academic freedom

academic freedom

academic freedom, right of scholars to pursue research, to teach, and to publish without control or restraint from the institutions that employ them. It is a civil right that is enjoyed, at least in statute, by all citizens of democratic countries. In the case of scholars, whose occupation is directly involved with that right, the concept of academic freedom generally includes the property right of tenure of office (see tenure, in education). Essential to the acceptance of the concept of academic freedom is the notion that truth is best discovered through the open investigation of all data. A less clearly developed corollary of academic freedom is the obligation of all those who enjoy it to pursue the line of open and thorough inquiry regardless of personal considerations.

Historically, academic freedom developed during the Enlightenment. Early cultures, which viewed education as a system of absorbing a well-defined subject matter, offered little opportunity for speculation. The medieval universities also operated within a field of definite scope, primarily theological, and any teacher or scholar who extended inquiry beyond the approved limits was subject to the charge of heresy. The scientific method of analyzing data and establishing hypotheses, a vital concomitant of academic freedom, was initiated during the Enlightenment, mainly by scholars outside university life such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Voltaire.

It was in the Prussia of Frederick the Great that the new freedom first flourished within the university itself. In England, it was laymen like Jeremy Bentham, David Ricardo, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Huxley who demonstrated the value of free investigation. Before the concept of academic freedom could gain general acceptance, however, it was necessary that education become secularized. It was not until 1826 that the first nonsectarian university was established in London. In the United States the early colleges were also religiously controlled, and there are still some denominational schools that define areas of inquiry. The American Association of University Professors has been active in establishing standards of academic freedom and has investigated cases in which the right was alleged to have been jeopardized.


See R. Hofstadter and W. P. Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the U.S. (1955); R. M. MacIver, Academic Freedom in Our Time (1955, repr. 1967); L. Joughin, Academic Freedom and Tenure: A Handbook of the AAUP (rev. ed. 1969); W. P. Metzger et al., Dimensions of Academic Freedom (1969); S. Hook, ed., In Defense of Academic Freedom (1971); C. Caplan and E. Schrecker, Regulating the Intellectuals (1983); E. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower (1986).

Academic freedom is the belief that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy. They argue that academic communities are repeatedly targeted for repression due to their ability to shape and control the flow of information. When scholars attempt to teach or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities, they may find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death. For example, in North Africa, a professor of public health discovered that his country's infant mortality rate was higher than government figures indicated. He lost his job and was imprisoned. Still, academic freedom has limits. In the United States, for example, according to the widely recognized "1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matter that is unrelated to the subject. When they speak or write in public, they are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution. Academic tenure protects academic freedom by ensuring that teachers can be fired only for causes such as gross professional incompetence or behavior that evokes condemnation from the academic community itself.

The rationale for academic freedom

Proponents of academic freedom believe that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy. They argue that academic communities are repeatedly targeted for repression due to their ability to shape and control the flow of information. When scholars attempt to teach or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities, they may find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death. For example, in North Africa, a professor of public health discovered that his country's infant mortality rate was higher than government figures indicated. He lost his job and was imprisoned.

The fate of biology in the Soviet Union is also cited as a reason why society has an interest in protecting academic freedom. A Soviet biologist named Trofim Lysenko rejected Western science -- then focussed primarily on making advances in theoretical genetics, based on research with the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) -- and proposed a more socially relevant approach to farming that was based on the collectivist principles of dialectical materialism. (Lysenko called this "Michurinism," but it is more popularly known today as Lysenkoism.) Lysenko's ideas proved appealing to the Soviet leadership, in part because of their value as propaganda, and he was ultimately made director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences; subsequently, Lysenko directed a purge of scientists who professed "harmful ideas," resulting in the expulsion, imprisonment, or death of hundreds of Soviet scientists. Lysenko's ideas were then implemented on collectivised farms in the Soviet Union and China. Famines that resulted partly from Lysenko's influence are believed to have killed 30 million people in China alone.

AFAF (Academics For Academic Freedom) is a campaign for lecturers, academic staff and researchers who want to make a public statement in favour of free enquiry and free expression. Their statement of Academic Freedom has two main principles:

  1. that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and
  2. that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.'

AFAF and those who are part of the campaign believe that it is important for academics to be able to express their opinions - not just full stop, but to put them to scrutiny and to open further debate. They are against the idea of telling the public Platonic 'noble lies' and believe that people should not be protected from radical views.

