• September 1, 2015

The Limits of Academic Freedom

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 golson@isu.edu.


1. 11144703 - December 09, 2009 at 07:41 am

Excellent article, with one exception: that freedom of speech does not protect hate speech. In certain contexts of course it does: see RAV v. St. Paul (concerning hate speech) and WI v. Mitchell (distinguishing hate crime). Otherwise, those academics (and I suspect they are legion) who feel utterly compelled to display their fervent hatred for the later George Bush even in quick, irrelevant asides at department meetings would need to be disciplined.

2. minkus - December 09, 2009 at 08:28 am

Another interesting aspect of academic freedom is the question of whether it gives the Provost of a university the right to pubicly insult the State Board of Education and to accuse the state legislature of being corrupt.

3. msal513 - December 09, 2009 at 08:59 am

This admittedly decent exposition on academic freedom might be a bit more credible if it wasn't written by a senior administrator whose institution has a long history of undermining faculty who are engaged in controversial research (see http://chronicle.com/article/When-Research-Criticizes-an/33861/) or who challenge detrimental leadership decisions (see http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Idaho-State-U-Fires-Profes/8668/ or http://www.isu.edu/fsen/MinutesArchiveFSenate/2005-2006_FSMinutes/050919fsminutes.pdf). Although the author doesn't have a long history at ISU, in the context of actual practices in Pocatello, this column smells a bit too much like the fox guarding the henhouse. Analogies including a pot and a kettle or glass houses and stones might be useful here. Then again, academics (whether they are wolves dressed in sheep's clothing or sheep dressed in wolves' clothing) aren't always so good at taking the log out of their own eye before pointing out the speck in another's.

4. d361436 - December 09, 2009 at 11:26 am

Although I disagree with many of the points, I will add the worst academic freedom claim I know of:
In the dim mists of all-male antiquity, there was a door labeled "Faculty." When the administration learned about female "Faculty," they proposed to change "Faculty" to "Men."
No can do argued a senior professor. While seated on his throne, he graded exams and if a student used the facility, it would interfere with his ....

5. kathden - December 09, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I give this a D+. Perhaps it is not surprising that someone identified as a higher administrator of a public university puts "institutional academic freedom" first, and then limits faculty academic freedom to pursuing *research* on controversial topics. The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the latter but not the former and does not limit it to research contexts.

Academic freedom is a matter of both teaching and research. It is not the right to say and do any damned thing you please, but to say and do what is necessary in light of methodical inquiry. So I would be reluctant, once again, to follow Olson, here in his attempt to limit the freedom to disciplines. Faculty, with corporate responsibility (that is, as a body) for curriculum within and outside of disciplines, do not forfeit academic freedom when commenting on, say, proposals for reforming general education.

In recent years, some U.S. courts have begun interpreting academic freedom as, in the first instance, the property of institutions; faculty share in it by having it granted to them by the institution. But both the modern (starting in Germany in the early nineteenth century) and the old (the European Middle Ages) notions are embodied in faculty (in the Middle Ages, in the corporation of the magistri, the teachers--the university was, of course, the union of the corporation of teachers and the corporation of students--provosts were servants of the two).

So Olson is in fact advocating a restriction even of the modern notion of academic freedom. His defense is a Trojan horse.

6. davi2665 - December 09, 2009 at 03:37 pm

Academic freedom most definitely does not extend to a professor doing research that "runs counter to some people's codes." The IRBs (Institutional Review Boards), established by federal regulations, are specifically set up as independent regulatory bodies under FDA authorization, not subject to bullying or adverse influence from administrators, researchers, or any other university officials, with the responsiblity of assuring human subject safety and protection, and the conduct of research with the highest of ethics. While the IRBs are not in place to pass scientific review, as an NIH study section would do, they have the authorization to prevent, stop, or modify any research study with human subject that they consider an unacceptable risk.

7. happycamper1212 - December 09, 2009 at 04:03 pm

This editorial uses The Chronicle as a mouthpiece to further personal agendas and thus reduces the credibility of the Chronicle to a par with National Enquirer. Olson's advocacy in a national forum indicates a desire to have Idaho State University's rather original philosophy on academic freedom adopted nationally.

If you adopt it, here is what you get. The writer and his administrative colleagues are currently being sued for terminating a tenured professor for dissent. This has already been noted in The Chronicle. Learn more about this particular university's case, visit the long discussions under THE CONSTITUTION, THE UNIVERSITY, AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH by Dr. Nick Gier at .

Professors are charged to profess, to acknowledge their views publicly. It does not lie within the authority of an administrator to order a professor not to profess. Since when is it a requirement that professors profess under the standards of what a petulant administrator considers appropriate ? Most certainly, any administrative order to refrain from publicly criticizing authority is the most flagrant violation of academic freedom imaginable. People infatuated with muzzles should manage dog pounds, not universities.

