For the Common Good 1

I’ve been reading a book lately, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom by Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post. This book provides a historical description of the development of the ideals of academic freedom in the US, including the forces that have push for and against academic freedom. Stanley Fish, in his New York Times review, quoted on the cover of the paperback version noted:

This book is right on target. And you just have to love a book… that declares that while faculty must ‘respect students as persons’, they are under no obligation to respect the ‘ideas held by students’. Way to go!

The book is easy to read and quite enlightening. I recommend it for anyone active in the academy or interested in the ideals of academic freedom, whether you think academic freedom has gone too far and needs some constraints, or you feel it is under attack and in need of a strong defense.

The topic of academic freedom is of interest, or should be of interest, in light of many recent events. These range from incidents involving Christian scholars in Christian institutions to concerns about the liberal bias of the  secular academy to efforts at all levels to control the university. Stanley Fish had an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times on the topic last year – concentrating on the divide between liberals and conservatives. There is also an important pragmatic push in our society to view and to shape universities as conveyors and repositories of knowledge rather than as producers of knowledge and institutions for intellectual growth. Fish has yet another opinion piece in the New York Times discussing these issues of pragmatism and vocationalism in the university. In the context of all of these issues – and more – the idea of academic freedom is worth a look.

How do you understand academic freedom?

What is the purpose of academic freedom?

Do you think academic freedom is a value to be protected or an abuse to be reigned in?

One of the key points made by Finkin and Post in their book is the importance of the distinction between first amendment rights of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Academic freedom is not an extension of freedom of speech. Rather academic freedom is a recognition that, for the common good, professionals must be allowed to govern the practice of their own discipline. It is not true that academic freedom allows any professor the right to say or do anything in the classroom or in their scholarship. But it does assert that professors have a right to practice their discipline without the interference of those wholly outside of their discipline and profession.

Academic freedom has its roots in attempts by people with power, but little or no expertise, to control what was taught in the colleges and universities of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This attempt for control is often, if not always, disastrous for the pursuit of truth and the advance of knowledge. American academic freedom has its origins in the response and reaction to an attitude expressed by Alton B. Parker, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals and candidate for US president, in 1902, and echoed 13 years later in a 1915 New York Times editorial in response to a flap over an abrupt firing of a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Both Parker and the New York Times asserted that the donors and trustees of a University have an absolute right to fire a janitor who doesn’t clean the bathroom the way they would like and to fire a professor who doesn’t teach the doctrine they want to see taught. Finkin and Post quote Parker (p. 25):

And as to the founders of, and donors to, institutions of higher learning, whose sole business in life – making money – may not have especially qualified them to determine what should be taught in colleges and universities, I am in favor of their having the like complete freedom within their province which I accord to teachers within theirs – freedom to insist upon it that the doctrines they believe to be true, and for the propagation of which they have expressly and avowedly founded the institutions, or endowed the chairs, shall be taught in such institutions. (23 Educ. Rev. 16, 21 (1902) quoted on p. 25)

The interference was sometimes on religious grounds as when the president of Vanderbilt University fired a geology professor for endorsing evolution which he found to be “contrary to the plan of redemption.” But far more often the interference was based on political and economic disagreements. One professor was fired from Stanford for “advocating for free silver and against the importation of cheap Asian labor (p. 31)” another at the University of Pennsylvania for teaching political and economic views considered unacceptable by the Board of Trustees. Occasionally the reason for preemptory dismissal was more peculiar.

In 1927 the University of Louisville dismissed the historian Louis Gottschalk. He had protested the administration’s summary dismissal of a colleague and had criticized the educational wisdom of certain policies pursued single-mindedly by the president. The president had threatened to dismiss those faculty members whose “‘primary interest [is] in graduate or research work'” in preference to undergraduate instruction and had, over the faculty’s objection, given students “capable of playing football” academic credit to which they were not entitled under the college’s rules. The president reiterated a demand for “loyalty” toward “the declared purposes of the University.” (p. 121)

Professors were considered to be employees hired to teach a certain subject in a certain fashion, in accord with the wishes of their employers and could be fired for public disagreement or dissent. The New York times in a 1915 editorial stated this explicitly.

Academic Freedom is, as a counter to the common view of professors as “at will” employees, an assertion that those who hire a professor may not control the manner in which he or she carries out the job, although he or she must, of course, carry out the job. A professor is better viewed as an appointee rather than as an employee. From the 1915 Declaration on Academic Freedom quoted by Finkin and Post:

Once appointed, the scholar has professional functions to perform in which the appointing authorities have neither competency nor moral right to intervene. The responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself and to the judgment of his own profession; and while, with respect to certain external conditions of his vocation, he accepts a responsibility to the authorities of the institution in which he serves, in the essentials of his professional activities his duty is to the wider public to which the institution is morally amenable. So far as the university teacher’s independence of thought and utterance is concerned – though not in other regards – the relationship of professor to trustees may be compared to that between judges of the federal courts and the executive who appoints them. University teachers should be understood to be, with respect to conclusions reached and expressed by them, no more subject to the control of the trustees than are the judges subject to the control of the president with respect to their decisions. (p. 34)

Academic freedom is for the common good and based in the professional expertise of the faculty. A fundamental purpose of the university is to seek truth and advance knowledge. Human knowledge cannot advance in an environment where he who pays the bills calls the shots. We feel this intuitively when demanding a revelation of conflict of interest by a medical researcher who profits from the sale a drug he or she is testing.  We feel this intuitively when a company funds a study and calls the shots. Human knowledge also cannot advance in the pursuit of truth when trustees, administrators, and donors are allowed to call the shots and control the outcome of scholarly endeavor.

Academic freedom is not an individual’s right to free speech and thought – it is freedom of scholarly pursuit as a expert, within an area of expertise. The professoriat is self-governing. The purpose of the tenure-probationary period (a rather stressful time) is to demonstrate that an individual is competent to fill this professional position. Finkin and Post summarize:

Knowledge is the result of the public disciplinary practices of professional experts. Because faculty are professional experts trained in the mastery of these disciplinary practices, they are “appointed” to discharge the essential university function of producing knowledge. In this task they are answerable to the public at large rather than the particular desires of employers. (p. 35)

This does not mean that professors are free to do anything or teach in any fashion. The faculty as a whole designs the curriculum and the content and the individual professors must teach within the constraints of the curriculum. In an example given by Finkin and Post, academic freedom does not allow an astronomy professor to teach astrology. Rather academic freedom “establishes … the liberty to practice the scholarly profession” and “academic freedom protects the interest of society in having a professoriat that can accomplish its mission.” (p. 39)

In the second post in this short series I will bring the discussion around to consider the mission of the Christian college, university, or seminary and the role that academic freedom may or may not play in such an institution. Today, however, I would like to keep the discussion somewhat more general, reflecting on academic freedom in our secular public and private universities.

Does this view agree with your understanding of academic freedom?

Is academic freedom necessary for the common good?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit For the Common Good 1 at Jesus Creed.

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