Academic freedom for students

The ideas of academic freedom as a right of the student is German in origin. In this model (known in German as Lernfreiheit), the student is free to pursue their own course of study, taking whatever courses they like at whatever university they choose. This ideal was carried to the United States in the 19th century by scholars who had studied at German universities. It was most prominently employed in the United States by Charles William Eliot at Harvard University between 1872 and 1897, when the only required course was freshman rhetoric.

In the U.S., students' academic freedom is regulated by the faculty's prerogative to determine which viewpoints are supported by scholarly standards, peer review, and established norms in their disciplines according to their own judgement. According to a U.S. appellate court decision, "a professor's rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are paramount in the academic setting." For this reason, U.S. students do not have the right to insist that professors provide "equal time" for competing viewpoints. A student may be required to write a paper from a particular viewpoint, even if the student disagrees with that viewpoint, as long as the requirement serves a legitimate pedagogical purpose. However, the faculty's rights to determine legitimate subject matter are not absolute to the point of compromising a student's right to learn in a hostility-free environment." Professorial speech is protected only to the extent that it is "germane to the subject matter.

Students are said to have an “impoverished conception of their own rights to academic freedom.” It can be argued that students are at university primarily to acquire a degree and that this is obtained by passively accepting and learning the viewpoints and theories that are placed before them. Therefore, a student’s need for academic freedom can be called into question. Nevertheless, some claim that there is a need for students to have academic freedom. Firstly, university students should be allowed to enjoy academic freedom as they undertake similar activities as academics, for example research (dissertations), albeit on a smaller scale and under a more protected environment. Most notably, students and staff at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Warwick have worked together to produce a new, online, peer-reviewed journal, which publishes research undertaken by undergraduate students. The central aim of this journal is to help create independent students that are well integrated into the research culture. The articles published are of high-quality and investigate a wide variety of different topic areas. This example challenges the idea that students are solely passive absorbers of information given to them and thus do not require academic freedom.

Academic freedom for professors

The concept of academic freedom as a right of faculty members (Lehrfreiheit in German) is an established part of German, English, French and American academic cultures. In all four a faculty member may pursue research and publish their findings without restraint, but they differ in regard to the professor's freedom in a classroom situation.

In Germany

In the German tradition, professors are free to try to convert their students to their personal viewpoint and philosophical system. Nevertheless, professors are discouraged or prohibited from stating their views, particularly political views, outside the class; in regard to his teaching, there should be no duties required of the professor, no prescribed syllabus, and no restriction to a particular subject.

In the United States

In the United States, academic freedom is generally taken as the notion of academic freedom defined by the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," jointly authored by the American Association of University Professors ("AAUP") and the Association of American Colleges ("AAC")(now the Association of American Colleges and Universities). These principles state that "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject." The statement also permits institutions to impose "limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims," so long as they are "clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment." The six regional accreditors work with American colleges and universities, including private and religious institutions, to implement this standard. Additionally, the AAUP, which is not an accrediting body, works with this same institutions. The AAUP does not always agree with the regional accrediting bodies on the standards of protection of academic freedom and tenure. The AAUP lists those colleges and universities which it has found to violate these principles. There is some case law in the United States that teachers are limited in their academic freedoms.

In France

A professor at a public French university, or a researcher in a public research laboratory, is expected, as are all civil servants, to behave in a neutral manner and to not favor any particular political or religious point of view during the course of his duties. However, the academic freedom of university professors is a fundamental principle recognized by the laws of the Republic, as defined by the Constitutional Council; furthermore, statute law declares about higher education that "teachers-researchers (university professors and assistant professors), researchers and teachers are fully independent and enjoy full freedom of speech in the course of their research and teaching activities, provided they respect, following university traditions and the dispositions of this code, principles of tolerance and objectivity. The nomination and promotion of professors is largely done through a process of peer review rather than through normal administrative procedures.

Academic freedom for colleges and universities

A prominent feature of the English university concept is the freedom to appoint faculty, set standards and admit students. This ideal may be better described as institutional autonomy and is distinct from whatever freedom is granted to students and faculty by the institution.

The Supreme Court of the United States said that academic freedom means a university can "determine for itself on academic grounds:

  1. who may teach,
  2. what may be taught,
  3. how it should be taught, and
  4. who may be admitted to study.

In a 2008 case, a Federal court in Virginia ruled that professors have no academic freedom; all academic freedom resides with the university or college. In that case, Stronach v. Virginia State University, a district court judge held "that no constitutional right to academic freedom exists that would prohibit senior (university) officials from changing a grade given by (a professor) to one of his students." The court relied on mandatory precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire and a case from the fourth circuit court of appeals. The Stronach court also relied on persuasive cases from several circuits of the courts of appeals, including the first, third, and seventh circuits. That court distinguished the situation when a university attempts to coerce a professor into changing a grade, which is clearly in violation of the First Amendment, from when university officials may, in their discretionary authority, change the grade upon appeal by a student. The Stronach case has gotten significant attention in the academic community as an important precedent.

