Academic Freedom: Not Just for College Professors

10/28/2010 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Academic freedom is commonly seen as a special right of tenured university professors to do as they please and get paid for it. As a tenured university professor, I'm tempted to say: If only it were so! But in fact this elitist conception of academic freedom is not only unreal but also unjustifiable.

Academic freedom has been promoted in the United States since 1915 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). A careful reading of AAUP documents indicates, contrary to the elitist conception, that academic freedom (1) is intended to serve the common good, (2) relates specifically to matters of intellectual freedom, (3) applies to all teachers regardless of tenure status, and (4) applies to students as well. Without claiming to speak for AAUP, I will expand on each of these points.

First, colleges promote the common good through education and research. College faculty as persons have the same human rights as all employees, but there is no reason to accord them special rights. The purpose of academic freedom is to enable faculty to do their jobs, not to grant them special rights. They should have intellectual freedom because such freedom enhances the quality of education and research, thus serving the common good.

Second, academic freedom specifically concerns intellectual matters of curriculum, instruction, and inquiry. The AAUP, which is legitimately concerned with the welfare of college faculty, supports due process, equal opportunity, and other rights. All persons and all employees should have such rights. Protection of these rights helps support academic freedom but academic freedom is not simply human rights. Academic freedom refers specifically to the freedom to engage in intellectual activities in academic contexts.

Third, all teachers require academic freedom regardless of tenure status. The point is not to have equal rights for all teachers. The point is that students need teachers who have the freedom to organize their courses on the basis of academic considerations and to say what they really believe about matters relevant to the course.

Tenure plays a critical role in protecting academic freedom but it is not the reason for such freedom. Tenured faculty have an expectation of continuing employment (given satisfactory performance) and associated due process rights that protect them from losing their jobs for illegitimate reasons or for no reason at all. This is not a special right to academic freedom.

Finally, teachers must respect and protect the academic freedom of their students. The purpose of education is student learning and development. Academic freedom serves to promote the education of students.

More specifically, students are entitled to an academically defensible curriculum. Faculty, individually and collectively, are responsible for providing such a curriculum regardless of political, religious, or other pressures, and must have the freedom and security to do so.

Students are most likely to learn and develop, moreover, when they are free to think for themselves, say what they believe, examine alternatives, seek information, and discuss ideas. Faculty are responsible for providing, maintaining, and protecting an educational context of intellectual freedom.

Thus, academic freedom applies to all faculty and students. In my next post, I will clarify that this holds at all levels of education.