Does “Academic Freedom” Have a Meaning?

I just forever lost one hour of my life reading through all the comments to Inside Higher Ed’s May 30 article about Ward Churchill’s probable firing.  Aside from the sheer vitriol in the posts, one of the most striking aspects of the debate was the liberal use of the term “academic freedom” to justify his firing and his retention.  The more time I spend in the academic freedom debate, the more I’ve realized that the very phrase itself is often an empty vessel into which both sides pour their moral outrage.  For the liberal faculty establishment, ”academic freedom” is the catch-all that protects virtually every conceivable faculty action.  For the conservative movement, the focus of academic freedom is often on the students — protecting their ability to question the status quo and organize against the campus mainstream.
As a distinctly legal matter, however, “academic freedom” is a profoundly limited concept.  In fact (and much to professors’ chagrin), it is the institutions themselves that possess the most clearly-established academic freedom rights.  The pure academic freedom “rights” that professors enjoy are largely a matter of tradition and contract.  When a professor states a legal claim for the abridgment of his rights to free speech, that claim is almost always grounded in his status as a citizen only — with no “special” protection afforded by his status as an academic.
Given this reality, “academic freedom” is either a term drained of meaning or ripe for redefinition.  I prefer redefinition.  I’m biased, but I’ve always thought that FIRE, ADF (and many others) have long advocated the proper perspective on this issue, viewing academic freedom as a series of interlocking legal rights and moral obligations between the institution, its professors, and their students.  As Richard T. DeGeorge stated in this (old but good) article in the Washington Post:

“Much of the confusion over academic freedom stems from a failure to understand that it is a three-part concept, aimed at promoting knowledge for the benefit of society at large. The first part relates to the university’s freedom to run its own academic affairs, determine appropriate curricula and hire competent faculty without being subject to the dictates of legislatures or governors, religious leaders, alumni or donors, or governmental agencies. Those within the institution hold their positions because of their competence in their academic areas and so are best equipped to decide what needs to be taught, what needs to be researched, and how to do both.
“This in turn leads to the academic freedom of individual faculty members, who are at liberty to decide how to structure their courses and what research to pursue. Finally, the academic freedom of students consists of their right to learn and to be protected against indoctrination or demands about what they must believe or say.

Just as supremacy of one of the three branches of government can lead to abuses of power, so can viewing any one of the three primary branches of academia (institutions, faculties, and students) as supreme can lead to dysfunction.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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