The faculty at Olson's university have in place a formal peer-review process to prevent abuse. The review committee recommended against dismissal of the tenured faculty member, and their Faculty Senate endorsed the views of that review committee. The administration, prominently the editorial's author, attempted to pressure the Faculty Senate to reverse its decision after that fact. The faculty remained firm in refusing to allow the formal established process to be tampered with by those who have severe conflict of interest.

Other commenters here have noted additional abuses by these particular administrators.

8. minkus - December 10, 2009 at 12:06 am

Academic freedom at Idaho State University:


9. happycamper1212 - December 10, 2009 at 04:51 am

Editorial writer Olson asserts: "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."

Olson seems not to have noticed that Idaho State University is no sovereign nation. It is located within the United States of America wherein tax-supported educational organizations that lack incentive and courage to protect free speech are in the process of surrendering it on the behalf of all the rest of us. I've never seen a more irresponsible statement about free speech uttered by any educator. The link furnished by Minkus reveals that it is not so "peripheral" in Pocatello as to prevent offended administrators from depriving a tenured faculty member of his livelihood after the professor criticized them repeatedly in public forums. The real meaning behind this editorial is made most clear by the actions taken at Idaho State University.

Olson further states: "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."

Committing slander, libel, and bullying are crimes within the nation in which we live. They are dealt with properly by courts. University administrators that try to supplant courts are little more than vigilantes in suits. In a nation of law, punishment for crimes is reserved for courts where a jury of peers and a qualified judge make decisions about whether the accused broke laws and deserves punishment. The editorial introduces the concept of special status that privileges provosts and presidents to take law into their own hands regardless of the outcome of a formal hearing by peers.

If any college leaders believe they are rulers of sovereign nations rather than administrators who must manage with the trust of faculty and within a nation of law, then these are dangerously delusional people.

10. mbelvadi - December 10, 2009 at 07:08 am

I agree with the OP that "academic freedom" is badly misused by faculty (and even students) who are in fact trying to assert their legal "free speech" rights in the face of employers who are not required to protect them. Given the social value to the community of allowing their most well-educated population to be able to speak freely on matters of public policy import, perhaps laws and shared governance documents should be drafted to guarantee to faculty the right to be secure in their jobs if they speak openly and truthfully about matters beyond their own disciplines, and do not in the process break other speech-related laws (e.g. defamation, liable, etc.). Otherwise we leave pretty much all political discourse to the faculty in the political science department, which seems not to be a good outcome for the larger society.

11. msal513 - December 10, 2009 at 08:45 am

Maybe Olson thinks that any statement by faculty criticizing administrators is slanderous -

And what is this column doing in an "advice" section. At its best, it is an opinion, sort of like believing the moon landing was a hoax filmed on a sound stage in New Mexico is an opinion.

12. wturnertsu - December 10, 2009 at 02:25 pm

An excellent article! However, I take exception to one statement: "...universities can establish curriculum and decides who teaches..." free of governmental oversight or interference.

As a multiple-years recovering addict, with three degrees and a plethora of life-experiences, I assure you that adjunct teaching positions have been denied me due to a felony conviction for possessing less than $5.00 worth of controlled substance. Despite all of the socio-economic and political ramifications that stems from laws re controlled substance, ie. powder vs. rock cocaine, students are summarily being denied the benefit of having intellectual discussions with professor(s) with actual first-hand knowledge. Why? The state controls the purse and the state does not wish to have students even question the reasonableness of laws enacted by it.

It is one thing to have an addict or a convict visit the class. It is also another to read or assign books or articles for students to read about the experiences of folks who have experienced the full impact of laws passed in fighting America's so-called other war: The War on Drugs. How much more valuable and enriching an experience for students--some of whom are personally affected by illicit drugs--to have direct contact with responsible and candid professors who have recovered?

A good artcile. It ignores the fact that state and federal government funding guidelines have chilling effects upon the academic freedom of institutions to choose whomsoever they would to teach. The American Medical Association, as I'm sure you are well aware, only have members who come directly from what is considered by most to be one of the most rigorous academic pursuits known. It classified addiction as being an illness. If individuals have recovered from their illnesses, why then, in a democratric society, should the state be allowed to deny universities the academic freedom to hire such persons, if they're so inclined? Shouldn't students have the opportunity to discuss such issues as that? And, given the significance of the war on drugs and the delayed, future impact on society of policies of succeeding administrations to wage that war, shouldn't student be aforded the opportunity to hear directly from the real veterans, in every sense of the word, of that war?

Academic Freedom, in the true sense of the word, would not only permit the hiring of responsible, recovered and non-violent substance-abuse felons, it would demand it. Persons still locked behind bars and facing long sentences for smaller portion of the same drug for which others merely received slaps on the wrists, will be release from custody, one day. Fresh, open-minds had better be engaged in trying to figure out how best to deal with such an ominus phenomenon. There's no better place than university and college classrooms to do so.

