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Dispatches on academic freedom

A brief history of academic freedom

If engaging with the public is indeed part of the job of the professor, then universities ought to protect professors who take up the task.


Last month, I urged that we must better understand academic freedom if we wish to support the scholarly mission of universities and the scholarly personnel charged with advancing that mission. In this dispatch, my second in this series, we begin to undertake this task with a survey of the history of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is one of the pillars of the modern university, and yet it is a comparatively new concept. The universities founded in the 10th and 11th centuries in the Middle East and North Africa fostered remarkable diversity in scholarly approaches. However, the concept of academic freedom was not codified there. Moreover, the de facto academic freedom these institutions cultivated was destroyed in later centuries by European colonization.

Academic freedom re-emerged in early 19th century Germany with the Prussian reform and the so-called Humboldtian university. Wilhelm von Humboldt’s educational reforms enshrined the twin concepts of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) under the rubric of Akademische Freiheit (academic freedom). So swift was the effect of this reform that by 1898, celebrated American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in a lecture at Harvard unfavorably compared U.S. universities, which he regarded as mere training institutions, with German universities, whose commitment to advancing knowledge made them, in Peirce’s words, “the light of the whole world.”

The rise of the Third Reich led to the end of academic freedom (and the accompanying principle of institutional autonomy) in Germany. Hitler declared universal education “the most corroding and disintegrating poison.” He appointed Bernard Rust, a former schoolmaster, as Minister of Education. Rust selected the rectors for German universities, and announced that “the future basis for all studies in German universities would be the Nazi racial theories.” Fifteen hundred faculty members across the country were dismissed. By 1939, 45 percent of German faculty members had been replaced by Nazis.

Fortunately, by this time, academic freedom had begun to take root in America. In 1915, the nascent American Association of University Professors (AAUP) endorsed a statement of principles on academic freedom and academic tenure known as the “1915 Declaration of Principles.” That statement reprised the Humboldtian assertion of the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn, but, in light of the AAUP’s remit, confined itself to the former. On the AAUP’s (1915) account, the freedom to teach comprises three subsidiary freedoms: freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extra-mural utterance and action. The 1915 statement is extraordinarily useful, but long. In 1925, the American Council on Education (which included the AAUP in its membership) formulated the shorter “1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” From 1934 to 1940, the AAUP worked with the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) on a further restatement of the principles. The result of this work is the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” which – with some interpretations added in 1970 by a joint committee of the AAUP and AAC – remains the AAUP’s official academic freedom statement, and one of the most important and influential codifications of academic freedom. Today, around 250 scholarly and professional associations in the U.S. endorse the 1940 statement.

The 1940 statement retains the 1915 statement’s focus on the three main freedoms that fall under the rubric of academic freedom. Each of them in turn is addressed in the three main principles articulated in the 1940 statement:

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) was formed in 1951, and in early days focused primarily on bargaining for better compensation for faculty members. However, in 1959, United College (now University of Winnipeg) professor Harry Crowe was fired for criticizing the institution in a private letter; in response, CAUT seriously took up the defense of academic freedom. In the years following the Harry Crowe case, CAUT supported its member faculty associations across the country in introducing language about academic freedom into their collective agreements. Today, most Canadian collective agreements between faculty associations and universities feature similar CAUT boilerplate language about academic freedom. One of the most distinctive phrases in that boilerplate informs the reader that “academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual; rather, academic freedom makes commitment possible.”

In 1993, the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to devise and adopt an international standard-setting recommendation on the status of higher education teaching personnel. President Ronald Reagan had in 1984 withdrawn the U.S. from UNESCO. Looking for North American leadership from outside the U.S., UNESCO turned to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, which seconded CAUT executive director Donald Savage as an expert for the project. The result is UNESCO’s 1997 “Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel.”

The UNESCO Recommendation expresses “pressing concern regarding the vulnerability of the academic community to untoward political pressures which could undermine academic freedom” and asserts “that the right to education, teaching and research can only be fully enjoyed in an atmosphere of academic freedom and autonomy for institutions of higher education and that the open communication of findings, hypotheses and opinions lies at the very heart of higher education and provides the strongest guarantee of the accuracy and objectivity of scholarship and research.”

In 2011, on its 100th anniversary, Universities Canada issued a new academic freedom statement that, in addition to sketching the key academic freedoms, explains why academic freedom is important for society, and disambiguates between academic freedom and freedom of speech: “Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.” The new statement came under fire from some critics – most notably CAUT – for its silence on extramural expression and the freedom to criticize the university.

Much of the tension between CAUT and Universities Canada reflects the distinct perspectives and desiderata of, respectively, employees and employers. However, the disagreement also tracks a broader shift in thinking about academic freedom – to wit, the shift from the “traditional model” to the “socially engaged” model. The traditional model of academic freedom obtained from 19th century Germany went well into the 20th century. On that model, scholars are academically free to pursue and disseminate research in their field of expertise within scholarly fora. Late in the 20th century, however, the new socially engaged model began to emerge. This model defends scholars’ expressive freedom outside of their disciplines and outside of scholarly fora. The motivation for the new model is that professors are often sought by the public for their wisdom on broader social questions. I often observe that we want our Einsteins to be able to go beyond physics and discuss world peace in public, if they wish to do so. If engaging with the public is indeed part of the job of the professor, the argument goes, then universities ought to protect professors who take up the task.

Today, which particular model of academic freedom we ought to embrace is contested internally within the postsecondary sector. However, academic freedom tout court is also subject to continued attacks from external forces. From Nazi and Soviet purges to the removal of tenure in Thatcherite Britain, authoritarian governments have historically encroached on academic freedom. Today, we are seeing new attacks in such places as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, the United States, and Ontario. We’ll look at current threats to academic freedom in a future dispatch in this series.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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