UPDATE: Freedom in Academics

I’ve long known that university professors enjoy Academic Freedom but did not know what freedoms it allowed or rather from what persecution did it protect. Early on, I was sure academic freedom meant something like the joy of having summers off and a long winter break or not having a traditional 8-5 Monday thru Friday work week. Later I thought maybe it related to living the life of the mind, being an intellectual, and being free from more physically demanding laborious occupations. Today, I know academic freedom as it is conceptualized by the American Association of University Professors, is “the free search for truth and its free exposition.” [1]  The AAUP outlines academic freedom as a) Freedom of research and publication; b) freedom to discuss one’s research and express opinions in the classroom; and c) freedom from institutional censorship when speaking or writing as a citizen.

Not too long ago I met a historian of psyhology, Dr. William Woodward, at the American Psychological Association’s conference in San Francisco. I attended a talk he gave and later rode the bus with him on the way back to the hotel. While he didn’t mention his beliefs during his presentation, I later learned Woodward is a member of the Scholars For 9/11 Truth (http://911scholars.org/) and had recently been in the news. [2] In a political psychology course he claimed a group within the federal government had organized the destruction of the World Trade Center. Obviously, his statements created some anger and excitement. Several NH politicians demanded the administration dismiss him. However, the university administration defended him on the basis of academic freedom.The AAUP also jumped in the ring claiming the First Amendment protected Woodward’s actions. Woodward continues to teach psychology at UNH.

Stanley Fish, over at the New York Times, recently wrote about academic freedom in his column, Think Again. [3] In the column he argues he has tried to “deflate the balloon of academic freedom” in the past but now is satisfied others have published what he thought all along. Namely, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, write that free speech is protected by the First Amendment but academic freedom is NOT. Rather, academic freedom is a practical policy that allows freedom of research and protects professors from public scorn (cf. stem cell research).  Finkin and Post also note academic freedom should be seen as a collective freedom of research professionals as opposed to an individual right. As such, each individual is held accountable to the group and the standards therein.

Clearly, academic freedom involves more than I once thought, but having extended breaks and flexible hours might be just as a good as a governing body covering your ass if you get out of line.

[1] http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/contents/1940statement.htm

[2] http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/08/29/woodward

[3] http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/an-authoritative-word-on-academic-freedom/?ref=opinion


In the comments, Mark mentioned an article by Ward Churchill about 9/11. Churchill was employed at the University of Colorado but was fired in 2007 for “research misconduct,” whatever that means. He is also listed as “political activist” according to his wikipedia entry. I’ve read the article, it is definitely inflammatory but I consider it protected, like Woodward’s statements, under Academic Freedom. Here is the article. I got an email today and the sender’s signature was a quote by Aristotle and exemplifies what I think the purpose of academic freedom should be.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

-Posted by Tyler

  1. Good post and great money quote from the AAUP.

    I currently have a full-time job but know what academic freedom is *not*. In what I would call a “real” or authentic institution of higher learning, the professor researches, finds knowledge, shares that knowledge at conferences and in articles and books — and she or he is afforded enough work-time for research and travel stipends to go to conferences. Further, the courses taught at both the undergraduate and graduate level reflect the professor’s original research.

    Although I am very happy at this point, I receive none of those tenure-track goodies, which I think are much more valuable than an increase in pay that follows with full professor status. Academic freedom, for me, means that the scholar researches what he or she wants, and is not accountable to the whims of popular opinion.

    As a “scholar partisan,” I would defend Woodward, in the same way that I vote against the incremental increases in executive power that have typified the Bush/Cheney era.

    I read Fish’s blog occasionally and find he takes on issues that are simply too “big” and hot-button, which causes him to write in a way unbecoming an academic of his stature. What do you think? –adam

  2. Adam, Thanks for your comment. To me it sounds like you enjoy 2 out of 3 of the features of what AAUP considers academic freedom, and you know what Meat Loaf says… I’m curious about what you intend to do in the next five years. Will you stay where you are? or do you have visions of a tenure-track position? I also wonder how your institution differs from traditional community colleges. Any thoughts?

    Although I think his position is a cooky one, I would have also defended Woodward’s right to say what he said and think what I assume he continues to think. While I was reading Fish’s blog, I felt like he is a person that wants to “cut-down” professors and take away the benefits of the position. He’s probably a jerk, but I haven’t read much, or any, of his other columns. I’ll be on the look-out from here on out.