13. mattb11 - December 10, 2009 at 04:42 pm

The author ridicules the idea that "what a person 'believes'" could be an appropriate defense to defamation or related claims. Yet that is exactly the case under the "actual malice" standard promulgated by New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny. The First Amendment protects defamatory statements about public figures and public officials (including, often, public university administrators) unless those statements are made with *knowledge* of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. So, in fact, the First Amendment standard very much depends on what the speaker believes about the truth of the statement. Also, as noted by other posters, the U. S. Supreme Court has not been receptive to the idea that the First Amendment does not protect "hate speech." Most hate speech is in fact protected speech.

14. michael_fowler - December 11, 2009 at 03:04 am

Outstanding work Mr. Olson. Professionalism on is the job is always a must and "academic freedom" was never created as an excuse for its absence. There is a tremendous differance between free-speech on the senate floor, and allowing your own personal passions to interrupt your work and duty to teach.

15. sci_case - December 11, 2009 at 11:59 pm

This piece, and the prior one on shared governance cited, really appear to be post-hoc rationalizations of the positions (and actions) taken by Olson and his administration at ISU.

Sad to see the CHE continue to print works that so blatantly set up the weakest of straw people as a basis for defending what the author seems to hope will appear to be a reasonable and moderate interpretation of concepts and associated practices (based on a rather shallow, pseudo-scholarly analysis).

The CHE should be chastized for allowing itself to become the mouthpiece of an apparently desperate, embattled administrator.

16. bristol2 - December 12, 2009 at 07:40 am

For a further discussion on this topic, see the following article in the Journal of Academic Ethics

Issue Volume 7, Number 3 / September, 2009
DOI 10.1007/s10805-009-9073-4
Pages 223-230

Should Faculty Members be Exempt From a Mandate to Receive Instructional Design Training Because of Their Rights Under Academic Freedom?

17. andrew54 - December 12, 2009 at 04:48 pm

This is a well-thought-out piece. It's important that we know exactly what academic freedom is so that we don't let others abuse it.

18. inquirer - December 14, 2009 at 04:41 pm

I am neither a full-time professor nor an administrator. I raed the original article iwth interest as well as some of the responses. While I'm sure this is a complex tpic, it seems to me that happycamper1212 wants to have academic freedom means anything goes and a school's administration has no business trying to stop anything, absolutely anythng. That should be left to the courts. So I wonder about the example in the article of a professor claiming academic frreedom for not showing up to class regularly. Should the university take the professor to court for this? The impression I have from reading most of the comments is that an institution should not view itself as sovereign but a professor is. So are you expecting a student to spend thousands of dollars to file a law suit against an abusive professor? As for political policy, should academic freedom really cover a professor taking class time to complain about the sitting president or about some bill or proposition that the professor dislikes in courses totally unrelated to that? Perhaps it is covered by free speech but it seems pretty irresponsible. If I had employees, I would expect them to stick to their jobs, not philosophize about other matters instead. Finally, while I hafe no opnion about whether a professor should or shoujld not be able to criticize a school's dministration in some public forum, it seems to me that if a professor really dislikes how a school does things, academic freedom also entials the freedom to resign. Is there any integriuty in continually attacking those who pay your salary but glorying in your "right" to do so? I don't think so.

19. happycamper1212 - December 16, 2009 at 02:39 am

"Andrew54" happily lets an editorial (you are surely right about this, "msal513") inform him about the limits of academic freedom and how to behave. He may have learned this from Michael Fowler's assertion that the First Amendment gives freedom of speech to legislators but not to citizens. "Inquirer" apparently avoided a logic course, as shown by a lackluster attempt to convert statements about academic freedom of expression into advocacy for dereliction of duty. "Inquirer" also seems not to realize that we taxpaying citizens and students' tuitions and fees pay professors salaries, so we have an interest and a right to hear opinions and reports written by our states' university workers. College administrators doesn't pay the professors' salary and are not in a role that even remotely resembles that of a business owner.

And academic freedom doesn't mean that anything goes, but dereliction of duty seems not at all the issue here. I had searched deeper on Inside Higher Education after it ran the first article about the strange case at Idaho State University and learned that the professor now suing the writer of the recently won awards for service to his university and awards for teaching. The man seemingly met "inquirer's" admonition to "stick to his job" and expressed his criticisms in newspaper editorials rather than took time from classes for this. It's an interesting case and worth spending some time following.

If "inquirer" disliked what his/her hypothetical employees wrote in a letter to a local newspaper, she/he would fire employees based on what "inquirer" likes to read in the papers rather than on whether they were professional assets. "Inquirer" disclosed he/she doesn't have employees. Because "Inquirer" and Olson express a common attitude toward employees, I suspect that Idaho State University is a troubled institution losing faculty and staff.

20. texasguy - January 22, 2010 at 11:13 am

The author seems to forget another important aspect of academic freedom, namely the right of criticizing one's university administration.

While a professor might have no business expressing his or her general political views during a calculus lecture, he or she has a fundamental right ro criticize the administration of his or her university inside and outside the university.

University authorities should take as a principle that people are smart enough to make the differnce between baseless ramblings and meaningful criticism. After all, our governement never went against the september 11 conspiracy theorists despite all their slanderous accusations.

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