What’s the point of academic freedom?

by Harry on April 5, 2007

I never really think of myself as operating under the protection of academic freedom, even though I believe that it is an important value. This is probably because by the time I became a teacher with genuine autonomy I’d already heard the idea invoked so many times in defense of so many bad practices that I couldn’t take it seriously. Anything I do in the classroom or in my research has to be justified on its merits; I think of academic freedom as the instrument which protects those activities of mine that are independently justified from interference from others who have no business interfering. Academic freedom is valuable for that purpose, and it makes sense for everyone, even those who are offended by some of what I and other scholars do, to want to protect our freedom to do that, even though some bad and malicious things will be done as a result of the freedom that grants us. But it is not possible to specify the parameters of academic freedom independently of what society has a reason to expect of scholars.

Here are some examples of practices that some claim to merit the protection of academic freedom:

1) Professors controlling the content of courses they teach, and choosing the instruments of evaluation of students in those courses.

2) Professors choosing the methods by which they teach students in a class, and being free to express their opinions on the topics addressed.

3) Professors controlling the selection of textbooks in the classes they teach.

4) Professors choosing what topics to research, and what methods to use in the pursuit of that research.

Put academic freedom aside for a moment. All of the cases I’ve described probably command wide assent. But none of them, as stated, should be accepted. In some of these cases Professors should have the powers described, but only within certain constraints. In other cases it seems to me that there is no reason for them to have such powers. I’ll explain, and then get back to academic freedom later.

4) is the simplest and probably clearest case. An academic department usually hires a professor under a certain description of specialty and competence in research. The professor chooses projects within that specialty, and has a strong degree of self-interest in choosing methods appropriate to the nature of the research. She also has a professional interest in innovating, both methodologically and in terms of content. Academic freedom protects her from outside interference in the pursuit of these goals, because although some if not many will go astray, the benefits of relatively unrestricted pursuit of them outweigh the costs.

But even in this case there are limits. If one’s department has a research mission and the specialty in which one was hired is crucial to that mission, even after one has gained tenure one’s colleagues have a complaint against you if you unilaterally and without warning abandon the specialty. Hired in Philosophy of Language, or in US History, or in Victorian English Literature, one cannot in good faith abandon these areas as soon as one gets tenure for, say, Boethics, the History of French Education, or Syntax. Of course, in the normal case, one’s interests evolve, and it is not unheard of for scholars to cross disciplinary boundaries entirely, perhaps more than once (a well known British academic, who is now presumably retired, started his career in Religious Studies, through which he became interested in Philosophy and, eventually, joined a Mathematics department as their logician). It seems unreasonable, given the many other infractions of good faith in academia which do not trigger censure, to fire scholars for non-negotiated abandonment of research areas. But academic freedom even in research is not unrestricted.

Now think about 1). Professors do not have a right to determine exactly what courses they teach. Academic departments have certain missions that shape the course offerings, and members of those departments are expected to contribute to those missions. My department has to offer a certain number of sections of Contemporary Moral Issues, and someone has to teach them. I have the relevant expertise, and although my own department is generous in offering professors a good deal of choice over which courses to teach, I have no contractual right to choose, semester after semester, not to teach CMI, nor do I, as a senior and responsible department member, have a moral right to choose not to teach those courses. If the other Professors with the relevant expertise were all on leave one semester, it would be contractually ok for my chair to force me to offer CMI, and I would be a jerk if I refused a non-coercive request to do so, unless I had some extremely good reason.

I don’t know whether, having agreed to teach CMI, I would be in violation of any legal contract if I chose to teach Moral Theory, or Philosophy of Religion instead, under that course title or number. But it would be odd to think that I had any right to do so; my acceptance of the course title and number properly constrains me in my choice of material. My department has no set curriculum for CMI, and, in fact, some of the topics I teach in the course are quite unusual, although all of them do fall within the description of the course (I’m an innovator!). But if my department did have a set curriculum, that would be binding, and properly so. I’d have some choice concerning how to deliver that content – that is intrinsic to the process of teaching, as well as being desirable for pedagogical reasons.

Which brings me to 2). My own subject, Philosophy, is concerned with the structure and quality of arguments (among other things). I have, again, a good deal of latitude in how I teach my classes, and I use a variety of pedagogical methods, not all of which are used by my colleagues. I never use Powerpoint, even though I have seen it used well by colleagues who teach the same classes. I have different opinions from some of my colleagues about what the important features are of certain philosophical arguments. I express those opinions to my students, and I make it clear to those of them who are sufficiently attentive and intellectually mature that my opinions are mine, and are grounded in a good deal of experience of thinking about the matters at hand, but that they are disputed, for reasons I explain, by others. I also express opinions about the quality of the arguments we study, and present those opinions as the conclusions of arguments that I offer up for scrutiny. I encourage students to offer reasons for contrary conclusions and am sometimes, if rarely, persuaded and, more often, struck by something interesting (and make it clear when I am). This is crucial to the process of teaching philosophy, and unless I had a fair amount of discretion over how to teach the content, it would be impossible.

Now 3). Again, as it happens I have some discretion over choice of texts in CMI. But again that choice is intrinsically constrained by the subject matter; texts with no relevant content are out of bounds. Suppose my department adopted, as it could and as, in fact, there are good reasons for it to, a common curriculum for sections of CMI, and suppose that this decision involved (as it probably would) adoption of a common textbook. Would there be a case grounded in the value of academic freedom against their doing so?

