Whose Job is it to Protect Academic Freedom?

In the United States we have a cherished tradition of academic freedom, stemming from our 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech.  “Academic freedom” is such an important value because it is supposed to guarantee that a scholar can follow his or her research wherever it will lead, without being afraid that the results will bring government or religious censure, or that he will be penalized, persecuted or fired for his work.

But in academia, some scholars are “more equal than others,” when it comes to academic freedom.  The hard reality is that some scholars get it and some don’t, depending in large part on that scholar’s political, scientific, religious or social beliefs.  Nevertheless, if the protection of academic freedom doesn’t apply to the most unpopular views, what use is it as a value?

The question then becomes, whose job is it to protect academic freedom?

The Supreme Court

The high court has tackled the issue of academic freedom several times.  Technically, it is only obligated to uphold the 1st Amendment, but it has decreed that academic freedom is not the right of the individual professor or student, but rather, of the educational institution.  Therefore, the court has protected academic freedom within a certain context.

The Educational Institution

Each college or university has the right to determine the content of its courses, and to protect research and scholarship in the way it sees fit.  Almost all schools conform to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which guarantees a broad interpretation of freedom.  Ideally, schools apply these guidelines equally and fairly.  Within a university it falls chiefly to policy committees to make the policy, and the ombudsman to enforce it.

The Professor

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure lays out guidelines most professors are expected to follow, and most schools will give them freedom if they remain within these guidelines.  This means that they are free to discuss whatever they want as it pertains to their subject matter and course content, and they are free to speak about the issue publicly, as long as they make it clear that they are not representing their schools.

The Student

Students have a responsibility to learn their school’s academic freedom policies, so that they can both claim those rights for themselves and hold their teachers accountable.  Sometimes teachers forget that students also have the right to follow their research where it leads without being penalized-even if it disagrees with the teacher’s research!

It’s everyone’s job to defend freedom of speech, but where institutes of higher learning are concerned, some people have some very specific roles to play.  Academic freedom policies are intended to produce effective learning environments, and when everyone does their job right, that’s exactly what happens.

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