What is academic freedom, exactly? By Tom Streeter, March 2019

One of United Academics’ core functions is protecting academic freedom. But what is that, exactly? Academic freedom is about the protection of the disciplined free inquiry that makes up the core of the academic mission. This is not the same as free speech.

You might not know it to look at the op ed pages, but colleges and universities are arguably the institutions most open to debate and the airing of controversial points of view in U.S. society. You are more likely to hear a thoughtful presentation of ideas you have never heard before, ideas you may find shockingly different from what you know, on a college campus than on a cable news network or in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Inside a university, criticizing your boss in the course of your work is more legally and culturally protected than, say, inside newspapers or private corporations.[1] This is not to say there are no problems on campuses. Protections for debate and open inquiry should not be taken for granted.

But before launching into discussions about how best to protect free debate and expression on campuses, it helps to note the differences between academic freedom and free speech. Free speech, the right to express one’s views as a private citizen, exists for UVM students and employees as it does for everyone in society. And colleges and universities in various ways should and often do cultivate the ethos of free speech. A professor or student who expresses something controversial in a tweet or at a political rally is exercising their free speech rights.

But the ethos of free speech is different from what goes on in research and the classroom. In their roles as teachers and researchers, professors do not get to say whatever they want. The goal of academic investigation is the creation, evaluation, and dissemination of truth claims, of claims to knowledge: the testing and evaluation by knowledgeable experts is central, and takes a lot of work. To get tenure, to get published, to get grants, professors’ ideas are typically subject to an intimidating gauntlet of discipline-centered collegial discussions exemplified in “peer review” — thorough, careful vetting of publications and other professional work by qualified experts in their field. Peer review continues throughout the career of a tenured professor, influencing promotions, fellowships, and more. Having a grant or a publication turned down is not, as some occasionally claim,[2] evidence of having one’s speech rights denied. Occasionally being turned down by peer review is part of an essential process, not its failure.[3]

Whether in its more relaxed forms of collegial discussion or the most exacting varieties of double-blind peer review, disciplined free inquiry is slow, sometimes comically quarrelsome, and often annoying. It is also the most reliable means for creating worthwhile new knowledge known to humanity. Most of the astounding scientific and technical advances of the past two centuries, and much of the advancement in fields from history to art to sociology to biomedicine, owe their existence to varieties of that quarrelsome, annoying process.

This is what academic freedom is for: to protect the institutions of disciplined free inquiry. The structures of free inquiry, such as peer review, tenure, and academic research in general, are not perfect. But together they create an island in the storm, a place where complex, challenging, and unpopular ideas can be explored, debated and carefully vetted. Some of those complex and challenging ideas are political, but just as often they are simply difficult and unpredictable: pushing the boundaries of our understandings of climate change or genetics or solid state physics requires institutional support and protection, but in a manner that is open and exploratory, protected from outside interference.

That’s why we have the institution of tenure. It is not just a comfy benefit or a right. Tenure exists because intellectual exploration requires some insulation from outside pressures. New knowledge is not likely to emerge if theories and outcomes are mandated in advance by opinion polls or wealthy donors or legislatures or college administrators. For example, scholar Benjamin Ginsberg has described cases where administrators have tried to silence researchers who find dangerous safety issues with drugs produced by corporate donors to the university.[4] Tenure is a safeguard against such interference. Society needs a place that is open to the careful exploration and evaluation of unexpected, controversial, and challenging ideas. This is why, in the broad view, academic research is in the interest of everyone.

United Academics does not exist only to negotiate better salaries and benefits for UVM faculty. A large proportion of our nearly 150 page contract with UVM’s administration concerns the rules and procedures for evaluating faculty work. (In many ways, the contract enacts and extends the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which is subscribed to by all serious academic institutions in the U.S.) United Academics does not and should not judge scholarly merit any more than legislators or administrators should. Rather, the contract is carefully designed to ensure that the procedures for evaluation of faculty and their work are in accordance with the goals of disciplined free inquiry: transparent, fair, and in accordance with academic principles like review by knowledgeable peers.

Much of what goes on in the college classroom is about helping students understand and participate in the disciplined free inquiry that is the point of academic freedom. The kind of disputation that is the stock and trade of academic inquiry may overlap with the debates we associate with free speech, but they are not the same. Free speech is ideally open to anyone, and exists, among other things, for expression and representation. Academic freedom is open ended, but not open to everyone equally, and involves a commitment to specific processes in a way that free speech does not. If we are going to protect either, we need to be clear about what we mean when we talk about freedom in an academic context.

For further reading, see:

·       Joan W. Scott, “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom,” Journal of Academic Freedom, Vol. 8, 2017,  https://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/Scott_0.pdf.  Joan Scott is professor emerita in

the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She is a long-standing member of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

·       Robert Post, “The Classic First Amendment Tradition Under Stress: Freedom of Speech and the University” (September 28, 2017). Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 619. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3044434  or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3044434 Robert Post is former Dean of Yale Law School.

[1] Google the state action doctrine for details.

[2] For example, Jordan Petersen has claimed a grant application to the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council was turned down because of his political views. But he cannot show why his case was just like so many others that are turned down through the normal peer review process. https://curtismchale.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/I-was-Jordan-Peterson%E2%80%99s-strongest-supporter.-Now-I-think-he%E2%80%99s-dangerous-The-Star.pdf

[3] Confusing the conflicts that are a normal product of the peer review process for restrictions of free speech may be one reason some want to claim that campuses restrict debate rather than cultivate it. When Donald Trump proposes to withhold federal funds from Universities that do not uphold “free speech,” he is actually attacking academic freedom, not actually supporting free speech. 

[4] https://academicmatters.ca/tenure-and-academic-freedom-the-beginning-of-the-end/