A New Year’s Primer on Academic Freedom: Ten Points to Consider

Here some concepts that are basic to academic freedom. This might be helpful for those who are in the process of attempting to understand this concept:

1) It means you own your classroom. It does not belong to the assessment police who are usually faculty attempting to advance their own careers throughout tightly knit networks with an administration. Assessment is an attempt to prevent you from teaching in a creative manner and to create a conformist pedagogy in which student outcomes are measured in terms of facts and not conceptual, critical thinking; you have the right to resist this assault on you and your teaching.

2) It means you own your classroom. It does not belong to your chair, to peers who visit incessantly for the purpose of summative evaluation, “institutional fit” and conformity to the all-sacred mission.

3) It means you own your classroom. Your syllabus may be identical to other sections or even imposed upon you as a condition of employment or retention. Yet even when this disgraceful commonality occurs, which is an existential threat to the meaning of education, it does NOT mean you cannot assign additional texts. It does not mean you have to parrot the content and preach the required readings as gospel. While common syllabi are the latest attack on academic freedom and are without justification, there is room to assert some academic-freedom rights even within the prison of “common outcomes and common standards.” I ask why would any free-thinking progressive enter teaching today? Prepare for a lifetime of struggle to educate your students and to defend academic freedom!

4) It means you own your classroom. You maybe required in a multiple-section course to give similar exams as professors become robots subject to assessment centralisation and conformity. Yet one has the right to give additional exams, emphasise attendance and use supplemental texts. While academic freedom is clearly under stress with standardisation of instruction, one can find some patterns of resistance and breakouts.

5) Academic freedom means a professor can engage in critical thinking with her or his students and avoid teaching to the assessment test. A great deal of anxiety and hand-ringing occurs as American students continue to fall in the international rankings of math, reading and science testing scores. Even the academic community, in the new Sputnik wars, moans and groans that our educational system particularly at the secondary level is “producing” less “competitive” students to prevail in the global competitive monstrosity of capitalism. Yet the destruction of academic freedom in so many areas, is a more significant issue. If college students are being taught by professors who are not free, then students are not free and cannot challenge the current orthodoxy and develop new pathways of knowledge. It is not test results that are the problem, but the imposition of assessment standards that threaten the autonomy of the classroom and the right of professors to own it.


6) Academic freedom means you are a citizen and not a subject in terms of educational autonomy and freedom of conscience. You can protest the drone wars and the racist Supreme Court assault on voting rights in the Shelby County v Holder version of Jim Crow. You can protest and even boycott other nation’s institutions as retaliation for colonisation and racist confinement behind “retention walls.” While some might disagree with the impact of boycotts on academic freedom, they are legal, legitimate and part of a long-standing tradition. Rosa Parks’s life that led to a boycott of Montgomery apartheid bus system is proof of that. Yes academic freedom give professors and their associations such as the American Studies Association the right to boycott other post-secondary institutions in the name of peace and justice. Of course academic freedom gives organisations such as the American Association of University Professors the right to denounce or protest a boycott but the action cannot be suppressed in the name of defending academic freedom. Debates on academic-freedom implications of morally inspired acts such as boycotts are what academic freedom is all about. Protest against them may also be morally inspired but I am standing firm against coercion and the suppression of protest: I am defending rigorous debate over the meaning of academic boycotts. I am talking about academic freedom rights here in a content-neutral manner! You can protest United States foreign and domestic policy in the press, on the internet, on radio and television. You have the academic freedom to engage in extramural utterances and should resist any efforts to attenuate those rights.

7) Academic freedom means you can publish works that might be construed as provocative and even infuriating such as holocaust revisionism or even denial. You can defend sexism and homophobia in your writings and lectures. Academic freedom does not inoculate one from protest or criticism and protects academics who may challenge such writings or utterances. But you have the right! You can dare to dissent from prevailing orthodoxy whether you are a reactionary or a revolutionary or somewhere in between. You can dare to challenge the stultifying conformity that may attempt to punish, censor or throttle your rights. Academic freedom is content neutral or at least should be! It protects academicians from retaliation, arrest or dismissal for expressing opinions on matters of public concern.

8) It means you are able to protest and challenge both faculty and administration authority. Other than the Garcetti v Ceballos case that attempted to prevent employees from criticising their employer when carrying out their public duties, and even that case left some space for academicians at public universities, academic freedom means you are not an employee but part of the governance structure of a post-secondary institution. You are not a 9-5 employee but have rights to participate in and effectuate policies from financial, curricular, personnel decisions, strategic planning and programme evaluation and expansion.

9) Academic freedom means that you have the right to organise for the purposes of collective bargaining to reach a contract, and the right to challenge institutions such as the Supreme Court that may rule otherwise. The rule of law is not merely defined by those who make it such as a legislative body or judicial entity. It is defined by the citizen who is not a subject. Unions and collective bargaining are under attack and so is academic freedom that gives Americans–yes even educators–the right to organise. Public-university employees have the right. Part-time faculty have the right whether they are employed at private or public universities or colleges of higher learning. Full-time faculty at private institutions do not have the right but need to seize it, take it and defy illegitimate authority.

10) Academic freedom is fragile and under great stress in the United States. Many rights and freedoms are. I agree with the Tea Party on that assessment but little else. Tenure is the basic structure in which academic freedom can flourish. If professors cannot anticipate being offered an annual contract and are fearful of losing their jobs and livelihoods, they will self-censor and tailor their teaching to the power-elite ideology to avoid any complaint or hint of apostasy or challenging the dominant culture. Tenure is dying by a thousand cuts as the professoriate is increasingly off the tenure stream as the new majority of part-time and “term” appointments dominate instruction in the United States.


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