  3. Yes, I’m not sure about Fish’s motivations for blogging. But you’re right — there’s something off there. He thinks he’s a “public intellectual” of sorts, and although he has the academic gravitas, he’s no Noam Chomsky. (Whom I mention more because he’s a good public intellectual than because I espouse his worldview.)

    I want to be in graduate school like you! But there are bills to pay. My long-term goal would be to as a professor of American literature and film roughly 1865-1945/the present. A place like BV would be good; profs have a four-class load and funds to go to conferences. To me, it would be fun to go banter and argue about _Apocalypse Now_, _Lolita_ and all sorts of stuff. A “publish or perish” place perhaps wouldn’t suit me.

    According to my uncle, there’s more academic freedom at his community college — Metro CC in Omaha. For his “research paper” (102 at most places) course, he uses _Why I Am Not a Christian_ by Bertrand Russell — unimaginable at my employer. His job security is also better; he’s a state employee with a pension. For-profits create and drop programs according to demand exclusively, although Brown has permanent programs, of course.

    My current manager is very understanding academically — she’s actually somewhat hostile to the Univ. of Phoenix-style boilerplate syllabi, etc. However, we have a very demanding schedule; every quarter, I’ve had to teach a morning class 8-12 and then a night class 6-10, and then turn around and teach at 8 a.m. the next day. My Thursday morning course suffers for it, but it’s fatigue. However, according to the comic Piled High and Deeper, this kind of schedule might be more typical in higher ed than I think. Ever watch rats for 10 hours a day? Perhaps not dissimilar from herding undergraduates at times.

  4. Schenck it hurts me to hear you do not agree with Noam Chomsky’s “world view” considering he has a lot to say about the political climate in this country. He is all about democracy which is something this country flaunts but it doesn’t really pertain to our reality (yes Obama was elected and the voting system seems to work for now). Yet, the fact remains that we have no control over what our army does or even what the president does when they are elected (not to mention all the issues with financing a campaign; i.e. all the millions of dollars spent for just making a run at presidency). What happens to the people who Obama was the “overseer” of when he spends two years running for president, and is there not a better way to use the millions of dollars spent on TV ads and whatever else to serve the people and try to make life better for them? Okay this has nothing to do with academic freedom so I shall get back on point; or atleast write about the comments.
    I do agree with your idea of what academic freedom consists of and I’m sorry you cannot teach books like “Why I am Not A Christian.” It’s a good and intersting philosophical book which would make people think (I own a copy of the book).
    The only thing I really have to say is that the idea of academic freedom strikes a cord with me so to speak. I recall when I was in graduate school in Colorado when Ward Churchill was under fire for his essay “Some People Push Back” which made many comments about US foreign policy and 9/11 which were to say the least unpopular at the time. I’m not sure if he was tenured at the time but it doesn’t matter when he publishes a work the institution should not attack his character beacause they didn’t like what he wrote. I still don’t know what ever happened to Mr. Churchill but either way I respect his right to write what he wants and still believe it was an unjust inquiry into his past since he should have his academic freedom to write what he wants. Final synopsis; academic freedom is a myth depending on the institution where one works. Some instituions will allow poeple to write, teach, research, and publish what they want but I feel many won’t allow such freedom because they are worried about the reputation of the school.
    Final note: if Schenck or T-Money want a copy of Churchill’s essay I can email it to you; actually I might just for the f**k of it.

  5. Adam, Teaching at a community college has always interested me. I imagine different types of professors working at different schools, I’m stereotyping, I know, but hey we all do it. When I think of comm. coll. professors I think Robin William’s character in Good Will Hunting, or Michael Douglas’ character in Wonder Boys. Perhaps laissez-faire could describe them, and profs. at Research-1 universities seem to be more focused, intent on pursuing grant money, certainly the job of an R1 university prof. is more often at stake. I could be wrong, I definitely do not intend for my opinion to offend. Most likely different kinds of people are attracted to different kinds of jobs, surely there are extremely motivated people at comm. colleges and equally unmotivated folks at R1s. Furthermore, my ideas of the professors could be a function of the institution’s focus. Some would argue the job of a professor at an R1 university is to complete original research and focus less on teaching. Just the opposite is true at community colleges — the focus of professors here is to teach. This distinction plays out in teaching responsibilities.

    A combination of the two would probably suit me best.

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