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The price of academic freedom

Because we most often invoke it when it’s threatened, we tend to focus more on the rights associated with academic freedom than on the reason we have it to begin with.

By SHANNON DEA | JAN 18 2019

Academic freedom isn’t free. What I mean by this amounts to two somewhat unpopular points:

  1. Not everyone is entitled to academic freedom; and
  2. Those who are entitled to it have corresponding duties.

Before we get to that, though, let us remind ourselves about the purpose of academic freedom. Academic freedom is what permits scholars – and hence universities – to pursue the truth and advance knowledge for the good of society. It is easy to forget that academic freedom serves this very specific purpose. Perhaps because we most often invoke it when it’s threatened, we tend to focus more on the rights associated with academic freedom than on the reason we have it to begin with.

But that reason can be found in our most important and influential academic freedom statements:

The American Association of University Professors’ so-called “1940 Statement” asserts that:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.


Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ policy statement on academic freedom takes a very similar line:

The institution serves the common good of society, through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge, and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students. These ends cannot be achieved without academic freedom.

Finally, here is University Canada’s Statement on Academic Freedom:

Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding.




Academic freedom does not exist for its own sake, but rather for important social purposes. Academic freedom is essential to the role of universities in a democratic society. Universities are committed to the pursuit of truth and its communication to others, including students and the broader community. To do this, faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship.

The key takeaway from these passages is that academic freedom is not merely some negotiated job perk for professors, like salary or health benefits. It is a mechanism devised and defended so that universities can fulfill their important social mission to pursue and advance truth, understanding and knowledge. Remembering this reason for academic freedom helps us to see why full academic freedom is extended only to certain university personnel, namely professors.

Professors aren’t the only important people at universities, but they are the ones whose credentials and positions at the university charge them in particular with the pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge. Notice that both credentials and position make a difference here. I’m a philosophy professor. That position requires a PhD. But the PhD alone doesn’t entitle me to academic freedom. If I had a PhD but took a job as a groundskeeper at my university, I wouldn’t have a role in the scholarly mission, and therefore I would neither need nor be entitled to academic freedom.

Academic freedom is complex. It is made up of a number of other freedoms, including (but not limited to) the freedom to decide on research programs and methodologies, the freedom to pursue that research, the freedom to disseminate one’s scholarship, the freedom to engage in extramural expression, the freedom to criticize the university, and freedom from censorship.

Tenured professors have full academic freedom, in the sense that we have all of these freedoms to a maximal degree. In my view, some other university personnel – again, in virtue of the combination of their expertise and their position – also have some of the above freedoms to varying degrees. A dean, for instance, has the freedom to decide on her research program, but she doesn’t have the freedom to criticize the university because of her role as a senior administrator of the institution. A student has the freedom to criticize the university, but may have less freedom to decide on a research program because the student is answerable to the professor whose grant provides the research funding.

I sometimes think of academic freedom as a set of sliders that range from “minimum” to “maximum.” On this model, tenured professors who do not hold senior administrative appointments, typically (but this can vary for a number of reasons) have all of the sliders set on “maximum,” whereas other university personnel have different settings, many of them lower. In 2017, when the controversy over then-TA Lindsay Shepherd blew up at Wilfrid Laurier University, some professors objected that teaching assistants have freedom of expression, but not academic freedom. Academic freedom, they said, is only for professors. I disagree.

I think that TAs have some academic freedom, but because of their expertise and their positions at the university, most of their “sliders” are set to a lower level than professors’ sliders. Part of the business of grad school is apprenticing in the scholarly mission of the university. It is therefore appropriate that grad students – as they proceed in their studies and acquire expertise – gradually adjust their sliders to the higher settings. Think about it as (to shift metaphors) a learner’s permit for driving. New drivers can only learn to drive by driving, but we place limits on what they are permitted to do as drivers until they have passed the relevant tests.

In academe, you are a fully licensed driver once you are capable of following the rules of the road: conducting scholarship honestly, ethically, and according to the standards of your discipline or subdiscipline. That means performing your assigned teaching duties, grading student work fairly, subjecting one’s work to peer review, reporting research results honestly, properly crediting other scholars’ contributions, being careful not to misrepresent one’s own expertise or position (for instance, being clear that one’s extramural expression does not represent one’s university), and so on. For human or animal researchers, it also means obtaining approval from your institutional review board or independent ethics committee – currently a hot topic due to news stories about philosopher and “grievance studies”-hoaxer Peter Boghossian’s failure to do just that.

Both of the types of limits I have here identified – the limit on who has academic freedom and the limits on how scholars use their academic freedom – directly flow from the purpose of academic freedom. Academic freedom exists so that society, via universities, can better understand the world. We university personnel support such understanding through education and expertise, through the positions to which we are appointed, and through responsible performance of our duties. Thus, academic freedom, unlike a human right, is neither innate nor inalienable. We professors earn it, and we must work to continue to deserve it.

All of that said, it is worth remembering a point that I made in my November dispatch in this series: today, the majority of university instructors are not protected by tenure and hence lack full academic freedom protection. If, as the AAUP, the CAUT and Universities Canada agree, the mission of the university crucially depends upon the academic freedom of its instructors, then the increasingly large role that contract instructors play in academe is not just an injustice to them, but a threat to the very purpose of the university. This leaves us, then, with not two but three unpopular points:

  1. Not everyone is entitled to academic freedom;
  2. Those people who are entitled to it have corresponding duties; and
  3. Limiting tenure to a minority of university instructors is a betrayal of the very reason that universities exist.

And once universities can no longer fulfill their social purpose, then society owes them nothing in return.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is an associate professor of philosophy and vice-president of the faculty association at the University of Waterloo.
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