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The UNC debacle was not an isolated incident, nor is the threat limited to the political right. Consider other recent examples: the University of Oklahoma demanded agreement from faculty and staff members with certain diversity-related statements as a condition of employment; Chapman University faculty members called for the firing of a professor who appeared at the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that took place hours before the Capitol insurrection; and Central Michigan University ended the contract of a journalism professor who invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church to class. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found widespread self-censorship among U.S. academics.
Academic inquiry depends on autonomy from politics. The job of scholars is to search for truth, which requires them to pursue ideas wherever they go, and to debate them vigorously. Like seemingly everything else in our charged and polarized era, this idea has come under attack in recent years, with demands that “unsafe” ideas be purged and suppressed. Despite lip service, very few colleges are truly committed to academic freedom. The result is needless controversy and slipping standards. The solution is simple: Colleges must institutionalize the protection of academic freedom by devoting resources to training, establishing standards, and hearing complaints when norms are threatened.
Contrast approaches to other issues. In recent years, colleges have devoted significant resources to institutionalizing diversity, inclusion, and equity. These efforts accelerated after the murder of George Floyd, and many colleges are now creating vice president- or vice provost-level positions, leading entire bureaucracies devoted to this effort. As a requirement of federal law, colleges have also developed Title IX bureaucracies, which help to ensure that institutions receiving federal money deal with sexual harassment. Whatever one thinks of the implementation (and the implementation of Title IX in particular has been controversial), it is clear that colleges are serious about these important goals.
Colleges that rely on ad hoc decision making can look biased if they treat similar cases differently.
In contrast, in most institutions of higher learning, issues of academic freedom or free speech have no designated campus officer. There is no emerging profession devoted to it, no mandatory training programs, no resources for faculty members and students who want to understand what it means. There are no job ads posted for vice presidents for academic freedom. Instead, academic-freedom controversies tend to be left to faculty committees, whose membership turns over regularly, or to ad hoc decisions by provosts and presidents. Among students, questions of freedom of expression are left to deans of students or in some cases to the diversity bureaucracy. Without an institutional base to protect free inquiry, standards are applied in an uneven way. The risk is that administrators will simply give in to the loudest voice in the room, which will, by definition, never be someone whose full-time job is to speak up for academic freedom.
Institutionalization of academic freedom could look something like diversity initiatives, and would have the same goal: to advance core values in the culture of colleges. Staff members would serve as a resource for the faculty, develop basic explanations of core concepts for students, collect data, and advise leaders behind the scenes on how to handle controversies when they arise. While the last thing faculty members need is another online training program, there should at least be materials introducing new faculty members and students to the importance of academic freedom. One might imagine orientation programs where participants wrestle with the idea, perhaps role-playing through tough cases; books on free speech could be considered for pre-freshman summer reading; and students should be invited to ruminate on the fate of academics in places like Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary, where attacks on colleges were a harbinger of broader assaults on democracy.
To be sure, most colleges have policies on academic freedom, drawn from or influenced by standards articulated by the American Association of University Professors. This venerable institution has for more than a century played a leading role in advancing a vision of academic freedom as essential not just for students or institutions, but for the common good. Besides articulating standards, the AAUP has a committee on employment complaints, with the ultimate sanction being a censure. But it is too far removed from the front lines to touch the culture of students and faculty members.
It is worth noting that, in our era of heightened sensitivity about language, many of the recent threats to academic freedom come not just from administrators, but also from the faculty, as well from student groups. Some even seem to think that academic freedom is in tension with diversity concerns. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in the 1967 case of Keyishian v. Board of Regents, “The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection’.”
Institutionalizing academic freedom would help to ensure a common understanding of the issues. And above all it would ensure that colleges are able to play their critical role in a democracy by serving as places of inquiry into facts and ideas — never more essential than in an era of widespread distrust and misinformation.