Friday, May 29, 2009

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is a much-discussed topic, often used to suggest that faculty can do just about anything they want. Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) provides a better understanding of this issue and its history. They examine, drawing on the important 1915 and 1940 statements by the American Association of University Professors and numerous case studies, freedom in the areas of research and publication, the classroom, intramural speech, and extramural speech. As they conclude, “Academic freedom is not the freedom to speak or to teach just as one wishes. It is the freedom to pursue the scholarly profession, inside and outside the classroom, according to the norms and standards of the profession” (p. 149). Finkin and Post argue that the notion of academic freedom is the result of a covenant between the university and the general public, and that it is a critical one for supporting the “social good of advancing knowledge” (p. 44). They try to demonstrate the intricacies of supporting academic freedom, such as noting that “no university currently deals with its faculty as if academic freedom of research and publication were an individual right to be fully free from all institutional restraint. Universities instead hire, promote, grant tenure to, and support faculty on the basis of criteria of academic merit that purport to apply professional standards. Individual faculty have no right of immunity from such judgments” (pp. 58-59). As they deal with the various dimensions of academic freedom, they occasionally discuss aspects of higher education that seem to be susceptible to much misinterpretation; here is an example: “It is important . . . to distinguish between respect for person and respect for ideas. Faculty must respect students as persons, but they needn’t respect ideas, even ideas held by students. In higher education no idea is immune from potentially scathing criticism” (p. 105). This is a well-written, clear assessment of academic freedom.

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