I can imagine different scenarios. Suppose, implausibly, that my department was seized by a majority of faculty who were vehemently opposed to abortion, and adopted a common curriculum and textbook solely in order to prevent the issue of abortion being discussed with students because they suspected, let’s suppose, that the way we teach about the morality of abortion in contemporary moral issues tended to lead students to support pro-choice positions. Then there might be a violation of academic freedom, but I’m not certain that it would be a violation of my academic freedom; it would be that of the students, because the motive would be to shut off their access to a certain way of thinking about the morality of abortion.

Now imagine that they do exactly the same thing because they think I and another colleague use the class to promote pro-choice positions about abortion; the tendency of students to become pro-choice comes, on this scenario, not from the process of thinking philosophically about abortion but from direct indoctrination. I doubt this would be the most effective way of attacking indoctrination, but I certainly don’t think that the attempt to block indoctrination would be wrong in itself. I suppose they would be restricting my academic freedom in doing so, but it would be freedom I do not have a right to: I have no right to be free to indoctrinate my students.

(Before imagining the most normal case, I might add that I do not believe the assumptions I am attributing to my putative colleagues; I don’t use the class to indoctrinate my students about abortion and I suspect such a use is rare, nor do I think that careful philosophical thinking about abortion systematically inclines students to become pro-choice).

Finally, imagine the most normal case; where the motive is solely to rationalize our undergraduate offerings, so that students get more similar experiences, which prepare them more equally for some subsequent course. This seems an admirable rationale for reform, and one that no faculty member has a legitimate complaint against, so long as the new curriculum is reasonably well crafted. Math, Science, and Engineering departments as well as other departments where the discipline requires mastery of a common set of technical tools, have such curriculums, and professors have no grounds for complaint; they only have impersonal grounds for commenting on the quality of the common curriculum, and for debating the merits of chosen common texts. In such debates the claim that “I should be free to use the text I want to, because I have academic freedom” has no place. Claiming the right to use a textbook one has written is similarly out of place. Claiming that a textbook is particularly good, for some reason, does have a place. But academic freedom is not relevant to the discussion.

None of these scenarios involve violations of academic freedom. I’m not saying it is not important for teachers to have some degree of autonomy in the classroom, or for researchers to have a good deal of control over how they conduct their research; it is, and a university or school that understands its educational and, where applicable, research mission, will grant that autonomy. But the preconditions of fulfilling the educational research missions are what are at stake in these cases, not some right to academic freedom owed to the professor.

Now, just to conclude, there are genuine cases in which academic freedom is violated. Suppose the Legislature got itself involved in the detail of the Philosophy, or Engineering, or the Biology curriculum, or waged a campaign against one or another professor or department in order to promote certain political outcomes or attitudes. That would be a violation of academic freedom because it would involve government officials in trying to limit the activities of professors as educators or researchers not for the sake of academic values (including the coherence of the curriculum for students) but for the sake of a political agenda. If a Biology teacher were fired for refusing to teach Intelligent Design as if it were a genuine scientific rival to evolutionary theory, that would be a violation of his academic freedom, as well as a wrong to the students involved. Similarly a Physics teacher who refused to teach Flat-earthism. The generally obnoxious behavior of David Horowitz and his ilk, while it certainly does not involve any violations of academic freedom, does seem to spring from a desire to restrict it; he appears to want legislators and others specifically to campaign against left-wing professors and perspectives. The actual firing and blacklisting of numerous academics in the 1950’s on grounds that had no relationship to their competence or quality as researchers and teachers involved multiple violations of academic freedom as well as other important values.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.05.07 at 2:48 pm

This article appears thoroughly wrong-headed to me. “Those that give away freedom in the interest of security will have neither.” But those who give it away in the interest of picky debating points — well, there’s not even an illusory value to be gained.

There doesn’t appear to be any kind of new, systematic problem with professors not cooperating with their departments in teaching required courses, introductory material, or used accepted texts. These problems are generally handled through social pressure within the department — as the sentence above goes, you’d “feel like a jerk” if you didn’t go along. I don’t think it’s that common for people to become tenured if they’re the kind of person who isn’t affected by this informal social pressure. Sometimes people no longer can do things because of age, but there are well-established emeritus processes in place.

So academic freedom is exactly like other freedoms. Certainly it’s not a good idea to use freedom of speech to express many objectionable opinions. But when people do, the means of social control involved are informal. You still have full academic freedom to be a jerk even if that isn’t a good thing to be.

The suggestion that you make, that academic freedom really doesn’t cover cases in which the prof insists on using the textbook he or she wrote instead of the usual one, play directly into the hand of Horowitz. There is no way to interpret such a definition of academic freedom except through an enforcement mechanism.


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.05.07 at 3:53 pm

“Then there might be a violation of academic freedom, but I’m not certain that it would be a violation of my academic freedom; it would be that of the students, because the motive would be to shut off their access to a certain way of thinking about the morality of abortion.”

Maybe I haven’t been following the argument well enough, but my understanding was that students don’t have academic freedom at all in the sense that professors do. They aren’t imputed the kind of expertise to deserve it. (Whether or not this is an appropriate way of thinking about it is a different subject). You seem to be talking about something like “the free marketplace of ideas” concept, not really academic freedom–which is specifically held by instructors (I think).


SamChevre 04.05.07 at 4:07 pm

And Rich, that’s exactly what someone like me (a fairly disinterested outside observer) sees as exactly the issue; I think that academic freedom and an enforcement mechanism go together.

For an analogy, think of a police department. It has, and needs, significant freedom to act as circumstances and abilities dictate; but it ALSO needs clear policies, understandable to and enforced by outsiders. “When is it appropriate to use deadly force?” “What kinds of restraints are appropriate when?” “What behaviors are grounds for pulling someone over?”

