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Bonneau Says: The Current Climate of Academic Freedom

  • Bonneau Says

    The Current Climate of Academic Freedom

    Threats to the academic freedom of scholars are frequently making headlines these days.  It is hard to tell whether these concerns have increased, whether these are just more extreme examples, or whether these threats are just more likely to be reported now.  My hunch is the first, but there is no way to know for sure.

    1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and TenureRegardless, academic freedom is on the minds of many in academia.  Academic freedom has long been thought to be necessary to allow scholars to pursue their subjects of inquiry (and teach about them) without fear of reprisals or retaliation by university administrators or governance boards.  The definitive statement (and scope) of academic freedom is the 1940 Statement Of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the American Association of University Professors. 

    Just as important as what academic freedom does entail is what it does not entail.  Specifically, academic freedom only applies to research and speech within one’s area of expertise.  When an academic is speaking as a member of the general community on a topic not relevant to their research, this is not an issue of academic freedom, though if an individual is sanctioned for this speech, academic freedom might be implicated.  Indeed, in the words of the AAUP, “When they [academics] speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

    The issues of academic freedom have been complicated with the rise of social media.  Indeed, one of the most well known academic freedom issues (though it is far from clear if this is an academic freedom issue or is an issue of private speech) had to do with tweets posted from an individual on Twitter.  As part of ongoing concern on this issue, I was part of a group of scholars at my institution (which, of course, I am not speaking on behalf of) to generate a “best practices” document (which was approved by the Provost) to help guide faculty through this delicate issue. 

    A related concern has to do with the unequal status of individuals with regard to academic freedom.  In principle, it should apply to all scholars, regardless of rank (tenured versus untenured) or faculty status (full-time versus adjunct).  In reality, though, it is not clear that those in vulnerable positions (without the protections of tenure) have the same protections as those who have tenure.  It is imperative for the protections of academic freedom to apply to all in order to sustain a vibrant and challenging academic community.  As universities staff their classes with more and more non-tenure stream faculty, we cannot have faculty scared that they will lose their positions if they assign a controversial reading or challenge students on their beliefs in class.  The increasing adjunctification of academia may be the biggest threat to academic freedom out there.

    My involvement in this issue recently leads me to some concrete steps faculty can take to protect their academic freedom rights.  These are not meant to be exclusive or original; they are simply things that seem to me to be advisable based on discussions I have had and things I have read.

    Familiarize yourself with your institution’s academic freedom policies, and ask your university governance structure to revisit them if they are  ambiguous.

    Regardless of what the policies actually state, be aware of recent cases both at your university and other universities.  Robust policies are a good start, but universities have to be willing to adhere to these policies and protect academic freedom.  Both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle are good sources for these updates.

    Take pains to not use your university affiliation in private correspondences.

    If assigning a controversial reading or activity, give your chair or director of undergraduate studies a heads-up.  No one likes surprises, and they may have ideas on how to present the material in a way that minimizes controversy.  This does not mean you let others dictate what you teach; I have benefited immensely from running ideas by others and they have improved my teaching.  That is what I am suggesting here.

    Make it clear in dealings with the press, on social media, etc. that you are not speaking for the university (unless you have been specifically authorized to do so).

    Despite all this, the fact is that there is little we can do if a major donor or a state legislator puts pressure on the Board of Trustees to fire you for something you said or did (unless you have tenure, and even then…..).  As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “It’s never a good day when the President of the university has to apologize for something you said/did.”  However, understanding the scope of academic freedom (and ensuring that the university has robust policies to protect it) is a good step to insulating us and protecting our ability to effectively do our job.


    Chris BonneauBonneau Says is a monthly (more or less) Profology column from Chris W. Bonneau with his thoughts on important issues facing academics, and his life as a professor.

    Chris is associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has been since 2002. His research is primarily in the areas of judicial selection (specifically, judicial elections) and judicial decisionmaking. Bonneau's work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and he has published numerous articles, including in the American Journal of Political Science and Journal of Politics. He is also the coauthor of three books: Strategic Behavior and Policy Choice on the U.S. Supreme Court (2005), In Defense of Judicial Elections (2009), and Voters' Verdicts: Citizens, Campaigns, and Institutions in State Supreme Court Elections (2015). Currently, Bonneau is co-editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly, the official journal of the State Politics and Policy Section of the American Political Science Association.

    Professor Bonneau teaches undergraduate classes in constitutional law, judicial politics, and research methods, as well as graduate classes in judicial politics and research design. He has served on the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee at Pitt since since 2011.



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1 comment
  • Bob Ertischek and Larry Marsh like this
  • Bob Ertischek
    Bob Ertischek Thanks for this overview of the state of academic freedom. I find your definition and concrete steps to be particularly useful. I also appeciated your acknowledgement of how this all applies (or doesn't) to adjuncts, out there on the front lines without t...  more
    December 2, 2015