Tool Kit on Academic Freedom

What Is Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom is the freedom of academic disciplines and interdisciplinary academic communities to determine the criteria for production and evaluation of academic work in their fields. It comprises a set of historically evolving ideals and legal principles that affect institutions of higher education. In Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), the United States Supreme Court identified academic freedom as a “special concern” for the court in interpreting and applying the First Amendment. Thus, while academic freedom is not a constitutional right as such, it is well established in case law (see Cloud). Academic freedom ensures professional autonomy, promising members of disciplinary and interdisciplinary communities freedom to determine the parameters of inquiry, research, and teaching. Professional peer-review practices are guaranteed by the principles of academic freedom to be protected from extraneous forms of religious, social, political, economic, or private controls.

The term academic freedom emerged in nineteenth-century German universities, where the three basic principles were the freedom to teach, the freedom to learn, and the freedom to do research. These principles were adapted to different circumstances in the United States and Canada, but they have also circulated in many countries, affecting in various ways higher education in many nations of the world. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), founded in 1915, has formulated the key statements pertinent to resolving the many legal cases involving academic freedom, most notably through the work of the influential Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The pivotal “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” significantly clarified the scope of these principles, and in 1962 the MLA endorsed this statement. Many other academic associations have likewise endorsed the 1940 statement, which is also regularly cited in legal cases involving academic freedom.

Academic freedom has a complex relation to extramural and intramural domains of speech. Extramural speech occurs when faculty members speak or write on larger political, social, or religious matters outside their local institutions. Such speech has the usual First Amendment protections. Though academic freedom is bound up with First Amendment jurisprudence in the United States, its scope is different. It affects only those individuals engaged in research or teaching in institutions of higher education, ensuring that the academic work of faculty members and students may only be assessed according to the standards of the profession.

Intramural speech refers to all those arenas within a given institution where faculty members speak on matters of general concern beyond their specific fields of expertise, such as at faculty senate meetings or university-wide committee meetings. Some recent legal cases have limited First Amendment protections for intramural speech, including protections derived from academic freedom, but this limitation is not universal (e.g., Meade v. Moraine Valley Community College [2014]). As long as the relevant legal precedents are unclear on the extent of relevant protections, the MLA has urged “all faculty members at public colleges and universities to review and, if necessary, revise their faculty handbooks to include language that directly addresses” protections for “speech relating to official duties” (see "Ramifications").

The right of scholars and teachers to be evaluated by their peers on the basis of their expertise in their fields should not be affected by their intramural or extramural speech. For instance, incidents of extramural speech ought not to be considered demonstrable evidence for how a candidate or faculty member functions in the classroom; those judgments should be based on professionally accepted measures of teaching performance. As the AAUP Committee A has stated, “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for continuing service. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar” (“Committee A Statement”).

Faculty members, when speaking or writing in public, are representing their personal views unless designated to speak on behalf of their institution. Because they enjoy privileges to express their opinions freely on matters of public concern without fear of institutional reprisal, they should show appropriate professional judgment. Faculty members should support open and reasoned debate on controversial issues on campus and in public. Nonetheless, alleged failures to show restraint or civility, like alleged failures of collegiality, cannot be used as grounds for disciplinary actions or personnel decisions. The 1940 statement also stipulates that in the classroom faculty members should refrain from introducing controversial materials that have no relation to the assigned subjects. In its 1970 interpretation of this principle, the AAUP specifies that the “intent of this statement is not to discourage” the “[c]ontroversy” that is “at the heart of . . . free academic inquiry” but rather to limit any persistent intrusion into the classroom of material irrelevant to the subject being taught.

The AAUP further specifies that when any specifically focused or religiously affiliated institution of higher education places limitations on the academic freedom of faculty members to teach certain subjects, these restrictions “should be clearly stated in writing at the time of appointment.”

Academic freedom is not, therefore, a right to speak as one wishes but derives from the collective professional responsibility of informed educators with appropriate disciplinary expertise to determine what counts as knowledge in their disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields and how such knowledge should be disseminated in the classroom and beyond. For example, rights to academic freedom that protect teaching and debating controversial ideas should not be conflated with practices of harassment, workplace bullying, and other intimidating or injurious conduct that may be subject to legal action.

According to the 1940 statement, academic freedom is a “common good” necessary for free inquiry and informed debate in a democratic society. The principles of academic freedom entail not only peer-review professionalism but also tenure and shared governance. The AAUP has consistently affirmed that academic freedom pertains to all faculty members, whether adjunct, part-time, temporary, non-tenure-track, or tenure-track members of the profession. The 2009 “MLA Statement on Academic Freedom” likewise reaffirms that, in conjunction with other allied professional organizations, every institution of higher education should seek to ensure academic freedom for all ranks and categories of faculty members. Nevertheless, the practice of tenure remains crucial to the vitality of academic freedom. Tenure results from the set of institutional processes whereby, after a successful probationary period, faculty members are granted the rights of due process: tenured faculty members cannot be dismissed without adequate cause and without a hearing before a faculty committee. Tenure thus serves as the best practical guarantor of academic freedom.