All these things are part of how police do their jobs; they need to be free to restrain arrestees when needed. But that doesn’t mean that any of us would be satisfied if the Richmond Police insisted “we have internal standards on restraints, and the Washington Police checked that we’re following them 5 years ago”; we want those standards to be public, and subject to public criticism at least, and we want a civilian review board to see whether they were followed in specific cases.


Barry 04.05.07 at 5:18 pm

Harry: “This is probably because by the time I became a teacher with genuine autonomy I’d already heard the idea invoked so many times in defense of so many bad practices that I couldn’t take it seriously. ”

Just like the presumption of innocence, or right to a jury trial – you wouldn’t *believe* the vast number of really nasty people who assert those rights.


harry b 04.05.07 at 5:27 pm

But Barry, they don’t assert them in defence of bad practices — just in defence of themselves in a bad situation (they say, eg, that they didn’t perform the putatively bad act).


Barry 04.05.07 at 5:42 pm

Good point. So I’ll retreat to freedom of speech, religion, association, etc.


Yarrow 04.05.07 at 5:46 pm

4) Professors choosing what topics to research, and what methods to use in the pursuit of that research.

This is crux for me — I’m (a non-academic who is) willing to let a tenured professor of Philosophy of Language switch to researching Boethics, not only because the study of Bo has sadly neglected, but also because that sort of switch is just not going to happen frequently enough for me to worry about. The cases where a legitimate scholar is saved from improper pressure are probably just as rare; but valuable because they are so rare.

Teaching may be different — one wants an Alexander Abian to teach his students set theory, not that Time has Inertia, how to blow up the Moon, or that Venus must be moved to a near-earth orbit.

But even for teaching, external pressure that’s not generated by the academic’s peers is something I’d look twice at.


fardels bear 04.05.07 at 6:50 pm

Here is the central question I think you are skirting: who makes the determination that, for example, a textbook is not “relevant” to the topic of the course? Horowitz, I think it is fairly clear would like to take that determination away from the professoriate and give it to the legislature or the students or somebody else.

The constraints you identify above are those imposed by a community of peers who answer only to the norms and values of an autonomous group of experts. They have this power over you, those outside the group–the legislature, the students, etc.–do not have this power. That is what academic freedom is about–professors only answer to other professors.


Michael Bérubé 04.05.07 at 7:17 pm

I’m with Rich on this one, though I’d like to raise a couple additional objections as to how Harry’s using the term “academic freedom” here. One: at times it seems almost to be understood as a rationale for allowing professors to do whatever the hell they want, and no one can deny (and therefore I won’t) that sometimes, as John Friedl argued last year, professors themselves make remarkably stupid and/or misinformed arguments about what academic freedom permits them to do (or to refuse to do). Against that backdrop, where “academic freedom” means “anything goes,” the idea that departments can establish course prerequisites, or even a common syllabus for a course to be taught in twenty different sections, might look like an abridgement of academic freedom, but that’s just not the case. The principle of academic freedom does not allow faculty members to blow off curricular decisions made by their departments. (And here I’m agreeing with Harry’s overall argument but disagreeing that his argument entails any challenge to the AAUP definition of academic freedom.)

Two: as Sebastian points out, students don’t have academic freedom in quite the sense that professors do. The AAUP, however, fully recognizes that professors have no right to (try to) indoctrinate their students, and the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students is really worth checking out. Students have the freedom to learn, and nothing is gained by confusing that freedom with professors’ freedom with regard to research and teaching.

And three: the concept of academic freedom doesn’t really touch on the question of whether professors can avoid teaching required classes. This is related to my first objection, that “academic freedom” is treated here as the freedom to teach just any old thing, but on this count it’s elided with quite different matters, such as the ethical question of how to be a good colleague and a good departmental citizen. And all I can say is that I wish more professors would feel like jerks when they try to get out of doing the bread-and-butter work of their departments.

As for the question of how to think about professors whose research interests evolve far from their original area(s) of expertise: I think it’s quite rare to come across the problem Harry raises when he writes, “hired in Philosophy of Language, or in US History, or in Victorian English Literature, one cannot in good faith abandon these areas as soon as one gets tenure for, say, Boethics, the History of French Education, or Syntax,” if only because very, very few people work long years for tenure and then immediately throw off their Philosophy of Language clothes to reveal themselves as History of French Education wannabes-in-waiting. Still, the question of how to evaluate the scholarship of someone working well outside his or her fields of expertise remains a difficult one.


harry b 04.05.07 at 7:40 pm

So I’m not sure what rich and michael are objecting to in what I said (sebastian, by contrast, I get the objection, and agree that I was being sloppy in attributing academic freedom to the students — the point was meant to be that it is their interests, rather than academic freedom, that look to be at stake). I didn’t say that academic freedom doesn’t matter — I said twice that it does. And I also didn’t object to the AAUP definition, that looks fine to me, but not very specific. But in the day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year work of a professor, it doesn’t figure much, and my target is correctly identified by michael in his first paragraph.

fardels bear’s point is good up to a point. But I don’t think Barry’s is, or at least, its not exactly. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc, are rights of citizenship. Academic freedom (whatever it is)is a right that is attached to a role. One gets it only by virtue of adopting a certain role. Society has more of a right to discretion over how to determine the parameters of that role than it does over how to determine the parameters of the role of citizen. Horowitz has a very simple and straightforward agenda beyond his main one (which is generating a lot of publicity for himself): he wants to paint academia as a left-wing haven, and generate hostility to funding and support for the most successful public institutions. Calling “academic freedom” against him is fine, he’d certainly like to undermine it if he could. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is exploiting a reality which is that academics should indeed be accountable at least to those who subsidise them. The terms of that accountability are what are at issue, and although that’s not what my post is about I did mention some reasons for including academic freedom (properly understood, however that is) within those terms. It shouldn’t, though, be invoked against accountability.

