The concept of academic freedom for faculty has been more or less clearly defined over the years. Its three components -- freedom in the classroom, freedom in research and publication, and freedom of expression as a citizen -- are widely acknowledged. They have been clearly articulated in both the Association of University Professors 1915 Declarationon Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure and the 1940 Joint Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure (co-authored with the Association of American Colleges).
Recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale University and elsewhere, however, raise anew the question of student academic freedom. The 1915 Declaration recognized that “academic freedom has traditionally had two applications: to the freedom of the teacher and to that of the student, Lehrfreiheit [to teach] and Lernfreiheit [to learn].” According to Ralph Fuchs, a former general secretary of the AAUP, “Student freedom is a traditional accompaniment to faculty freedom as an element of academic freedom in the larger sense.”
But what, concretely, does student academic freedom entail? May students, like faculty, claim some version of academic freedom beyond their own legal rights under the First Amendment? And, if so, what kind of academic freedom is most appropriate for students?
The question was addressed nearly 50 years ago in the wake of the civil rights movement in the South, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley and burgeoning student movement against the Vietnam War. The AAUP and several other associations drafted the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. The proclaimed aim of that Joint Statement -- a kind of Magna Carta for student rights -- was “to enumerate the essential provisions for student freedom to learn.”
It's worth looking back at that seminal document in light of contemporary concerns.
The joint statement protects not only the free expression rights of students generally but also speaks specifically to student academic freedom in the classroom. It requires “the professor … [to] encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression, [and to evaluate students] solely on an academic basis, not on opinions or conduct in matters unrelated to academic standards.”
The statement also addresses students’ rights outside the classroom. “Students bring to the campus a variety of interests previously acquired and develop many new interests as members of the academic community,” it declares. “They should be free to organize and join associations to promote their common interests.” The statement adds, “Students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them, and to express opinions publicly and privately. They should always be free to support causes by orderly means which do not disrupt the regular and essential operation of the institution.”
Of no small importance is the statement's recognition of the right of students to participate in institutional governance: “As constituents of the academic community, students should be free, individually and collectively, to express their views on issues of institutional policy and on matters of general interest to the student body. The student body should have clearly defined means to participate in the formulation and application of institutional policy affecting academic and student affairs.”
The extent of such participation was left unclear, however. Nonetheless, in 1970 AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance and its council did issue a Draft Statement on Student Participation in College and University Governance. Perhaps reflecting then-current student demands for black and ethnic studies, that statement proposed that “Students should be consulted in decisions regarding the development of already-existing programs and the establishment of new programs.” It added as well that “Student opinion should also be consulted, where feasible, in the selection of presidents, chief academic and nonacademic administrative officers including the dean of students, and faculty.”
The 1967 Joint Statement considers students’ freedom off campus, noting that “students are both citizens and members of the academic community’ and as citizens “should enjoy the same freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and right of petition that other citizens enjoy.” Moreover, the statement adds this important caution: “Faculty members and administrative officials should insure that institutional powers are not employed to inhibit such intellectual and personal development of students as is often promoted by their exercise of the rights of citizenship both on and off campus.”
The detailed provisions of the 1967 Statement, I would argue, suggest a more systematic and reasoned view of the current wave of student unrest than the kinds of near-hysterical reactions -- The Wall Street Journal, for instance, called Yale protesters “little Robespierres” -- that seem to characterize much recent commentary. It is certainly true that the rights defined by this statement surely would include the right of students to upset other students, perhaps by wearing offensive costumes on Halloween. But, in many ways, more important is the right of the offended students to express their distaste as forcefully as they can without undue disruption of the institution's mission. As Geoffrey Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, recently put it, “Toleration does not imply acceptance or agreement. The freedom to speak does not give one the right not to be condemned and despised for one's speech.”
In this light, despite all the hubbub, it is difficult to identify even a handful of instances where recent student protests have actually violated the rights and freedoms of anyone, including faculty members and other students. Moreover, as Stone also suggests, protesting students are well within their rights even to demand that the institution take disciplinary action against other students, faculty or administrators who engage in odious behavior.
