Academic Freedom? Which One?

All right. I admit it.

David Horowitz isn’t the only one who hasn’t a clue about what “academic freedom” really means. A lot of faculty members don’t either.

John Friedl makes that clear in a piece that appears today at InsideHigherEd called “Stretching the Definition of Academic Freedom.” What makes his point particularly important to me (though I disagree with a part of it) is that he shows just how it is that Horowitz and his fellow travelers have been able to twist “academic freedom” into a tool for attacking American academia.

For their own purposes, many professors had already contorted the concept, stretching it into a protection of their individual autonomy in areas well beyond what “academic freedom” can legitimately cover.

According to Michale Berube:

THE PRINCIPLE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM stipulates that “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”; it insists that professors should have intellectual autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research.

The operant phrase is “freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” By this definition (and I agree with it completely), “academic freedom” is a particular and limited right with a particular and limited purpose.

It has nothing to do with the classroom. It concerns students not at all.

Friedl initially agrees:

One of the earliest definitions of academic freedom is found in the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The discussion is framed in terms of the freedom of the individual faculty member to pursue his or her research and teaching interests without interference from “outsiders,” whether they be members of the institution’s governing body or the public at large.

He goes on to explain that “academic freedom” has never been defined in law, though, in the 1950s, Supreme Court Justice:

Felix Frankfurter defined the four elements of academic freedom as: “the freedom of an institution to decide who may attend, who may teach, what may be taught and how it shall be taught.” Note that this definition places the bundle of rights that make up academic freedom in the institution, not the individual faculty member.

This “academic freedom” is substantially different from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) one, for it places the right as institutional, not personal—and it may be part of the problem. Though the phrase is the same, this is something substantially different from traditional “academic freedom.” It is not simply an expansion, but a movement away from the older definition.

Siezing on the idea that “academic freedom” is somehow institutional and not individual, the Horowitzians have decided that “academic freedom” is something that can be legislated, something that can be forced on institutions that, in their view, are recalcitrant. When they conflate this sort of “academic freedom” with “freedom of speech” (which they do constantly), they are able to claim that, by forcing universities to “open up” to all viewpoints, they are protecting “academic freedom.”

Of course, their definition of “academic freedom” fits neither with Frankfurter or the AAUP. They expand it in a different direction, making it a protection (primarily) for students—something not contained in either of the earlier definitions.

Professors have expanded the rights of “academic freedom” in another direction, further confusing the issue. As Friedl writes:

The real difficulty is that on many campuses throughout the country, the expanding concept of academic freedom has created an expectation of total individual autonomy. Our concept of faculty status seems to have evolved from one of employee to that of an independent contractor offering private tutorials to the institution’s students using the institution’s resources, but unfettered by many of the institution’s policies.

That’s not “academic freedom” either, not by either of the older definitions.

Friedl, without really explaining why, accepts Frankfurter’s definition, claiming that “academic freedom” is a right of the university and not of the professor. Perhaps, but that’s a different freedom than what has traditionally been seen as “academic freedom,” which is that quite specific protection of research and publication. So, even while attempting to clarify the debate, he muddies it, too.

In our debates on “academic freedom,” we have different people talking about different things for completely different purposes. Many of us who teach in American universities would prefer that we return to the AAUP definition. Others see “academic freedom” as personal autonomy within the institution. Following Frankfurter, some people see it as an institutional right. Finally, Horowitz has moved it into the realm of student rights.

Is it any wonder that our debates on “academic freedom” are increasingly frustrated—and, as a result, have become an avenue for the promotion of other agendas? Horowitz, for example, doesn’t really care about “academic freedom” (after all, he has made up his own definition, one that suits his political ends). He wants to wrest control of the universities from what he sees as a leftist elite.

By redefining “academic freedom” to suit their own needs, many professors have made this easier for Horowitz, obscuring the original intent of “academic freedom.” Frankfurter further confused things, by using the term for something else completely, applying it to institutional autonomy.

Though they will have to stop using it to justify expanded autonomy, it’s in the best interest of university professors to return to the old definition, to speak of “academic freedom” only in terms of research and publication. By using the phrase for other things, they have opened it up for misuse—and the unscrupulous are now taking advantage of that.