Academic freedom and the First Amendment

In the U.S., the freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." By extension, the First Amendment applies to all governmental institutions, including public universities. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that academic freedom is a First Amendment right. However, the First Amendment does not apply to private institutions, including religious institutions. In addition, academic freedom involves more than speech rights; for example, it includes the right to determine what is taught in the classroom. Therefore, academic freedom is, at best, only partially protected by free speech rights. In sum, academic freedom and free speech rights are not coextensive and the relationship between the two remains unclear. In practice, academic freedom is protected by institutional rules and regulations, letters of appointment, faculty handbooks, collective bargaining agreements, and academic custom.


Public utterances and academic freedom

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the resulting patriotic feelings that swept the U.S., public statements made by faculty came under media scrutiny. For example, in January 2005, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill published an essay in which he asserted that the attack on the United States was justified because of American foreign policy. On news and talk programs, he was criticized for describing the World Trade Center victims as "little Eichmanns," a reference to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. Many called for Churchill to be fired for overstepping the bounds of acceptable discourse. Others defended him on the principle of academic freedom, even if they disagreed with his message.

The Bassett Affair at Duke University is an important event in the history of academic freedom.

The recent controversy regarding the Duke Lacrosse false rape scandal has raised serious criticisms against Duke and its faculty's use of academic freedom; specifically as to whether certain members of the faculty used their positions to press judgement and deny due process to the three players accused.

The "Academic bill of rights"

Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) was founded in 2001 by David Horowitz to protect students from a perceived liberal bias in U.S. colleges and universities. The organization collected many statements from college students complaining that some of their professors were disregarding their responsibility to keep unrelated controversial material out of their classes and were instead teaching their subjects from an ideological point of view. In response, the organization drafted model legislation, called the Academic Bill of Rights, which has been introduced in several state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. The Academic Bill of Rights is based on the Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure as published by the American Association of University Professors in 1915, and modified in 1940 and 1970. According to Students for Academic Freedom, academic freedom is "the freedom to teach and to learn." They contend in " The Academic Bill of Rights" that academic freedom promotes "intellectual diversity" and helps achieve a university's primary goals, i.e., "the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large." They feel that, in the past forty years, the principles as defined in the AAUP Declaration have become something of a dead letter, and that an entrenched class of tenured radical leftists is blocking all efforts to restore those principles. In an attempt to override such opposition, the Academic Bill of Rights calls for state and judicial regulation of colleges. Such regulation would ensure that:

  • students and faculty will not be favored or disfavored because of their political views or religious beliefs;
  • the humanities and social sciences, in particular, will expose their students to a variety of sources and viewpoints, and not present one viewpoint as certain and settled truth;
  • campus publications and invited speakers will not be harassed, abused, or otherwise obstructed;
  • academic institutions and professional societies will adopt a neutral attitude in matters of politics, ideology or religion.

Opponents claim that such a bill would actually restrict academic freedom, by granting politically-motivated legislators and judges the right to shape the nature and focus of scholarly concerns. According to the American Association of University Professors, the Academic Bill of Rights is, despite its title, an attack on the very concept of academic freedom itself: "A fundamental premise of academic freedom is that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards." The Academic Bill of Rights directs universities to implement the principle of neutrality by requiring the appointment of faculty "with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives," an approach they claim is problematic because "It invites diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession." For example,"no department of political theory ought to be obligated to establish 'a plurality of methodologies and perspectives' by appointing a professor of Nazi political philosophy." Concurring, the president of Appalachian Bible College in West Virginia fears that the Academic Bill of Rights "would inhibit his college's efforts to provide a faith-based education and would put pressure on the college to hire professors... who espouse views contrary to those of the institution.

It should also be noted that there has been much controversy over the validity of the student’s statements used by Horowitz to support his organisations claims. This is due to the revelation that one of the cases he referred to regularly was not factually accurate. Horowitz claims that this student had to write an essay on ‘why George Bush was a war criminal.’ Instead, the student chose to focus her answer on why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal and consequently received a grade ‘F’(Fail). In reality, this question asking students to state whether or not Bush was a war criminal was never set, and the student in question did not receive a grade ‘F’ for this particular exam. Horowitz acknowledges the flaws in this case but asks the public to remember that this is only one flawed example out of many other legitimate cases.


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