Academic freedom is essential for universities to fulfill their core scholarly mission. Moreover, it is a precious privilege reserved for the very few. Those of us who have it should defend it, nurture it, and use it with care and seriousness. Yet, academia abounds with accounts of members invoking the phrase “academic freedom” in ways that are selfish and frivolous.
Having heard the tales of professors who cite academic freedom as a reason not to teach in the morning or similar, I wondered what the full range of rhetorical abuses of academic freedom looks like. So, I asked professor friends on social media to share some anonymized examples with me. The response was swift and decisive.
Some of them shared historical examples: CIA campus moles using academic freedom as a cover for their operations, French philosopher Judith Miller issuing course credit to a stranger on a bus, the Ottawa physics prof who gave his whole class A+s.
In some ways, though, the more homely recurring themes that emerged in my friends’ responses are more disturbing and more suggestive than these extreme cases.
According to my respondents, some of their colleagues lean on academic freedom to justify the following:
- refusing to provide (or even permit) disability accommodations for students;
- refusing to use email;
- refusing to follow institutional regulations about such matters as course outlines, assessments, grading standards, or sexual harassment reporting;
- refusing to follow institutional standards when evaluating promotion and tenure packages;
- refusing to update decades-old lecture notes;
- refusing to coordinate with co-instructors on team-taught courses;
- engaging in sexual innuendo with students;
- refusing to attend department meetings or events.
Some of these examples are more serious than others, but they share the common theme of professors who invoke academic freedom in order to avoid doing their jobs, to the detriment of their students and colleagues.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the ways that these sorts of refusals and bad practices actually make study and the workplace worse for other people.
By far, the commonest example I heard about in my informal survey was professors citing academic freedom to avoid providing or permitting various accommodations for disabled students. When professors do this, they make it harder for disabled students to participate and flourish in their courses, their programs and their institutions. Further, a refusal to support accommodations – especially when it is aggrandized as an exercise of academic freedom – sends a strong message to both disabled students and the broader community about who is welcome and who is unwelcome on campus. It also raises doubts about the legitimacy of the accommodations and thereby about the ability and accomplishments of students who access accommodations. What a crummy thing for a professor to do!
The tenure committee example shows that some academic staff are crummy not just to students, but also to their colleagues. Professors who use academic freedom as a justification for using their own personal standards when it comes to promotion and tenure decisions thereby render junior colleagues more vulnerable. Going up for tenure is a scary enough time for assistant professors and lecturers without the worry that senior folks will disregard the clear tenure standards that the candidate has been working towards the whole time. Just imagine: a junior colleague is told that x, y and z are the standards for tenure. Unbeknownst to them, a senior colleague on the committee ignores x and y and replaces them with q. Academia is tough enough on junior colleagues without these sorts of shenanigans.
In both of these examples, the situation is made even worse because of the power differential. In both cases, it is students or junior colleagues who are vulnerable. When professors invoke academic freedom in a way that harms people with less power than them, it is not merely a frivolous use of a precious and hard-earned protection. It is also harmful and cruel.
In my informal survey, I asked my respondents to zero in on abuses of “academic freedom” as they occur on campus. However, the kind of cruelty that I have just described is also ubiquitous on social media.
In my own discipline, for instance, it is becoming an all-too-predictable social media cycle that someone (very often a grad student or junior member of the profession) will critique a colleague for their harmful views about an underrepresented group, only to be quickly set upon by a congregation of senior professors raising the alarm about academic freedom.
Look, I’m fiercely passionate about the importance of academic freedom and the need to energetically defend it. Further, on my view, one of the best ways to defend academic freedom is to use it and to keep using it. But we have a duty to use it well. For, it is not merely in using it but in using it well that we keep academic freedom something worth defending.
Last year, in a number of Ontario universities, there were massive blow-ups over several professors’ use of the “n-word” in their teaching. Students shouted “equity!” and “anti-racism!” Professors and pundits shouted “academic freedom!” Some students rejoined that universities shouldn’t have academic freedom any more because it is too often used as a safe word for the powerful, at the expense of people with less power.
I disagree with the call to get rid of academic freedom, but I certainly understand the students’ perspective that academic freedom is too often a tool of the powerful that serves to reinforce that power while in various ways excluding less powerful folks from participating in higher education.
Let’s face it. Canadian universities are settler-colonial institutions that continue to be dominated by affluent cis white people. When BIPOC students tell us that we are running our institutions in ways that hurt them and we reply by invoking academic freedom, it can look like we are barring our gates against intruders.
While it is true that the most established people in higher education are the ones with the strongest academic freedom protections, the purpose of those protections is not to reinforce power and privilege. The purpose is to permit universities via their members to vigorously and confidently pursue the scholarly mission of seeking truth and advancing understanding. Universities perform that mission as their main service to society.
When we invoke academic freedom as a way of defending our own peccadillos, and in particular when we do so in ways that make it harder for students, junior colleagues, and disabled or minoritized folks to flourish within universities – and indeed within society – we render universities petty fiefdoms and academic freedom a bludgeon. Why should society defend institutions like that? Why should it permit protections like that?
I don’t want to be unfair. So, I end with the following two caveats:
First, as you have no doubt been thinking throughout this column, most professors don’t abuse their academic freedom in the way I have here described. Most professors employ their academic freedom in responsible ways and strive to make their disciplines and their institutions equitable and just. This column isn’t about them.
Second, I have here offered a number of broad characterizations of situations that are often much more nuanced and complex. Some professors have careful, empirically well-supported reasons for some of the refusals and behaviours I list above. In particular, it is worth noting that some professorial resistance to regulations around grading standards, course outlines, etc. is motivated by a well-considered desire to resist what some regard as harmful trends in pedagogy. Principled resistance of this kind helps to keep universities honest and it ought to be protected by academic freedom.
I propose not to silence colleagues nor censure them for their misuses of academic freedom. Rather, I wish to remind readers of the large power differentials within academia and the preciousness of academic freedom. It is both morally and pragmatically important that those few of us who possess academic freedom keep both of those things in mind if we are to use it carefully, wisely, and well.