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'For the Common Good'

April 15, 2009

The concepts of academic freedom are much debated, and it's clear that not everyone who uses the term means the same thing. A new book, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale University Press), traces the history of academic freedom and its definitions in the United States. The authors are two law professors: Matthew W. Finkin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Robert C. Post of Yale University. They responded to questions about the themes of the book.

Q: What is your goal writing this history today?

A: Much in the current debate over academic freedom proceeds without a common and clear understanding of what academic freedom is. The book fills that need.

Q: What do you see as the greatest threats to academic freedom?

A: Externally, conditions on university funding is certainly a great threat. There are also increasing pressures on government to regulate university research. Within universities themselves there is a perception among some professors that academic freedom entails a right to be free from all judgment whatever, a perception that would effectively sap the foundations of academic freedom.

Q: David Horowitz and others have tried to frame academic freedom as a student right -- what do you make of this?

A: The American tradition of academic freedom has always been faculty centered. It has focused on the ability of universities to attain their mission of expanding knowledge and awakening in students a mature independence of mind. Student academic freedom rights have not been well developed. The current common understanding ensures that faculty do not engage in personal abuse or ignore their educational obligations. An attempt to develop a stronger theory of student academic freedom is surely worthwhile, but any such theory should be careful not to hamper faculty in their ability to achieve the cognitive and pedagogical goals of university education.

Q: The book talks about different kinds of academic freedom (in the classroom, the research agenda, public commentary). Why is it important to distinguish among these?

A: Each of these different aspects of freedom have different justifications and rationales, different limits, different structures.

Q: Key statements by the American Association of University Professors about academic freedom were written with the understanding that the tenure track was crucial to faculty employment. Do these statements still work when such a large share of the faculty is employed without any chance at tenure?

A: Tenure is a critical prophylactic institution for the protection of academic freedom. Of course, we would want to protect academic freedom, whether or not we have the institution of tenure. But it is doubtful that, as a practical matter, we can adequately protect academic freedom without it.

Q: What can academics who care about academic freedom do to bolster it?

A: First, faculty members, administrators, trustees, students and the general public should understand the basic principles of academic freedom. They should understand why academic freedom exists as a necessary, indeed defining condition for a university. Second, faculty in particular should understand the rights and obligations that inhere in academic freedom and ensure that their home institutions behave accordingly. This entails their active involvement in refining and applying professional norms.

 

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