Academic Freedom in the Post-Secondary Classroom?
- This project originated as a search for statements
of university policy about teaching controversial topics like minstrelsy
in the classroom. What I discovered was both reassuring and unsettling,
and worthy of distribution to other academics. All too often we are
unaware of the rights and responsibilities accorded teaching staff by
our educational institution, which can be to our disadvantage, as we
- In 1940, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
and the Association of American Colleges (AAC) produced a “Statement
of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” which—despite
Interpretive Comments from 1970 and revised language—remains the
same today, and serves as the basis for university policies on academic
freedom across the United States.1
Here is the original clause about teaching in the section “Academic
Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing
their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their
teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.
This policy on academic freedom was remarkable in its day, and remains
a valuable protection for the rights of faculty. Throughout much of
the second half of the twentieth century, it reflected the tolerance
that enlightened university administrators maintained towards what happened
in the classroom. The very presence of such a statement served to embolden
faculty members in their pedagogy.
- Yet in this post-9/11 era, an age of surveillance and a time of political
and social reaction, the second clause presents a loophole for conservative
administrators and dissatisfied students that does not encourage controversy
in the classroom. According to this policy (in a rather far-fetched
example), if we taught a music class in Chicago, we could not discuss
the relative merits of yesterday’s Cubs and White Sox game. More
importantly, we would have to “be careful not to” address
university, local, national or international politics in that class,
despite our responsibilities as teachers to form the whole young person
and the mentoring role in which many of our students place us. It would
have been hard to imagine not talking politics to a music class in an
election year like 2004, whatever the topic of the course.
- Some of us may argue that it is not hard to justify such discussions
on the basis of our subject, that it is not such a hard stretch. Indeed,
I conduct research into television news music, where politics is the
message. But taking an admittedly radical position, why constrain what
our classrooms should look like, what we consider learning to involve?
Some of my most memorable moments as an undergraduate student occurred
in courses of the faculty member who was not afraid to bring into the
classroom controversies unrelated to the subject at hand.
- Aware that this statement was not inviting of controversy
in the classroom and even hostile to an open pedagogical environment,
the AAUP and AAC—still working together after thirty years—added
comment in 1970 that reads as follows:
The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is
“controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free
academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster.
The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently
intruding material which has no bearing to their subject.
The politics behind an interpretation of academic freedom drafted in
1969 and published in 1970 are clear.2
Still, the revised statement attempts to separate controversy from repeated
intrusions of irrelevant subject matter, which we all agree can be a
problem with certain faculty members. This is a fairly high level of
criticism of well-meaning colleagues who habitually engage in meanderings
and digressions in their teaching, however—there clearly is more
at stake here. For those of us who uphold radical views on academic
freedom, the revised statement does not go far enough to offset the
restrictiveness of the original, to encourage us to foster a classroom
environment in which minds are shaped regardless of subject.
- Moreover, while the revised statement responded to the political
climate of the years of campus unrest, the intervening thirty-five years
have brought significant change to the university, especially in light
of the corporatization of American academe and the political aftermath
of 9/11. For the AAUP to maintain—without review—the same
policies on academic freedom as they did in the days of the War in Vietnam
is simply irresponsible. The basic principle of upholding academic freedom
is more valid than ever, but its specific formulation badly needs revision,
given such recent cases as the dismissal of University of South Florida
professor Sami Al-Arian
in late 2001 for his outspoken support for Palestinian and radical Islamic
positions (United Faculty of Florida) and, especially, the misappropriation
of the AAUP statement against the introduction of “controversial
matter having no relation to the subject” by the “Students
for Academic Freedom” in early 2004, who asked fellow students
to report on professors who “try to ‘impose their political
opinions’ in the classroom” (AAUP Committee A).