I agree, too, with michael’s last paragraph, especially the final sentence, which raises hard questions!


fardels bear 04.05.07 at 8:04 pm

Your argument that “academics should indeed be accountable at least to those who subsidise them” sounds straight out of Bill Buckley, ca. 1951.

The counter is that academics are accountable to the extent that they are producing and reproducing some kind of reliable and accurate knowledge. But the determination that the knowledge is reliable and accurate is made by the specialized community of arguers who produced the knowledge, not by those paying the bills.

If “academics should indeed be accountable at least to those who subsidise them” you are obligated to explain how a non-expert could pass reliable judgment on body of knowledge they don’t have the training or background to understand.


harry b 04.05.07 at 9:02 pm

fardel bear — but what about samchevre’s point? Should the police police the police? Should the military police the military? Should doctors police the medical profession? Sure, in each case there is a substantial public interest in giving the professionals a great deal of autonomy, once aims and goals have been set by some process of public deliberation. And, crucially, the public has a right to make certain kinds of demands and not others. But my answer to all three of those questions is an emphatic “no”. Buckley, Horowitz, etc, want to use an unavoidable and quite proper sense that academics should be accountable to limit the scope of inquiry and to undermine democratic processes — and Horowitz adds to this the aim of undermining support and funding for strong public institutions. The debate about what accountability means and what the public has a right to ask for is important. Academic freedom should be argued for in that context, but it does not foreclose debate, and trying to use it that way plays into the hands of the enemy, in my opinion. All this is completely tangential to the points in the post, btw.

samchevre, are you going to come back to help me out here?


SamChevre 04.05.07 at 9:36 pm


I’ll be happy to try to help you out, but I may end up being one of those people that makes you look at the people on your side and consider changing sides.

I think that traditional academic norms, including academic freedom as sensibly understood, make good sense in a world where academics study things that are of academic interest, funded by contributions from people who think such study is a good idea. In our world, where “academic” training is the gateway to the middle class, it hardly seems to me that those traditional norms make much sense. My preference would be to re-think our entire system of “middle-class entry qualification” and replace it with tests or something. Let academia go back to its traditional role–specialized training for geeks who actually think proving that there are more real than rational numbers, or thinking about the truth-value of “all Cretans are liars”, is fun. (I’m in that category.)

But in our world, that’s unlikely to happen. So here in reality, I think that academic freedom isn’t a very clear concept. It might mean that if your job is teaching, you can research whatever you want in your spare time, so long as your subject is taught well. And vice versa if your job is research–if you want to research the properties of iron-carbon alloys, and teach a class on Masculinity in Shakespeare, have at it–if anyone cares to listen. I’d have no problem with that. But I do have a problem with the idea that so long as you stay within disciplinary boundaries, everything goes–even if that means that there are no classes in British History at your institution, because you think the History of Feminism is more interesting and relevant.


John Quiggin 04.05.07 at 10:11 pm

On (4) a lot of departments would feel equally aggrieved if they hired someone expecting “reliable student of Professor X” and got someone who had converted to the methods or views of Professor Y while staying in the same field.

If you’ve been hired to teach field X, you’ve got an obligation to stay current enough to teach it, but that’s as far as it goes in my view.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.05.07 at 10:55 pm

Harry, it seems you’re conflating different things. I’m not sure it’s fair to lump labor issues (like which courses we teach according to departmental needs) with the way in which we choose to teach them, which might include questions of academic freedom. I should say at the outset that I’m reasonably comfortable with the AAUP’s statement on the issue, I suppose.

At any rate, I was hired to teach a certain set of courses. I am lucky in that I have incredible leeway, because I am the only non-Americanist in my department. This means that I can pretty much teach anything in Europe or Asia that I feel comfortable teaching. Except, of course, that I’m the only non-Americanist. I would be violating the spirit of my contract and job description if I were not to offer the required service courses in World Civ (2 per semester), so that leaves me only three courses to play with. Oh — except that there are two upper-division service courses in departmental rotation; in alternate years, the students would like to be able to take Historiography and our thesis course with a European emphasis. That pretty much means I have to teach one of those a year. A large proportion of students need to take specific UD courses for teaching licensure, too. Those are in my purview. So, basically, I am the utility player, teaching 2-3 service courses a semester, and 1 UD course — in alternate years, those end up being in my specialties. I took the job knowing that and knowing that we’re fighting for another line, but we won’t have that unless I can help the department attract more majors. As far as I’m concerned, these are all labor issues, and they do not impinge upon my academic freedom.

OTOH, if one of my colleagues or administrators came in and told me that I couldn’t teach particular information that anyone in my fields of specialization would agree was appropriate? I could consider that an infringement. If they told me I had to use a particular format? not so much. And frankly, if I hired an adjunct to teach a survey, I’d have a list of guidelines for assignments that would meet our departmental outcomes and assessment standards, because we are trying to prepare students for a capstone project. They need to acquire certain kinds of skills and disciplinary approaches.

OTOH, if I had to worry about censoring the kinds of information I taught, or my approaches to teaching, or what I could research within my fields, otherwise I might lose my job, or not get promoted? Or if I had to worry that opinions I voiced outside the classroom could be held against me and used to remove me from my position? I could consider those things infringements.

