Defining Academic Freedom in the USA

Posted on December 22, 2010


December 21, 2010
By Cary Nelson,
Over the course of decades, a great many books, essays, and policies have been written and published about academic freedom. We have learned how to apply it to pedagogical, technological, cultural, and political realities that did not exist when the concept was first defined. Not only faculty members, administrators, trustees, and students, but also parents, politicians, and other members of the public, would now benefit from a concise summary of its major features. Sometimes academic freedom is invoked in situations where it doesn’t actually apply. But many within and without higher education are not well-versed in all the protections it does provide. This statement is designed to help clarify both what academic freedom does and doesn’t do.

PART 1: What it does do

1. Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.

2. Academic freedom establishes a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments. It preserves the intellectual integrity of our educational system and thus serves the public good.

3. Academic freedom in teaching means that both faculty members and students can make comparisons and contrasts between subjects taught in a course and any field of human knowledge or period of history.

4. Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.

5. Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to study and do research on the topics they choose and to draw what conclusions they find consistent with their research, though it does not prevent others from judging whether their work is valuable and their conclusions sound. To protect academic freedom, universities should oppose efforts by corporate or government sponsors to block dissemination of any research findings.

6. Academic freedom means that the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs of politicians, administrators, and members of the public cannot be imposed on students or faculty.

7. Academic freedom gives faculty members and students the right to seek redress or request a hearing if they believe their rights have been violated.

8. Academic freedom protects faculty members and students from reprisals for disagreeing with administrative policies or proposals.

9. Academic freedom gives faculty members and students the right to challenge one another’s views, but not to penalize them for holding them.

10. Academic freedom protects a faculty member’s authority to assign grades to students, so long as the grades are not capricious or unjustly punitive. More broadly, academic freedom encompasses both the individual and institutional right to maintain academic standards.

11. Academic freedom gives faculty members substantial latitude in deciding how to teach the courses for which they are responsible.

12. Academic freedom guarantees that serious charges against a faculty member will be heard before a committee of his or her peers. It provides faculty members the right to due process, including the assumption that the burden of proof lies with those who brought the charges, that faculty have the right to present counter-evidence and confront their accusers, and be assisted by an attorney in serious cases if they choose.

PART 2: What It Doesn’t Do

1. Academic freedom does not mean a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.

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