- Most significant, however, is the quite recent case of Ward Churchill,
whose statements about 9/11—allegedly in the classroom as well
as in public fora—has caused the American public to debate the
merits of academic freedom. In general it appears that the more distant
the discussant is from academe, the more likely she or he is to excoriate
Churchill, which makes the punitive measures considered by the University
of Colorado administration all the more regrettable. The controversy
has divided academics, who tend to support Churchill if not for his
point of view, for the overriding issue of academic freedom, from politicians
and voices in the media, who cannot comprehend how academic freedom
represents a democratic principle worth protecting. A particularly effective
discussion of the Churchill case in the context of the pressures upon
American institutions of higher learning is presented at Counterpunch
(Baker). The AAUP has not only responded to the controversy
over Churchill at some length on its website,
but it also lists there other recent such cases under the rubric “Academic
Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis.” In the context
of opposing the conservative movement to create an “Academic Bill
of Rights” that would infringe faculty members’ rights to
free speech in the classroom, the organization reiterated its long-held
policies on controversy in the classroom. Unless greater non-academic
external pressures are exerted upon universities, in the name of anti-terrorism,
homeland security, and the like, academic freedom must be upheld at
all costs, which now clearly necessitates a radical reformulation of
the AAUP statement.
- So, how have scholarly organizations, universities and colleges responded
to the freedom in the classroom clause of the AAUP statement, which
boasts the backing of over 175 learned societies in the United States?3
The American Musicological Society endorsed the full AAUP statement
of principles on academic freedom and tenure—which overall has
much of value and has benefited academics in the past—in 1969,
the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1990, and the Society for American
Music never (or not yet). A quick Google search for the wording of the
clause revealed that literally hundreds of American colleges and universities
have adopted the AAUP or similar wording. To pursue this more closely,
I decided to examine the faculty handbooks or official policy statements
from senate, presidential and provostial websites for the institutions
of our panellists.
- The results of this search are revealing.
In its academic personnel manual, the University of California system
indicates the following as one of the professional rights of faculty:
“the right to present controversial material relevant to a
course of instruction” (my emphasis) (Course Description
Task Force 3)4 and the “Academic
Freedom and Responsibility” section of the University of Pennsylvania’s
Faculty Policies and Procedures similarly establishes that “the
teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his
or her subject” (my emphasis). Both directly derive from
the original 1940 AAUP statement. Virginia Tech does not cite the clause
in question, but refers to it: “The university has a tradition
of upholding academic freedom. It endorses the ‘1940 Statement
of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’ of the American
Association of University Professors and the Association of American
Colleges” (Office of the Provost 52).5 By directly and indirectly quoting
the AAUP statement of 1940 in its website documentation of 1990s University
Senate debates on tenure, for example, The
University of Michigan affirms its ongoing commitment to the principles
articulated in the original wording.
- In contrast, the College of Wooster reprints the full text, original
clause and 1970 interpretation, in its Faculty
Handbook (11-12). The University of Kentucky abbreviates the full
statement as follows in the “Code of Faculty Responsibilties”
in its University
Senate Rules from 2002:
Faculty shall present the subject matter of a course as
announced and approved by the faculty … and [shall] avoid the
persistent intrusion of material which has no relation to the subject
- Finally, a search of Harvard University’s website fails to
yield any reference to the AAUP statement in any form. The Faculty of
Arts and Sciences adopted the following Guidelines on Free Speech in
1990, which generally establish an unrestrictive climate for controversy
in the classroom (if we may interpret “community” as encompassing
sites of instruction):
Because no other community defines itself so much in terms
of knowledge, few others place such a high priority on freedom of
speech. As a community, we take certain risks by assigning such a
high priority to free speech. We assume that the long-term benefits
to our community will outweigh the short-term unpleasant effects of
sometimes noxious views. Because we are a community united by a commitment
to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas.
We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech
provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea. (qtd. in Kirby)
- My own university Senate makes a similar statement about the value
of controversy (“Statement
on Academic Freedom” from 1994), also generally encompassing
Behaviour which obstructs open and full discussion, not
only on ideas which are safe and accepted but of those which may be
unpopular or abhorrent, vitally threatens the integrity of the University,
and cannot be tolerated.
Yet this same university will not allow faculty to indicate their association
with it when making public comments to the media, a policy that has
drawn the condemnation of the Canadian
Association of University Teachers.
- What are we to make of all of this administrative positioning? First,
before we next enter a classroom, we had better find out our home institution’s
official policy on academic freedom in teaching. Then I believe we must
agitate for a new administrative understanding for what goes on in the
classroom, away from subject-based limitations. We should urge our faculty
associations or similar representative bodies to require that administrations
undertake periodic reviews of policies on academic freedom, so that
they keep pace with the changing face of academe and society.