I’m still not sure how I consider the idea that a college or university could consider what I did off-campus (as long as it were legal), especially if I did it discreetly, in terms of keeping me on or terminating me. I think it’s none of the institution’s business. I think there should be no legal ground for them to stand on. But I don’t know that it’s an academic freedom issue per se — I think it’s equally an issue for every working person.

I really do believe that a faculty member must feel free to teach ideas that have scholarly merit but may be offensive to some people, without fear of reprisals. Some of the things that I teach are very unpopular, but they are sound from a scholarly point of view. OTOH, if I started proselytizing from my lectern on subjects that are irrelevant to my subject or to the teaching and learning process, I would most likely be abusing my position and power, and infringing on my students’ rights. I don’t think academic freedom is meant to protect that.


Robert 04.06.07 at 1:00 am

I wonder if some here would find it of interest to comment on the relevance for this discussion of the case at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=347476. I’ll try a link.


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 1:45 am

“fardel bear—but what about samchevre’s point? Should the police police the police?”

I have difficulty accepting that samchevre’s point is being taken seriously, but since it is… the police interact with ordinary citizens by interogating, arresting, and occasionally shooting them. Academics interact with people by teaching them. Let’s not have any false equivalence between the two. It’s clear why people want the police to be under non-police control; it’s clear why the military should be under civilian control. (Doctors, by the way, largely do regulate themselves; but in cases where they don’t, you can still see why there’s a difference.)

Harry’s whole argument ignores history. There’s a reason why the organizational structure of academia is as it is, and there is no pressing problem that demands that it be reorganized. Harry can argue that he wasn’t suggesting reorganization, just arguing against improper extensions of the idea of academic freedom. But that misunderstands the whole concept of a negative freedom. If someone wants to do items on Harry’s list 1-4, and they don’t choose to be stopped by informal departmental controls, then they have the right to do them.

Mostly I think that Harry just doesn’t seem to agree that this should be a negative freedom. There’s a lot of rhetoric about how academics need to be accountable, and how academic freedom is OK after “aims and goals have been set by some process of public deliberation”. Well, no. Academia is run on the basis of an implicit bargain: society doesn’t set aims and goals, and in return people get educated and research gets done. Attempts to set aims and goals through public deliberation are very predictably going to be counterproductive for all concerned.


vivian 04.06.07 at 1:55 am

I agree that the meaningful question is “what is academic freedom for?” instead of “what is academic freedom?” The answer is about teaching (and living) the skill of how to think and evaluate new information for oneself. We all think we’re doing it, so it’s not going to guide us in choosing among (adequate) textbooks.

It might be useful in deciding when a heated class discussion is getting too nasty to continue, or whether to allow alternative assignments for students with deep objections to dissecting a frog or something. Academic freedom wouldn’t be useful as a nyah-nyah trump, but as a start of a thoughtful conversation on what to do next.

I know one case where it got in the way: a tenured prof with a history of great teaching and real care for students. Later in his career he came to class smelling of alcohol, not teaching so well. Colleagues were silent for fear of disrespecting his – earned – autonomy. Even though they wouldn’t be punishing him, but looking to help him.


harry b 04.06.07 at 2:40 am


you can’t possibly believe that the structure of academia is justified by the history that gave rise to it. And whereas academic freedom is a cross-cultural value, the history of american academia is a cultural specific. It matters much less how academia is governed than how the police are (and the military is), I agree, but the principle that professionals have exclusive authority to police themselves is not a good one, and certainly not one that I can accept for any professional group. Your final paragraph (of #17) suggests a justification for academic freedom — much the justification that I gave in the post — but is not much help in working out the precise content of academic freedom, leaving open many of the questions I tried to address in the post, and that michael subsequently raises and addresses. My feeling is that you are opposed to some other position or view, not the ones that I have actually expressed and argued for, which is why I had a hard time figuring out what you were objecting to in my post in #1.

samchevre — its ok, I agree with everything in your first substantive paragraph above. If there’s confusion in my post it may stem from not being clear in my head about the distinction you make in that and the subsequent para, so that’s v. helpful. Thanks.

Thanks too to ADM: you’re definitely right that I am conflating those issues, and I’ll think more. And to vivian for the last para, which is a great illustration of the kind of things I’m worried about.


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 3:54 am

Harry, I don’t understand why you don’t understand. I think that I’ve been pretty clear. Your argument is exactly analogous to one that says “Here are some examples of practices that some claim to merit the protection of freedom of speech: 1) Advocating support of any political party” and then later saying that you don’t really have this right if you speak in favor of a fascist party. Well, yes you do. You are trying to make a distinction between rights as rights of everyone and rights as rights appropriate to a particular role that I don’t think exists. I also think that your grasp of how professions are actually regulated is poor; most of them do in fact have extensive authority to regulate themselves.

So, as I said in comment #1, I think that your desire to “[work] out the precise content of academic freedom” is thoroughly wrong-headed. The precise content of academic freedom is historically determined by each department. Any attempt to rationalize it past the AAUP guidelines can only invite the outside regulation that you are in fact arguing for in your later comments.

If it helps to understand, think of my argument as a Burkean one. It isn’t really — it’s more focussed on process liberalism — but that may get you started.


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 4:17 am

I should add: if you don’t like free speech as an example, try freedom of the press. That’s a freedom that only professionals within a particular societal role get. And they only regulate themselves. (They can’t commit the crime of libel, but that’s another matter). And hopefully you’d see how an effort to precisely delineate freedom of the press, coupled with nice-sounding verbiage about how professionals should not police themselves, would predictably lead directly to official censorship whether the people proposing these ideas had that in mind or not.


Patrick 04.06.07 at 4:52 am

The discussion thus far ignores a couple of things.

