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 Declaration on 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.