The Limits of Academic Freedom

December 09, 2009

Last summer I wrote a column attempting to clarify the meaning of shared governance (The Chronicle, July 24, 2009). Since then, some readers have requested that I do the same for academic freedom.

It's a particularly timely request, given that the American Association of University Professors recently announced a campaign to enhance academic freedom at public universities.

Most of us in academe cherish the protections afforded by academic freedom, but too many are unclear as to its limits. I have known colleagues who believed that academic freedom allows them to say anything they want, to anyone, in any venue, or to engage in behavior that most observers would assume to be inappropriate in any other workplace.

In fact, academic freedom has been claimed as an excuse for the most abusive and uncollegial behavior—shouting at colleagues, publicly berating students or staff members, defaming supervisors or other university administrators, shirking professional duties. One colleague even told me that academic freedom would protect her even if she indulged in slander and character assassination. "So long as you believe that what you are saying is the truth," she said, "then you are fully protected by academic freedom." (Needless to say, what a person "believes" is hardly an appropriate defense for violating a law.)

Department heads have told me countless stories of how academic freedom has become the generic excuse for any number of irresponsible acts. One chair described a senior professor who missed a substantial number of her classes. When confronted with evidence of her absenteeism, she told her chair that as an academic she had the freedom to conduct her courses in any way she deemed appropriate.

"I tried to explain that as an employee she has certain contractual obligations and that academic freedom did not free her from those responsibilities," the department head explained. "But it took the dean and, finally, the provost to convince her that not only did she have no such freedom but that she would be jeopardizing her future employment if her absenteeism persisted."

Another department head said one of her professors managed to avoid teaching his course the entire quarter by assigning a graduate research assistant to "facilitate discussions." The professor never showed up in class after the first day. In effect, the graduate student was forced to teach the course in addition to carrying out her research duties. When undergraduates brought the situation to the department head's attention, the professor angrily insisted he was protected by academic freedom and threatened to sue if the chair pursued the issue.

I know of yet another incident in which a fistfight erupted between two colleagues at a faculty meeting, resulting in bruises and a bloody nose. Both later contended during a formal hearing that they were "covered" by academic freedom and that the university had no recourse beyond reprimanding them for disrupting an official departmental meeting.

The practice of citing academic freedom to condone a limitless range of bad behavior has begun to take on the flavor of that hackneyed student excuse: The dog ate my paper (or, nowadays, My computer crashed). The magical incantation—"I'm protected by academic freedom"—is thought to offer instant indemnity. In reality, academic freedom, like tenure itself, is not a blanket protection.

The modern concept of academic freedom has two meanings. First, it refers to the right of an institution to manage its own curriculum and academic affairs without governmental interference. Colleges may determine, for example, what subject matter gets taught and who can teach it; establish their own admission criteria and graduation requirements; and develop their own academic mission and priorities. That is an important feature of American higher education. It establishes a crucial separation of power that discourages government from dictating that universities adopt particular positions or promote specific causes, and it prevents government from using educational institutions as part of a propaganda apparatus.

The second meaning of academic freedom involves the concept that faculty members may engage in research on controversial subjects (and, by extension, discuss those subjects in their classrooms) without fear of reprisal. This refers specifically to academic subjects and is not a blanket protection for any and all speech in any venue. As the AAUP's well-known statement on academic freedom cautions, professors "should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

The distinction between speech related to one's discipline, on the one hand, and utterances about extra-disciplinary matters, on the other, is key to understanding academic freedom. Without the protections afforded by academic freedom, some scholars might fear for their jobs were they to challenge treasured assumptions in their fields, oppose well-established intellectual traditions, rewrite commonly accepted historical narratives, create artistic works that offend some sensibilities, or conduct scientific experiments that run counter to some people's ethical codes.

Academic freedom, then, facilitates scholarship and teaching by eliminating that concern over personal safety. Institutions benefit from the system because their faculty members may go on to produce groundbreaking work that brings greater distinction to the institutions. But a college or university has no comparable incentive to protect extra-disciplinary speech because such discourse is peripheral to the normal workings of the campus.

Because academic freedom is specifically intended to foster the free exchange of ideas within a community of scholars, it does not protect us from other types of utterances and behavior, such as slander or libel, bullying co-workers, lying on a curriculum vitae, or conducting one's classes in irresponsible ways.

The AAUP reminds us that as professors we are both private citizens and officers of our institutions. When speaking as citizens (perhaps at a political rally, say) we should be immune from being disciplined by the institution for our speech, but when speaking in our unique capacity as representatives of the institution—as scholars and teachers in our disciplines—we have an obligation to exercise caution in what we say and how we say it. In the latter role, according to the AAUP, our "special position in the community imposes special obligations" because our words are likely to be construed to represent the official position of the institution rather than our own personal views.

Some people confuse the constitutional concept of freedom of speech with the less grandiose notion of academic freedom, but they are two distinct concepts. Academic freedom is limited to the confines of academic discourse while free speech is a broad constitutional right central to our democratic system of government.

But even free speech has its limits. The constitutional right of free speech is not meant to protect each and every utterance regardless of context (yelling "fire" in a crowded theater when no such danger exists, engaging in "hate speech," or threatening a police officer). It is intended to protect you from being incarcerated by the state for expressing your views.

Academic freedom is a right we should all cherish because it ensures an environment of free inquiry. That is precisely why we must guard against attempts to make the concept so limitless, so capacious, that it loses its power to protect the academic enterprise. When academic freedom becomes all things to all people, then it becomes nothing at all.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor, with John W. Presley, of the newly published "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at