The real question is whether and how to act on such demands. As Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, has written, “Leadership matters -- not just on the substance of legislation, hiring or executive orders, but leadership in the face of emotionally evocative symbolic and narrative disputes.” Let’s take the incident at Yale that has aroused so much heat, in which a faculty residence adviser sent an email to a restricted list of students criticizing a message sent earlier by minority affairs counselors advising against offensive Halloween costumes. The adviser’s email spurred an angry response from minority students, some of whom demanded the adviser’s dismissal. This, I would argue, was well within those students’ rights. But were the Yale administration to accede to such a demand, it would be a different matter.
Indeed, as I’ve written elsewhere, the issue at Yale, Missouri and other institutions is largely not one of free expression but of communication, environment and values. Shapiro puts it well: “At a time of unprecedented economic inequality, students of color, immigrants and students from low-income backgrounds -- at rich, elite universities and state schools alike -- are painfully aware that the experiences they bring to campus are ill appreciated by many classmates, teachers and administrators, who come overwhelmingly from a culture of middle-class safety nets and an economy that rewards those who already have. That’s the issue.”
Here it's necessary to credit the students for their courage and determination in addressing the sometimes unconscious but nonetheless real and persistent racism that infects our society and our campuses. In doing so, they have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error.
What is therefore most remarkable about today’s student movements is not their alleged intolerance or immaturity. It is not their intemperance or supposed oversensitivity to insult and indifference. It is that they have begun to grapple with issues that their elders have resisted tackling for far too long. Stone is right that “a university can legitimately educate students about the harms caused by the use of offensive, insulting, degrading and hurtful language and behavior and encourage them to express their views, however offensive or hurtful they might be, in ways that are not unnecessarily disrespectful or uncivil.”
But the university, and especially its faculty, must also be willing to learn from students. Faculty members should welcome the challenges the protesting students have posed. Student movements offer countless opportunities for students -- as well as their teachers -- to learn. To approach them in this way, in the spirit of the student academic freedom proclaimed and defined by the AAUP and its collaborators back in 1967, is therefore simply to fulfill our responsibility as educators.
Henry Reichman is first vice president of the American Association of University Professors and chair of the association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Many people have argued that the recent student protests at colleges and universities across the country primarily involve free speech issues. For their part, the protesters disagree, arguing that the issues they seek to address are racism, exclusivity and bigotry in all its forms -- from fecal swastikas smeared on bathroom walls to racial slurs and microaggressions.
Whatever your position is on this dispute, the one thing that has become clear is that this is an opportunity to improve the way college students debate complicated issues. The conflicts highlight that something is missing on college campuses: a designated physical space for planned discussions, led by students, about controversial topics -- those that spark heated disagreement and possibly even revulsion.
I am a minority student at Williams College, and I recently had to deal with such a controversial issue, when Uncomfortable Learning, a student group of which I am co-president, tried to bring Suzanne Venker, an antifeminist social critic, to the college. Consequently, I received a torrent of ad hominem attacks. Among other things, peers called me a misogynist and men’s rights activist who was endorsing hate speech. In the end, we had to cancel the event for fear that it might get out of control and perhaps even endanger the speaker.
Yet confronting ideas that we oppose -- whether from a speaker who is brought to the campus, a senior administrator or a classmate -- is what higher education should be all about. There is a difference between Suzanne Venker and, to take an extreme example, Adolf Hitler, and to pretend otherwise undermines the principles this country was founded on. It is vitally important to create a separate area for free debate so that students who are interested can respectfully and constructively work through their understanding of sensitive issues and how to deal with them -- without being called aimless hate mongers.
Such a space is rarely available now on American campuses. Most classes in the humanities and social sciences are either lectures, seminars or a combination of the two. In each case, teachers create the course syllabi and generally set the agenda. Outside of the classroom, in dining halls, dorms and other places on a campus, students talk about various subjects. But the dining hall is a place for eating, just as a dorm is a place for living. Neither location is intended for planned discussions, for students to explore and discuss the ideas they hold.
This space I envision would serve several important purposes:
It would give students a forum in which to clarify the issues that challenge them the most and why.
Students could discuss the content of competing arguments on heated issues like gun rights, abortion, immigration and affirmative action.
Students could discuss how best to respond to unwelcome ideas and offensive speech, even hate speech. After all, one person’s offensive idea is another person’s viewpoint.
In those respects, creating a separate space for planned discussion of controversial issues is both a way for students to engage with each other about uncomfortable ideas and to prepare each other to have conversations about any number of sensitive issues outside of that designated space.
