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To be sure, vilifying scholars is as old as Socrates. We have long served as convenient scapegoats for authoritarians and the closed-minded. But despite their strident claims to embrace freedom above all, it is precisely academic freedom that so incenses the J.D. Vances of the world. It is our freedom to experiment, speculate, and imagine — our freedom to go wherever our research might lead us and to share the results of that research, no matter how discomforting, free from censorship or the direction of the powerful. It is our freedom to teach the results of such research that leads Vance to charge that professors “teach that America is an evil, racist nation” and that we “train teachers who bring that indoctrination into our elementary and high schools.” And it is our boldly asserted but often endangered claim to the freedom to speak as citizens of both society and our institutions without fear of employer sanction — a freedom unavailable to the great majority of private employees — that facilitates the demagogic stoking of popular resentment.
The three pillars of academic freedom are the freedom of research and the publication of the results; freedom in teaching our subjects; and freedom as citizens and stewards of our institutions. These freedoms are now under attack to a degree unseen in over a century, fueled by politicians like Vance.
The most salient examples are well known to readers of the Chronicle.
There is, of course, the usual litany of individual outrages, often attributable to the bureaucratic cowardice of administrators frightened of criticism. Take, for instance, the case of Lars Jensen, the Truckee Meadows Community College math instructor whom the school tried to terminate for “insubordination” because he complained about diminished academic standards. Or Jason Kilborn, the University of Illinois at Chicago law professor “accused of racism for asking students to address an ordinary hypothetical, of a kind they are likely to encounter in normal legal practice.” And then there’s Collin College, in Texas, where two faculty members were fired because they publicly complained the school was reopening too soon for in-person learning during the pandemic and a third was dismissed in retaliation for Twitter comments about former Vice President Mike Pence.
More troubling, however, has been the increasing number and scope of attacks from legislators and governing boards that seek to restrict the ability of the faculty as a whole to conduct research and direct the curriculum in accordance with disciplinary standards. In Florida, where a much-publicized effort to bar professors from providing expert testimony in lawsuits against the state failed (for now), faculty members face efforts to control language used by a scholar of race and legislative proposals that would seriously weaken tenure protections. In North Carolina, the American Association of University Professors has begun an investigation of extensive violations of shared governance, as well as charges of structural racism, throughout the University of North Carolina system. (I am a member of the AAUP’s investigating committee, which will issue its report early next year.)
Then there is the wave of what PEN America has labeled “educational gag orders,” bill that “appear designed to chill academic and educational discussions and impose government dictates on teaching and learning.” While such efforts are directed primarily at K-12 schools, PEN reports that “21 bills explicitly apply to colleges and universities. Of these, 16 explicitly impose restrictions on academic courses or curricula, and 10 explicitly address training for college students or employees.” In October, a group of plaintiffs, including the University of Oklahoma chapter of the AAUP, filed the first federal lawsuit challenging such a law.
Florida is not the only state seeking to weaken tenure. In South Carolina the “Cancelling Professor Tenure Act” seeks to eliminate tenure in the state’s public colleges and universities for all employees hired in 2023 or later. If passed, it would be the first law of its kind in the nation. The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents voted to adopt a post-tenure review policy that makes it possible to fire a tenured faculty member without a dismissal hearing, prompting another AAUP investigation. Attacks on tenure seem to capture the public’s attention every few years but are often ineffective. But this time may be different, as such attacks are coming after decades of the tenure system’s erosion and the emergence of “the gig academy,” in which nearly three-fourths of those teaching in American colleges are now on term contracts.
In this environment, the ever-present threat of vicious social media and even direct physical harassment, a major focus of concern in recent years, can only intensify. And so too will pressures increase on university administrators to, in the words of the AAUP’s 1956 report on the abuses of the McCarthy era, “yield a little in order to preserve a great deal.”
I have three suggestions. First, it is important to acknowledge context. It would be a distortion, even foolish, to argue as if the threat to academic freedom were uniform across the board. One consequence of the neoliberal moment in higher education has been the growth of a wide variety of inequities across the system. A dwindling group of well-endowed private institutions has experienced unparalleled prosperity, while most public institutions, especially regional and master’s-granting institutions, and community colleges as well as many smaller private colleges have suffered. By and large, it seems, academic freedom may be less threatened in the former group than the latter, even if the First Amendment does not apply to the private sector. The implications of this are unclear, but it is certainly reasonable to envisage that these inequities — as well as others within the ranks of the faculty, among disciplines and employment status — will only exacerbate the crisis in academic freedom. It may be alarmist, but I can foresee a time when academic freedom is essentially protected only at a limited number of institutions and even in a limited set of disciplines.
Second, we need to assert that not every pedagogical, curricular, or research issue boils down to academic freedom. It is all too common to construe arguments over contentious racial and gender issues as conflicts between commitments to diversity and to academic freedom. That is largely a false dichotomy. Academic freedom is not the same as freedom of speech — the expression of an instructor in a classroom is more limited than that of a citizen on the street or even, for that matter, of a student in that same classroom. Teachers are compelled to speak, to the best of their abilities, as disciplinary experts and as guides to learning. More often than not, problems that arise in class do not involve matters of principle as much as they do ones of pedagogy. Here it is the responsibility of the institution to provide appropriate guidance and support. We should not be afraid to acknowledge that professors are human and make mistakes. The key point, however, is that determinations of what is appropriate need to be made only by qualified scholars and not by institutional bureaucrats, trustees, or legislators — much less an enraged portion of the public.
Third, and most importantly, we must recognize that with freedom comes responsibility. The true responsibility that adheres to academic freedom is not the obligation to behave appropriately, as desirable that might be, but instead the duty to protect academic freedom and the principles of scholarly discourse wherever and however these may be threatened. It is not enough to pay lip service to the concept, defending it only when attacked. Academic freedom demands a collective and ongoing defense.
It is relatively easy to defend academic freedom when everyone is pretty much saying similar things. But in an age when public controversies and political polarization have called into question the very legitimacy of expert knowledge, the need to defend freedom of inquiry and debate has become a primary responsibility of all those who teach and conduct research. Meeting that responsibility demands attention, hard work, and most of all an informed and nuanced understanding of precisely what academic freedom does and does not entail.
It also demands stiff spines. As the previously cited 1956 AAUP report on the abuses of McCarthyism concluded, it is “the duty of all elements in the academic community — faculty, trustees, officials, and, as far as possible, students — to stand their ground firmly even while they seek, with patient understanding, to enlarge and deepen popular comprehension of the nature of academic institutions and of society’s dependence upon unimpaired intellectual freedom.”