skillfully. Senior faculty spoke with the instructor to ensure that he understood his obligations and responsibilities as an instructor at the university. The course description was changed. Students taking the course were advised that they had the right to express themselves and have their work evaluated without discrimination or harassment. They were also informed that they could bring concerns to the chair of the English department. A senior faculty member sat in on all class meetings to ensure that the course was consistent with academic norms. In the end, the students who took the class gave outstanding ratings to both the course content and the instructor. (For a full account of the issues the course raised and how they were addressed, see the May-June 2003 issue of Academe, the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors.)

SPROUL STATEMENT ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM

The incident, however, revealed a fundamental weakness in the university's policies. …

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