Openly discussing controversial topics and unpleasant ideas is important because doing so can help students gain a deeper understanding of views with which they vehemently disagree. Take for example, the use of the n-word. Many African-Americans consider it decided beyond any reasonable doubt that the n-word should never be used by white people. From that perspective, white people debating the 1991 Central Michigan University case presented in Randall L. Kennedy’s article “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’? … And Other Considerations” would be seen as abusive and denigrating and thus of no intellectual value.
While I am sympathetic to that point of view, I disagree with it. While some people interpret controversial comments to be attacking or devaluing of them personally, in fact many of those instances, like the use of the n-word, merit hearing opinions from all sides. Too often, certain unpleasant ideas are understood as having already been debated and conclusively decided upon. The space that I’ve described would give students who are interested an opportunity to have these kinds of discussions.
In particular, this space would be created by students who are enthusiastic about the idea of critically engaging with each other about the urgent issues of our time, even if they hold conflicting opinions. While they would be encouraged to defend any position they support, the discussion would ideally be driven by the participants’ shared desire to gain a deeper understanding of complicated issues.
To create this space, students should work with their administration to designate a place on campus where such planned discussions can occur. Once a group of students takes it upon themselves to lead this effort, they should establish important ground rules for the discussions, perhaps with the guidance of a professor or other neutral party. Ground rules are necessary to prevent ad hominem attacks and baseless claims from detracting from constructive dialogue. For example, it should be stipulated that, in the designated space, no student is allowed to attack the character of another for putting forth a controversial or even noxious argument. While there is no way of ensuring that these discussions do not engender fear of threats of physical violence, a ground rule must be established that explicitly prohibits such threats. In the extreme event that a student threatens or exercises physical violence, the administration should be notified immediately.
If some students become uncomfortable or offended by other people’s opinions, they should disagree respectfully. And if they feel motivated to do so, they should try to dismantle the argument they find problematic by challenging its fundamental assumptions and exposing its flaws. “Disagreeing respectfully” does not preclude raising one’s voice. Rather, disagreeing respectfully means that, in contention, students must refrain from making ad hominem attacks.
Colleges should encourage this kind of critical engagement because defending one’s position, identifying flaws in arguments we disagree with and effectively communicating differences of opinion are critical life skills. Many careers in business, politics, education and public service involve discussion of complicated issues that often result in heated disagreement. To contribute to such discussions and potentially shape climates of opinion, it is important for students to learn how to have productive conversations about sensitive topics.
Part of the reason for creating this separate area for free debate is so that it is easier for students to have uncomfortable discussions and contentious disagreements respectfully -- without causing emotional harm to others or incurring harassment or intimidation. By making this kind of forum available to students, we provide an opportunity for them to gain experience with sustained argumentation, in which students face the challenge of defending their most sacrosanct ideas against unpleasant, even deeply troubling, opposition and dealing with meaningful yet intense disagreement. While some students may leave these discussions feeling some resentment, sustained, unequivocal dissent and harsh sentiments surround the most pressing issues of our time. To debate these issues, students have to learn how to deal with the feelings that may accompany them.
These discussions are not meant to be formal debates in which opposing sides compete to win. The structure I envision is one that allows conversation to flow freely. Discussion groups, ideally, should be small enough so that students don’t have to raise their hands and wait to be called on to speak. If it happens that 30 people want to be a part of the same discussion, then they can break up into small groups so that everyone has an opportunity to be fully engaged. If a situation occurs in which nine people end up disagreeing with one person, that one person should defend their ideas and debate energetically.
To ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute equally to the conversation, it might be helpful for each group to select a discussion leader. But the conversations could be most productive if those involved determined the structure for them. In that way, students would have the opportunity to play a role in shaping, framing and changing the kinds of conversations they have about controversial topics that interest them. And while all colleges should consider the idea of creating and promoting a space devoted to free debate, how that space looks in practice on individual campuses should be open to development and revision based on the experiences and suggestions of the students who are engaged in it.
Administrators and faculty members at every institution of higher learning should encourage students to see the value of free and open debate, even on issues that some people may think are already settled. Identifying an area for such debate on college campuses will help students learn how to have meaningful and productive conversations about sensitive issues, articulate and defend their opinions effectively, and learn from those with whom they vehemently disagree.
Zachary R. Wood is a sophomore at Williams College majoring in political science and philosophy.