1. In the case of tenured and tenure-track faculty (at least at my institution) the curriculum, and the courses that make up the curriculum are constructed by the tenured/tenure-track faculty. Those members of the faculty vote on what the department will offer and who will be hired. The opposition between department and faculty member is less stark than between, say, the university and the state legislature, or even the trustees. If you are tenured, and the DEO asks you to teach a particular service course, you probably had some input into the existence and nature of that course. This limits (IMHO) your ability to object. Most places draw much of their administration from their faculty, so even when the college gets in the mix, the lines aren’t really all that clear.

2. In the case of the people who teach most courses, i.e., non tenure track visiters and adjuncts, as well as TAs, academic freedom is mostly just that, academic. There’s a certain amount of respect paid to the notion, but mostly, don’t piss off the people with real (if limited) power, i.e. the tenure track faculty and the administration. Some places display more respect than others, but it’s a choice not an obligation. (I’m glad I teach where I do.)

3. The more tenure gets eroded, the less we’ll be defending academic freedom and the more we’ll be defending health benefits.


Z 04.06.07 at 9:42 am

Reading you brings back reminiscences of Bourdieu, Harry. If I understand you correctly, academic freedom in your eyes looks very much alike field autonomy. So no outside influence from another field (your last paragraph) but mandatory adherence to some largely unwritten and yet universally accepted rules (the autonomous rules of the autonomous field). I even recognize some form of the nomos of the field when you write “The professor chooses projects within that specialty, and has a strong degree of self-interest in choosing methods appropriate to the nature of the research.”

What then is the problem of academic freedom. Well, the usual problem of autonomous field, or in the more prosaic Samchevre formulation: Should the police police the police? On the one hand, we should wish for autonomous fields; on the other hand, the scholarly field has an enormous social impact (if only by handing the keys to the middle or upper class), should it really answer only to itself? Besides, can we be sure that the outcome won’t be self-sanctioned mediocrity, or even sheer lunacy?

On the other hand, the problem of a researcher switching subjects seems relatively easily tackled to me. Part of the pre-conditions for the existence of an autonomous field is the existence of self-controlling mechanisms. In highly specialized field like academia today, this requires that what you do is intelligible. So either your new work is recognized as of scholarly value by relevant authorities in your new field and you are fine (as long as you keep performing to the standards of your previous field as well of course), or they don’t and you are not a scholar in this new field. If your new work is unmistakably of scholarly quality but your current work is substandard in your previous field of expertise, well no problem, switch department as well as research subject! Of course, problem arises as different academic fields do not enjoy the same level of autonomy, but that is the problem of ensuring autonomy, not of evaluating research.


Roger Sexton 04.06.07 at 10:33 am

Surely, I cannot be the only person reading this blog who thinks that Harry has pumped a lot of philosophical gas into a personal grievance he has with one or more colleagues at his university. I think you’ve been in the US for far too long and have come to be suckered into the American ethos of ‘collegiality’, which is probably the most insidious threat to any robust sense of academic freedom.


Tom T. 04.06.07 at 12:04 pm

Re: #21. The press analogy seems a bit limited to me, as there is no equivalent of tenure. Journalists can be fired by their employers over mistakes or professional disagreements, without any journalistic rights equivalent to academic freedom.


harry b 04.06.07 at 12:52 pm

rich, you think I misunderstand the role of professions in self-regulation because you read “should” as “do”. I know a good deal of what goes on, but don’t take the fact that it goes on as justification. Though I will say that while several professions are largely self-regulating in the two countries I know well, they do so within very different statutory constraints, which define their roles differently.

I think, despite the absence of tenure, that the press freedom analogy might be illuminating. Suppose the relevant authority proposes to introduce a law prohibiting the press from naming suspects and indictees in criminal cases, until after they have been found guilty. What arguments would be relevant to determining whether the relevant authority should actually pass such a law? I know that some people would go on about the “freedom of the press” but that would not, in my view, provide a valid reason against the law. Instead, to provide a valid reason, the opponents would have to explain in some detail what public interest was served by allowing the press to name such people, and that this interest was more important than the combination of individual interests concerning reputation and a fair trial and the public interest in trials in general being fair. Similarly changes in the libel laws (eg the UK has notoriously restrictive libel laws, the US has very liberal libel laws — I think the latter laws are much better, and that is partly, though only partly, because the UK libel law can be used to muzzel the press, but I doubt that the US libel laws are perfect, and presume that thoughtful and reasonable people could give reasons why they should be reformed somewhat, thus changing the shape of press freedom).

Here’s an underlying complaint of mine, which is about school teaching (which relates to vivian’s example). Sometimes — no, frequently — academic freedom is invoked by teachers who are resistant to requirements that they observe one another, or colaborate in the development of lesson plans, or the introduction of compulsory mentoring systems be introduced. This is far more widespread than you’d like to think, and entirely wrongheaded. Its a case where a genuine value is wrongly invoked, and greatly to the detriment of what goes on in high schools in particular. If teaching were a self-regulating profession, given the pervasiveness of this misunderstanding, some of the essential levers of school improvement would be impossible to introduce. You might say — ah, well, teachers don’t have academic freedom. Why not? Why shouldn’t teachers be self regulating like other professions? The history in this case has been just awful, and reform is necessary. Your position seems unduly conservative to me. Getting clear about the parameters of academic freedom helps people to understand which reforms they should consider, which they should resist, and what the overall package of acceptable reforms should look like.


harry b 04.06.07 at 1:16 pm

roger, since you have raised it I can say definitively that, while I understand exactly why it might look that way, I have no such grievance at all. I’m sure that my colleagues know that if I had, it would have been aired very clearly and openly (but not impolitely) with them. But you are right that there is a particular story/incident that set this off, just one that I have no direct personal connection to.


