Where Is Academic Freedom Most Secure

April 7, 2016

I was stunned recently when I read that Sara Goldrick-Rab, a “prominent researcher on low-income students and public policy,” would be leaving one university to accept an appointment at another university out of concerns for academic freedom.

Stunned because the university she was leaving was the University of Wisconsin and the university to which she was going was Temple University.


Temple University

If there was any university I would have held up as a paragon of what a university should be when I started my career, Wisconsin would be the one.

When I accepted a position at Temple University in 1973, its posture on academic freedom was not something I considered at all, though I don’t say that with pride.  I guess I made assumptions: the university’s faculty had just agreed to unionize with the AAUP as its bargaining agent.  After a few years there, I had come to have my doubts about the benefits of being a unionized faculty (a story for another day) and I had come to learn a great deal about Temple’s ugly episode of academic freedom.

Barrows Dunham: that was the name that came back to mind when I read of Goldrick-Rab’s decision.  Dunham had been a philosophy professor at Temple for 16 years when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.  His refusal set off a firestorm of criticism, a threat from legislators to cut off funding to the university, and eventually Dunham’s dismissal by the university’s Trustees.  In time, the American Association of University Professors put Temple on its censure list.

The Barrows Dunham case remained a contentious matter for decades after. I think I first heard about it in a meeting of the University Senate, where I came to hear about it frequently.  After his dismissal, Dunham did not return to campus until 1977, and in 1981 he was named professor of emeritus, restoring his pension.  I remember then-President Marvin Wachman apologizing for Dunham’s dismissal.

The AAUP removed Temple from the censure list when Dunham was reinstated, even if only as an emeritus.  A few years later, Temple was again put on the censure list by AAUP for is dismissal of 52 tenured faculty members.  (On this, see my former colleague Judy Goode’s brief history of shared governance at Temple written in 2011.) Temple remained on the AAUP censure list for another decade — until it reinstated four faculty members (the “final four”) who had not previously been reinstated, found positions elsewhere, or accepted buyouts.

I don’t know how secure academic freedom is at the University of Wisconsin today in the aftermath of changes in tenure approved by the Board of Regents.  We may not know until those new procedures are used.  I can’t say I know how secure academic freedom is at Temple University today.  But I was stunned at Goldick-Rab’s news.

I do want to add a few words more generally about tenure in higher education.  The canonical AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure provides two quite different reasons for establishing the institution of tenure  “Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” 

The dismissal of Barrows Dunham violated his academic freedom and that’s what put Temple on the censure list the first time.  The dismissal of the 52 was done for putatively financial reasons and that’s what put Temple on the censure list the second time.

Thus, not all violations of tenure policy or procedures is a violation of academic freedom.

Conversely, tenure isn’t the only protection for academic freedom. I came away from Temple believing that strong, internalized, acted-upon support for academic freedom on the part of faculty, administrators, board members, legislators and yes the general public are more essential than written (perhaps contractual) statements of policy and procedure.  I believe written statements of policy and procedure such as AAUP prescribes are vital, but without well-understood support from all participants, those policies and procedures prove a thin bulwark.

Hence the long censure list. Hence the recent changes at Wisconsin, once a paragon.

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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