Roundtable | Academic Freedom in the Post-Secondary Classroom?

James Deaville
McMaster University

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 shall see.

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 Freedom”:

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 an interpretive 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 (7.2.3.B).

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 pedagogy:

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.

Next Essay (Link to “Engaging Students”)

Works Cited

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. <

Baker, Carolyn. “The New McCarthyism on Campus: Ward Churchill and the Attack on American Higher Education.” Feb. 7, 2005. Counterpunch. Apr. 25, 2005. <>

“CAUT Committee Calls for End to McMaster Policy.” Canadian Association of University Teachers. Apr. 18, 2005. <>.

“Code of Faculty Responsibilities” in University Senate RulesUniversity of Kentucky University Senate. Apr. 18, 2005. <>

Course Description Task Force. “Report of the Course Description Task Force.” University of California Academic Senate. Apr. 18, 2005. <

“Faculty Handbook.” The College of Wooster. Apr. 18, 2005. <>

Kirby, William C. “Statement on Public Speech and Criticism.”Harvard University. Apr. 18, 2005. <

Lawson, Jacqueline. “The Rights of Tenure: A Perspective on Undergraduate Teaching.” University of Michigan. Apr. 18, 2005. <>

McMaster University Faculty Association. “Statement on Academic Freedom.” McMaster University. Apr. 18, 2005. <>.

Office of the Associate Provost, University of Pennsylvania. “Faculty Handbook.” University of Pennsylvania. Apr. 25, 2005. <>.

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. <
web_pages/ Faculty%20Handbook%202004.pdf

United Faculty of Florida. “On the Termination of a Controversial Professor.” University of South Florida United Faculty of Florida.Apr. 18, 2005. <>.

“University-wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities.”Harvard University. Apr. 18, 2005. <>

  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.