Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Re: First Amendment-Academic Freedom Overlap


I’m glad that Robert resurrected our previous discussion of the First Amendment and academic freedom. In reading Peter Wood’s excellent piece, I’m reminded of yet another reason why the AAUP’s most recent pronouncements regarding academic freedom are so unhelpful. The AAUP is more than “just” leftist in its outlook (and therefore interested in preserving the Left’s premiere position on campus), it is also a union. In its role as a union (which can never be fully divorced from its role as a professional association), its formal obligation is to bargain on behalf of its professor members to achieve the best possible terms.  

Read as the starting position of a collective bargaining discussion, the AAUP’s current maximum (for professors)/minimum (for students) ideas regarding academic freedom make more sense. It also makes their positions considerably less intellectually serious. Would you go to the Teamsters to seek the definition of professionalism in the trucking industry? Or perhaps a non-partisan outside organization of experts–like the trucking equivalent of FIRE? (Could it be called TIRE?)

When the AAUP drafted its first statement on academic freedom in 1915 (and when it updated that statement in 1940), First Amendment jurisprudence was not nearly as robust as it is today. Now there is case law that much more clearly defines the rights of professors in and out of the classroom, the rights of students in and out of the classroom, and even the rights of universities themselves to define their own agendas and standards. If a public university were to adopt the AAUP’s (most current) idea of “academic freedom,” it would immediately risk liability from students who found their rights rather dramatically curtailed.

I know, I know . . . this discussion of public universities is largely irrelevant to private universities. But even there, the reality is that virtually all the “freedom” belongs to the institution to define its mission and purpose. Once defined, the “academic freedom” that follows is largely a matter of contract and is highly dependent on the university’s identity. Do we want a private university system that provides a wide variety of distinct educational options? If so, then there is no such thing as across-the-board, private university “academic freedom” as the AAUP understands and defines it.


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