Where academic freedom begins

In her recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Where academic freedom ends”, Julie Reuben investigates the limits of academic freedom and offers the wisdom that it is abused when one intentionally spreads misinformation and offers one’s academic credentials to appear authoritative.

She has us consider, as an example, a Stanford professor who spread falsehoods about COVID-19 while standing on the pedestal of an unrelated expertise.

She develops a case for dispelling the notion that academic freedom justifies almost anything that a professor wants to say, bringing out how strictly regulated academic discourse is when one considers such practices as refereeing of journal articles and keeping students on point in discussions.

To enforce her sense of the limits of academic freedom, she calls for the articulation of additional norms that formulate “legitimate restrictions on our behaviour as professionals”.

In this discussion, she subscribes to what I call a free speech model of academic freedom that focuses on what academics can freely say. It is the prevailing model that locates academic freedom as a variant of First Amendment freedom of speech and grounds it in the law.

In this view, academic freedom is not congruent with First Amendment freedom of speech; for one thing, the First Amendment grants freedom of speech to all citizens, whereas academic freedom applies primarily to faculty and academic institutions.

A professional model of academic freedom is broader as it locates academic freedom within professionals exercising their independent professional judgment. It affects the overall work life of the academic and is not limited to what they can say.

Freedom from toxic and harassing environments as much as freedom to benefit from diverse and inclusive ones are among the components of this enriched notion, which should be our starting point for thinking about where academic freedom begins.

A broader notion aligns faculty with other professionals

Faculty have academic freedom as the counterpart of the independent professional judgment which members of other professions enjoy and are required to maintain. Owing to their special knowledge and skills, professionals have special responsibilities to society to employ them with the public good in view.

Stated negatively, professionals must not engage in activities that can compromise this responsibility. Attorneys must not represent clients with conflicting interests as it threatens the ability of the attorneys to exercise their independent professional judgments for the benefit of each client. Encroachments on this judgment are restricted.

Stated positively, attorneys must maintain their independent professional judgment, free from the influence of improper interference. More generally, they do have independent professional judgments, are responsible for maintaining them and should deflect interferences.

The independent professional judgment in effect is a large part of the professional’s autonomy, which society grants the professions as part of a broadly conceived exchange between society and the professions that involves society granting self-governance in exchange for the professions directing their efforts for the good of society.

Conceived in this fashion, academic freedom becomes an ideal to strive for, to protect and to respect. It goes beyond conceptions that are narrowly circumscribed by rights that courts have established as it grounds academic freedom in the nature of professional life.

This vision of a free academic community calls on faculty to see themselves as academically free agents as a matter of morality and social ethics and, for anyone interacting with them in their work environment, to treat them as such.

It may be that some regulations and restrictions unavoidably chip away at this freedom, but their existence is no warrant for jumping to a conclusion that academic freedom is unattainable. The question should always be one of how a restriction can be minimally imposed so as to maximise academic freedom.

The fact that a certifying board requires a certain course content does not confer on a department chair or other administrator jurisdiction over all aspects of course delivery, including choice of text, order of presentation and method of delivery.

Active versus passive academic freedom

If the professional model of academic freedom provides a strong starting point for conceiving academic freedom, an environment where active over passive academic freedom prevails.

With the passive version, we get caught up with identifying threats to academic freedom or violations of it. We think in terms of non-tenure line faculty censoring themselves for fear of capricious dismissal following student complaints, perhaps politically motivated, about something they said in class. We explore ways of ameliorating or correcting the situation with remedies aimed at increasing job security like three- or five-year term contracts.

Scenarios like this highlight the vulnerability of these faculty members as much as they underscore how academic freedom can be undermined. Likewise, conditions where faculty have restrictions on the texts they use or have no input over the number of students that are packed into their classes can impact upon academic freedom more subtly, but they still lie in the category of restrictions to address. Whatever the restrictions are, their removal allows academic freedom to prevail; there are no restrictions or violations.

Such is the nature of passive academic freedom. Note, though, that this circumstance, however ideal it may seem, carries little, if any, assurance that the member of faculty is exercising their freedom in an impartial inquiry into the truth or the creative production of works of art and technologies.

This insight shows us that the mere absence of restrictions on academic freedom is not what we seek, but rather it is the exercising of this freedom in productive faculty pursuits.

Active academic freedom emphasises active engagement of faculty in activities that align with the university’s mission such that academic freedom is not a good in itself but one that is instrumental for inquiry, learning, discovery and creation.

So, it is the joining of the professional model of academic freedom, with academic freedom conceived in this active sense, that should guide us. Once we think of the exercise of academic freedom as a variant of independent professional judgment, we see how its scope expands beyond the freedom to express, discuss and publish ideas without fear of reprisals.

This judgment bears on decisions related to teaching – like the scheduling of classes and office hours, the development of syllabi and the selection of course activities, readings and methods of examination – not to mention the choice of scholarly and creative projects and service activities.

The professional model brings these choices within its scope as much as it clarifies how objectionable activities, like harassment, cyber-bullying, bullying and incivility, can now reasonably be understood as impediments to the exercise of independent judgment and faculty functioning as academically free agents.

It likewise clarifies how the values of inclusion and diversity work together with academic freedom to augment what an academic does.

Diversity, which fosters interactions with colleagues in and from different cultures, with differing disciplinary orientations and alternative frameworks for conceiving problems and projects and for solving them or bringing them to fruition, is the stuff of an active, academically free culture as much as inclusion ensures the perpetuation of these vitalising infusions of diversity.

Vincent Luizzi is faculty ombudsman and professor of philosophy at Texas State University in the United States. At the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, he is an adjunct professor in the Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa.