Academic Freedom Overreach

November 6, 2015

In an other wise interesting and thoughtful article I read recently, I came upon the following passage:

In general, [universities] don’t like their professors to criticize their policies and actions, without airing their disagreements with the administration first, so that the latter aren’t blindsided. One can argue that this places constraints on the academic freedom of all … faculty.

That brought me up short. The assertion here seems to be that an administrator’s disagreeing or feeling uncomfortable with something a faculty member says or writes should, in itself, be seen as a constraint on academic freedom.

It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t agree with that.

On a daily basis, administrators (provosts, deans, presidents) read or hear things said by faculty members with which they, the administrators, disagree, or with which they know others (faculty, parents, legislators, the general public) will disagree. Academic freedom is a principle to protect faculty members by allowing them to speak freely in the pursuit of truth. We don’t begin to have an issue of academic freedom until there is some negative consequence visited on the faculty member for what s/he said: for example denial of reappointment or tenure or promotion or salary increase. Rolled eyes or a wince on the part of an administrator can’t count as a negative consequence nor even disagreement voiced to others. Administrators need freedom, too, and they can hardly stop themselves reacting to what faculty members say. Academic freedom puts limits on the authoritative actions administrators can take.

Put another way: if administrators never found anything disagreeable, there wouldn’t be any need for academic freedom as principle or practice. It’s what happens next that matters when expression of an idea offends.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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