Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

The future of academic Freedom

The Future of Academic FreedomHenry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Summary: A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university.

What is academic freedom? Classically it has been defined as the protection of the freedom in research and publication, freedom of discussion in the classroom on matters related to their discipline, and freedom when they speak or write as citizens from discipline or censorship, with the expectation that while they do not speak for their university or profession, that they nevertheless represent these and ought speak with both accuracy and constraint. (Summarized from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure adopted by the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).

Henry Reichman, the Chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers in this work a rigorous defense of academic freedom, and a discussion of some of the related controversies on campus, and trends that threaten that freedom. He opens by posing the question, “does academic freedom have a future?” He explores the different trends threatening academic freedom that he will explore in more detail, from efforts to censor faculty or outside speakers on campus, the limits on students expressive freedoms, and more serious in his view, efforts to administratively or legislatively censor faculty speech,

In his chapter justifying academic freedom, he engages what he calls the “cramped” argument of Stanley Fish that argues that the responsibility of faculty is to research and teaching focused in one’s discipline, and that extramural expressions of ideas (for example on politics or personal ethics) fall outside the duties of faculty. He argues that this is not consistent with historic AAUP commitments that contend that the profession’s devotion to the larger common good justify accurate and responsible speech on wider issues both as members of the universities as citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

This leads to further discussion on faculty freedoms to speak as citizens, including utterances on Twitter. He explores challenges to that freedom by administrations or pressures brought to bear when faculty make controversial public statements. One of the things that comes out is a differentiation between free speech and academic freedom. While faculty can speak freely as citizens, not all such speech may be protected under provisions of academic freedom, particularly when such speech raises questions of fitness for their position. He considers specific cases, some in which he would argue that dismissal was unwarranted.

He discusses some of the much-ballyhooed threats to free speech on campuses (particularly speakers who are dis-invited or shouted down) and contends that these threats, while real and requiring a vigorous response, are often isolated and exaggerated. He points to the thousands of counter-examples of speakers on a variety of issues who speak on campus, sometimes with vigorous dialogue, which he contends is what campuses are for. He contends for the expressive freedom of students, which, while not academic freedom, per sé, nevertheless is consistent with the university as a place of free inquiry.

The real issue, he believes come from the pressures exerted on administrations by donors, cost-cutting pressures in increasingly corporatized universities that are reducing the numbers of tenured faculty and resulting in the increased use of contingent faculty, and political pressures attacking the idea of higher education, particularly public education, and seeking to reduce research funding and student aid.

One of the most revealing aspects of Reichman’s discussion is the evolving AAUP stance on unions and collective bargaining. AAUP has sought to maintain itself as a professional organization, and yet the pressures of both faculty speech and finances around both the corporatization of the university have necessitated the evolution of unions or union-like structures in AAUP chapters at many universities. One senses that Reichman accepts this as a necessary evil that has arisen in an era of bloated administrations and eroded faculty governance and standing.

Reichman gives us a discussion at once careful, grounded in historical precedent, and at the same time attuned to the changing environment of contemporary higher education. The work serves both as a good introduction to the idea of academic freedom, and a spirited discussion of what that means in the present time. He shows that academic freedom is not a mere indulgence, but essential for the education of students, the advance of learning, and the wider common good of society.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2019 | Bob on Books

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