However, these types of administrative policies normally
only become active when students or colleagues make administrators
aware that breaches thereof are occurring. Chairs, directors and deans
must be quick to protect their faculty against student accusations
of breaches of academic freedom, such as: “Prof . X used the
‘n-word’ in her presentation on minstrelsy” or “Prof.
Y wasted our time and money talking about the irrelevant issue of
gender in American music of the eighteenth century.” When expressed
in class, such opinions can serve as opportunities to open up significant
discussion, but they must not serve as the basis for disciplinary
action. In fact, departmental administrators are well advised to establish
an environment of openness toward difference within their academic
unit, so that instructors know that they can exercise academic freedom
in their own classroom. With that assurance, we can have the courage
and conviction to conduct our classes in a way that does not shy away
from controversy but rather engages students in a meaningful dialogue,
whatever the subject.
1. The website
of the AAUP still features the statement. To be cynical, I should
note that the statement arose from cooperative discussions between representatives
of faculty and of post-secondary administrators, in other words, between
those in the classroom and those who have a vested interest in controlling
or at least in monitoring what takes place in that classroom.
2. The current policy of academic
freedom at Harvard
University, for example, dates from the same time and features the
following clause: “Furthermore, although the administrative process
and activities of the University cannot be ends in themselves, such functions
are vital to the orderly pursuit of the work of all members of the University.
Therefore, interference with members of the University in performance
of their normal duties and activities must be regarded as unacceptable
obstruction of the essential processes of the University. Theft or willful
destruction of the property of the University or its members must also
be considered as unacceptable violation of the rights of the individuals
or of the community as a whole.”
3. See the list at the end
of the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure
with 1970 Interpretive Comments.”
4. The various campuses of
the University of California system incorporate this wording into their
faculty handbooks and policy statements.
5. I thank Michael Saffle
for bringing this passage from the Virginia Tech 2003 Faculty Handbook
to my attention.
American Association of University Professors. “1940 Statement
of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with Interpretive Comments.”
American Association of University Professors. Apr. 18, 2005.
AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. “Controversy in
the Classroom.” American Association of University Professors.
Apr. 18, 2005. <http://www.aaup.org/statements/SpchState/
Baker, Carolyn. “The New McCarthyism on Campus: Ward Churchill and
the Attack on American Higher Education.” Feb. 7, 2005. Counterpunch.
Apr. 25, 2005. <http://www.counterpunch.org/baker02072005.html>
“CAUT Committee Calls for End to McMaster Policy.” Canadian
Association of University Teachers. Apr. 18, 2005. <http://www.caut.ca/en/bulletin/issues/2005_apr/default.asp>.
“Code of Faculty Responsibilities” in University Senate
Rules. University of Kentucky University Senate. Apr. 18,
Course Description Task Force. “Report of the Course Description
Task Force.” University of California Academic Senate.
Apr. 18, 2005. <http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/committees/
“Faculty Handbook.” The College of Wooster. Apr.
18, 2005. <http://www.wooster.edu/dof/docs/Section_1.pdf>
Kirby, William C. “Statement on Public Speech and Criticism.”
Harvard University. Apr. 18, 2005. <http://www.fas.harvard.edu/home/administration/kirby/
Lawson, Jacqueline. “The Rights of Tenure: A Perspective on Undergraduate
Teaching.” University of Michigan. Apr. 18, 2005. <http://www.umich.edu/~sacua/tenure/hp22d1.html>
McMaster University Faculty Association. “Statement on Academic
Freedom.” McMaster University. Apr. 18, 2005. <http://www.mcmaster.ca/mufa/handbook/sps25.htm>.
Office of the Associate Provost, University of Pennsylvania. “Faculty
Handbook.” University of Pennsylvania. Apr. 25, 2005. <http://www.upenn.edu/assoc-provost/handbook/>.
Office of the Provost, Virginia Polytechnic and State University. “Faculty
Handbook.” Sept. 2004. Virginia Polytechnic and State University
Office of the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs. Apr.
25, 2005. <http://www.provost.vt.edu/
United Faculty of Florida. “On the Termination of a Controversial
Professor.” University of South Florida United Faculty of Florida.
Apr. 18, 2005. <http://w3.usf.edu/~uff/AlArian/>.
“University-wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities.”
Harvard University. Apr. 18, 2005. <http://hul.harvard.edu/assembly/handbook/hb12.htm>