The principle of shared governance is also crucial to the continuing viability of academic freedom. Faculty members, including those who are untenured or contingent, have rights to participate meaningfully in the governing of the institution. In addition, faculty members should have autonomy in curricular and program development, in the conduct of research, and in the establishment of the institution’s academic priorities. The exercise of this right depends on institutionalized forms of participation. Absent those institutional structures, that right is imperiled.

As stipulated by the AAUP, undue incursions by government agencies, corporations, and donors are violations of shared governance. Faculty participation in shared governance assures that personnel matters are subject to peer review—that is, that faculty members, by virtue of their specific knowledge and position, remain the ones who evaluate the academic profiles of their peers and that academic appointments be evaluated free of political or economic influence or intervention.

Why Does It Matter?

Loss of academic freedom diminishes the quality of education our students receive and the kind of knowledge produced in higher education. The principles of academic freedom in the twenty-first century must be adaptable to circumstances where boundaries between academic and nonacademic kinds of knowledge are more permeable. Telecommunications networks, multimedia environments, and digital archives also blur the boundaries between public and private domains of knowledge and between pure and applied kinds of research.

Who gets to define academic freedom, when it applies, and when it has been protected or violated are questions that have often been controversial, and there is a long judicial history of legal cases that have been decided on the basis of specific interpretations of academic freedom. Often these disputes have reached the mass media—for example, when controversial figures have been fired from their academic appointments, when private corporations have engaged in sponsored research projects carried out by university faculty members, or when cost-benefit analyses have focused exclusively on profit rather than on the educational values of faculty members and students.

The past forty years have witnessed dramatic historical changes in the funding for higher education as well as in the composition of the higher education faculty. As more universities become dependent on private research grants and corporate funding, universities should be mindful of compromising academic freedom. Sponsored research projects can infringe on academic freedom when, for example, publication of unfavorable research results is suppressed by private interests. When universities own patent rights and copyrights, they can sometimes limit the academic freedom of faculty members to disseminate the results of their research. Rigid standardization and assessment methods that focus only on short-term objectives can diminish academic integrity. Likewise, with the erosion of tenure as an academic value, university and college teachers are more vulnerable to violations of academic freedom. If teachers can be threatened with loss of employment because their research or teaching does not conform to private funding interests or because they publish or teach unpopular ideas, inquiry is not free.

As a fundamental principle, academic freedom sustains the educational institutions whereby a citizenry is exposed to the risks and benefits of the freedom of thought. Academic freedom therefore matters to educators in all institutions because it models for us, for our society, the way a community of inquirers holds itself responsible for standards.

What to Do?

The task shared by all educators is to draw on the historical archive of principles, policies, and legal cases regarding academic freedom, to redefine for our own age the fundamental grounds of education in a democracy. Faculty members must strive to create and sustain a shared set of principles and procedures.

A first task is to become familiar with the national policies articulated by the AAUP (see bibliography below). At the same time, faculty members need to familiarize themselves with the legal documents regarding academic freedom at their specific institutions. Bargaining contracts, state and federal laws regarding employment, and intellectual property rights may all come into play.

Bear in mind:

  • The work of a disciplinary or interdisciplinary field should under no circumstances be defined by external considerations.
  • The erosion of tenure needs to be resisted at all levels, as tenure remains the single most tangible way of protecting academic freedom and higher education.
  • The freedom of inquiry, research, and teaching for all faculty members, regardless of their position within or outside the tenure stream, is paramount.

What to Read?

Academe (bimonthly magazine published by the AAUP)

Bilgrami, Akeel, and Jonathan R. Cole, eds. Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? New York: Columbia UP, 2015. Print.

Carvalho, Edward J., and David B. Downing, eds. Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Cloud, Robert C. “Keyishian v. Board of Regents.” Education Law. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

“Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances.” 1964. Rev. 1989. AAUP Policy Documents and Reports. 10th ed. Washington: AAUP, 2006. 32. Print.

Finkin, Matthew W., and Robert C. Post. For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Hofstadter, Richard, and Walter P. Metzger. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York: Columbia UP, 1955. Print.

Journal of Academic Freedom (published online by the AAUP:

Menand, Louis, ed. The Future of Academic Freedom. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

“MLA Statement on Academic Freedom (2009).” Modern Language Association. MLA, Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Nelson, Cary. No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

“1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.” American Association of University Professors. AAUP, 1970. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

“Ramifications of the Supreme Court’s Ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos.” Modern Language Association. MLA, Feb. 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Schrecker, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: New, 2010. Print.

This document was created by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities in April 2012 and updated in February 2015.