Another Damned Medie 04.06.07 at 2:25 pm

Harry — reading #26, something else does come to mind. Last semester, my first semester at SLAC, some of my senior colleagues were shocked! that, when a student complained about a paper grade, I allowed the student to ask my department chair or our dean (happens to be in my discipline) for a re-read/re-grade. The senior colleague was amazed I would give up my autonomy, and for him, clearly this was part of what academic freedom entailed. Neither of my disciplinary colleagues are in my field, but I figured they would be able to judge whether an essay met the requirements of the assignment (freshman level). The student took up the offer, the chair said he thought I might have been a little generous.

Here’s the thing, though. Some of my closest friends and colleagues teach in the UK and Ireland. I’m so used to hearing about dual-marking and external examining, that it just seems natural and sensible to me. I was trained in departments (and I think this may be more true for Classics/Ancient/Medieval historians than in other sub-fields) where there was constant peer review, not only of one’s own work, but of syllabi, assignments, and exam questions. All of this type of thing, including allowing a colleague to act as an appellate reader, seem to me to be part of the general peer review process.

Here’s where it gets sticky, though. Part of the student’s complaint was that I was pushing Catholicism in my classes, and had marked the (review) paper down because the student had complained about the suthor’s “Catholic” pov. Er … the subject at hand was Christianity in Europe in the post-Arian Early Middle Ages.

To do my job properly, I kind of have to present Roman Christianity as the Christianity of the west. By the same token, when I talk about ancient and medieval slavery, I have an obligation tell students that the history of slavery in North America was contextually very different, and that they can’t judge the ancient world by what they (think they) know about the modern one. These ideas can be very unpopular. I’ve also been accused of pushing a liberal agenda when I discuss Athenian or Roman government, and of being both pro- and anti-gay when I talk about homosexuality in the ancient world. Here is where I think academic freedom is a hugely important concept. I teach in a very small institution. I am the only specialist in my areas on campus. I am fortunate in that my colleagues trust my expertise and support me (although a couple have asked about the homosexuality thing, especially). But if they didn’t, I would be very tempted to invoke academic freedom to protect my ability to discuss those topics I deem necessary to teaching in my field. To bring this full circle, that peer review thing acts as protection for me, as well. I know that, if students were to complain, I could go to colleagues in my fields and they would support my syllabus as being in line with current scholarship.


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 2:50 pm

“I know a good deal of what goes on, but don’t take the fact that it goes on as justification.”

All right, then let’s be clear that you are in fact proposing a radical restructuring of society, in which every freedom must be rationalized, as in your example around freedom of the press. Perhaps now you can see why I referred to Burke.

I’m not a conservative, but the history of this kind of attempt should make it clear why it’s a bad idea absent a) clear problems with the current system, b) a clear goal that you are trying to approach. You have neither. What you seem to have is technocratic language — “some of the essential levers of school improvement would be impossible to introduce” — which is very predictably going to be bowled over by organized political interests as soon as the mechanism for enforcing change is put in place. Without a mechanism for enforcing change, really all you are saying is “don’t be a jerk”, but because you seemingly don’t want to put it that way, it comes out as a useful attack on academic freedom.


harry b 04.06.07 at 2:57 pm

Ah, so I’m a useful idiot. Can’t argue with that.

Where is the proposal for the radical restructuring of society? I would argue, in the case of press freedom, for a mild change in the law concerning whom the press can name during the lead up to and period of a trial. In the case of schooling I would argue for a changes (in some districts) in the working conditions of teachers such that they can expect to collaborate with their colleagues in a way that exposes some of what they do to the scrutiny of others. Nothing radical there — its standard in elementary schooling, and in pretty much all good schools. Your standard seems unwilling to consider reform, and on what grounds? We don’t know because you have defined academic freedom as whatever deal has already been made.


harry b 04.06.07 at 3:25 pm

PS — I would, indeed, propose more radical measures in many arenas (eg, more steeply progressive income tax, heavier and better enforced emissions limits, changes in the tax/benefit system designed to eliminiate relative poverty, etc, and of course reealise that all sorts of interest groups would try to block such reforms. The role of reason is in demonstrating to people who do not have an interest in blocking reforms that they are worth pursuing, immmunising them, a little, against the propaganda of interest groups).


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 3:30 pm

I didn’t write that you were a useful idiot. I wrote that a radical, technocratic rationalization program underlies what you wrote about this topic. That indeed does make your program useful to people with other programs, but I should clarify that I also think that your program is objectionable in its own right. When people come up with attacks on some basic freedom or other, I’d really like the basic assumption to be that the freedom should not be infringed, capable of disproof only by extraordinary evidence on the other side. There are certain fundamentals that are not supposed to be re-negotiated all the time.


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 3:40 pm

I didn’t see your comment 30 when I wrote 31, but of course the level of income tax, the enforcement or size of emissions limits, and the setup of the tax/benefit system are not comparable subjects to the various negative freedoms. Those are aspects of society that we do indeed continually negotiate.

I should also say that I don’t have some kind of idea of “natural rights”, “originalism” etc. I accept that all rights and freedoms are constructs created through some mixture of negotiation and power politics, and that none have time-invarying meanings. But most of liberal politics can be seen as an attempt to make some of them more difficult to change than others.


harry b 04.06.07 at 3:40 pm

Ok, so I disagree on both counts. There is no radical technocratic program underlying what I argued. In the case of HE I don’t know what I think substantively; in the case of compulsory ed I’d advocate a whole bunch of reforms, most of which have nothing to do with academic freedom, as in the cases I cite. That academic freedom is often misused to object to those reforms shows me how important it is to get clear about what it really involves.

I also disagree about the (radically strong) presumption in favour of freedom, at the level that I’m interested in, which is the level of thinking carefully about what people should and should not be able to do. Sure freedom is important, but it is important for reasons, and those reasons have to be weighed against reasons for doing things that impinge on freedom. As for a presumption in favour of freedom at the political level, I’m more sympathetic. I am so glad, though, that it was not in place in the UK when we set up the National Health Service, and in the Scandinavian social democracies when they were establishing those.


harry b 04.06.07 at 3:45 pm

I agree with everything in #32 (#33 was a response to #31). Although, and you’re just not gong to believe me about this after everything we’ve said up till now, I suspect that I do have something much closer to a natural rights view of rights than you do!

But, just to say, the level of income tax is often taken, quite wrongly in both our views, to be non-negotiable because people have a freedom-right to the fruits of their labours. It takes intellectual work to show why this is false, and that is the kind of work I think needs to be done in specifying the proper parameters of any freedom.


Rich Puchalsky 04.06.07 at 4:18 pm

“I suspect that I do have something much closer to a natural rights view of rights than you do!”

I could see that. If you assume that no rights are natural, then the only way to preserve them over some period of time is to agree not to argue about them, or at least to have the presumption that it’s going to take a very strong argument to change them.

Which is not to say that there aren’t reasons for rights and freedoms. It’s that reasons are not, finally, very important when considering how they get changed. The reasons why it’s not a good idea to torture people are just as convincing as they ever were. But those reasons have been predicteably ignored when people decided, in a hysterical reaction to events compounded by propaganda, that torture would be a good idea after all. In those cases, you have to support freedoms as rules.

As for the genesis of positive freedoms (e.g. the right to health care), I don’t think that the people who argued for a freedom-right to the use of their labors ever had a case, historically. There never was an era in which taxation for the purpose of provision of some kind of public good did not exist, if only the public good of protection against invasion. The people arguing against public health care on those ideological grounds were doing the same thing that I’ve criticized in this thread; proposing a new framework in which current arrangements are ignored and in which “rational” consideration from first principles should control political realities.


Ben Saunders 04.06.07 at 10:10 pm

Hmmm, I’m not really up on the current debates in the US, or even how things work in the UK (being only a grad student and what I guess you’d call TA, and at a somewhat unusual institution).

Anyway, maybe it’s because I’ve been reading On Liberty today, but the Millian line seems an appealing one to me here:

Why not say academics – like all others – are only answerable to society for what concerns society. Of course, all teaching and tax-funded research may have indirect effects on others, but here bring in that ‘direct and assignable duty’ bit – academics should not be free to neglect duties to their students and colleagues but, otherwise, should be left to do what they want. I think a lot of Mill’s arguments about the value of free thought and experimentation apply in academia, and it’s often those that ‘think outside the box’ who ‘change the subject’.

As for who polices the police (in academia, as opposed to law enforcement), since non-academics won’t really be capable of doing so directly I guess they can only judge the merits of any particular academic, project or institution by the proxy of how it’s received in the academic community. If I see Prof X refused tenure and Prof Y offered a chair at Harvard, then I assume Prof Y is doing stuff his fellow academic community deem somehow ‘more worthy’. I think something like a competitive marketplace effectively ‘polices’ itself in most cases. (Though, of course, one would have to be wary about, say, professors indoctrinating undergrads who hadn’t got much real choice or exit option, etc).


Laleh 04.06.07 at 10:35 pm

It seems to me Harry B has never taught the politics of Israel-Palestine in the US.


vivian 04.07.07 at 12:45 am

Rich, I think Harry is closer to Dewey than Burke, not just because he writes about education, but because of his approach to words like freedom (and right). H and D are interested in why these things are so good, or useful, that we have bothered to privilege, say, academic freedom. And if it’s good for managing specific problems, then as good life-examiners, we should care about the practical impact and its mechanics. That’s not devaluing or jeopardizing the concept – that’s honoring and respecting it.

(btw, is it more awkward to refer to “Harry” but “Dewey” and Burke”? no disrespect meant)


C. L. Ball 04.10.07 at 9:28 pm

I think students should have academic freedom to research and study at a college (e.g., “We’re expelling you because you took part in an anti-union rally downtown” or “For my course ‘The Modern State’, students must write a paper on Hegel’s theory of the state using at least two outside sources, but if any of you use Alvineri, I’ll flunk you because I hate his view.”)

I think most academic freedom debates are best illustrated via casuistry. Elaine Scarry is an English professor who has written in non-academic journals — not in peer-reviewed journals about electronics or aeronautics — about “electromagnetic interference” and plane crashes. If she turned “The 19th Century Novel” course into a course on EMI and planes, then Harvard would have legitimate grounds for sanctioning her, and it would not be a violation of academic freedom. That’s what I take Harry to be saying.

But what if Prof. Smith at Low Budget U. is teaching statistics and believes that the faculty-selected, bulk-purchased text for the intro course misrepresents the meaning of p-values. He assigns the class J. Cohen’s “The earth is flat (p


C. L. Ball 04.10.07 at 9:32 pm

That finally graph should be:

But what if Prof. Smith at Low Budget U. is teaching statistics and believes that the faculty-selected, bulk-purchased text for the intro course misrepresents the meaning of p-values. He assigns the class J. Cohen’s “The earth is flat (p (less than) .05).” Is his academic freedom violated if the dept. sanctions him or tries to permit him from doing so? I think yes.

Apparently, ‘less than’ signs become code easily.

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