Inquiring Minds

Why academic freedom is important – at Illinois and everywhere.

UI Creative Services/Public Affairs Photo
Why academic freedom is important – at Illinois and everywhere.

When Patrick Henry wound up the words “Give me liberty or give me death,” then hurled them in the general direction of the British, he likely knew the challenge would go some distance. Would he have foreseen it redounding to American education some 236 years later? Maybe. What is certain is that colleges and universities – and the teachers who are at the soul of these institutions – have liberty to thank for their very existence. Long revered and spiritedly reaffirmed, academic freedom is a principle receiving fresh support at the University of Illinois now, in the fall of 2011. What follow are some observations and reflections on why.

A well-respected legal scholar and feisty member of long standing on the faculty of the UI College of Law, Matt Finkin occupies a second-floor office in the Law Building, where he is wont to be found preparing lectures and conference papers, and, on some days, taking calls from the media on labor and employment issues in the breaking news. So meticulously overstacked is this space that it is not practical to try to carry on a conversation with Finkin while he is at his desk, seated behind the piles of legal volumes and briefs. Wandering downstairs instead and at last settling at a table in the cafeteria, where small knots of law students wind down the week with coffee and note comparisons, Finkin talks about one of his most pressing recent projects – proposing new language to be added to the University Statutes, language that affirms the principles of academic freedom to which those who teach at Illinois are entitled.

The process of revising the statutes, initiated last year by the UI Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, springs from recent court cases that have limited the right to free speech on the part of public employees. While faculty at academic institutions received special status in the most far-reaching of these decisions – Garcetti v. Ceballos, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 – that consideration has been overlooked in subsequent lower-court rulings, prompting widespread concern and launching renewed efforts by universities and colleges, including Illinois, to affirm, uphold and protect academic freedom.

Like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, such freedom may seem self-evident to some. To others, it may appear to be a trend that should be curbed so as to foster broader views on campuses.

Finkin explains his view.

“Academic freedom is misunderstood,” he says, “as freedom of speech. To the public, you have freedom of speech, therefore what do you need academic freedom for? Nothing more is added. And the answer to that is: They’re not the same. They’re simply not the same. Freedom of speech – yes, the groundskeeper can stand on a soapbox in front of Swanlund [Administration Building] and say, ‘The Earth is flat.’ You can’t fire him for that. A professor of astronomy who did that can be fired.

“The standards are different,” he says.

The language that Finkin has crafted defines academic freedom this way:

the freedom to teach, both in and outside the classroom, to conduct research and to publish the results of those investigations and to address any matter of institutional policy or action … [and] to speak on any matter of social, political, economic or other interest to the larger community.

What academic freedom underwrites, in other words, is much broader than freedom of speech. Academic freedom means the freedom of discourse and inquiry. This is not uncontroversial. Beyond knowledge and ideas germane to teaching and research, academic freedom means freedom to discuss knowledge and ideas in general, and to advocate for or argue against. This is the freedom that makes education possible and that accounts for the world-reaching success of American colleges and universities. This is the freedom that both embraces and debates the full spectrum of political views. From this freedom has sprung the singular phenomenon that is the 21st century land-grant university – institutions birthed to bring prosperity to farms and people, which have gone on to attract genius the way avalanches gather snow.

Now, as has a way of happening time out of mind with the many kinds and forms of liberty, academic freedom is under pressure – notwithstanding the enormous good it has produced and continues to produce.

Because of academic freedom, “we have thousands upon thousands of American faculty members who teach the things they love to teach and do the research they love to do, and their students get to see what passionate intellectual commitment really means when it’s freely chosen,” observes Cary Nelson.

“And that’s given us the best educational system in the world.”

An English scholar of considerable stature, Nelson is most widely known in the academic community as the long-bearded face of the American Association of University Professors, serving as its president since 2006. He has written many books and provoked many, many more debates with an insistence on the rights of faculty that brooks no compromise. At an interview in the long living room of his Champaign home, crowded with mementos from his four decades of teaching, he reflects concerns, writ larger and larger in higher education today, about challenges to academic freedom both external and internal.

From the outside, Nelson worries about pragmatic public pressures on universities to provide white-collar vocational training and to produce lucrative research. While both of these functions have obvious benefits, the belief in education as valuable in itself – a process that helps society become a better place in which people live better lives – is enduring and compelling, lodged at the very center of what learning and progress are. Democracy, too. “From English to engineering, there are things you teach that help make students better informed citizens,” Nelson observes. “It just takes a lot of different disciplines to really put together a good education for critical citizenship.

“Theoretical physics may not develop products very often,” he continues. “Research with the Hubble Telescope into the origins of the universe probably doesn’t develop products very often. But I just don’t want to lose those things. Because they’re critical to the development of human understanding and to our understanding of the world. And that’s what a major university should be able to do.”

Perhaps the most profound concern is that economic realities might curtail academic freedom far more drastically than administrative or political decisions. Joyce Tolliver, a Spanish professor and outgoing leader of the UI Academic Senate, voices the difficulties faced by her discipline and others that don’t produce job-holders or bring in research dollars.

“In the humanities,” she says at an interview in her office in the Foreign Languages Building, a striking brick structure just off the Quad, “we teach, and we write articles, and we further knowledge. And that’s very hard to put a price tag on.” Now, she notes, “there’s also this view of education as a commodity, that you have to produce a brand that you have to sell. All of this is just really bad news for the research institution and, of course, for liberal arts and the humanities.”

As to challenges faced by institutions themselves, both Nelson and Tolliver point to the trend toward contingent and adjunct faculty – instructors hired without tenure or hope thereof. This, says Nelson, “really has undermined academic freedom in a major way.”

Contingent faculty “typically do not fare well if they get involved in controversy,” Nelson points out, noting that “when parents complain or a legislator complains or students complain that they’re offended by something someone teaches,” that person may find his or her job at risk. While contingent instructors are especially vulnerable, tenured faculty can also be affected.

Yet giving offense doesn’t necessarily mean going to extremes. For every professor who makes the news through ill-considered public remarks or inappropriate classroom behavior, there are myriad teachers legitimately challenging uncounted student assumptions: Such assumptions range from the idea that light moves solely in straight lines to the notion that the U.S. is the best-fed country in the world. Engaging students and getting them to respond to and assimilate new ideas is what teachers do – and (as anyone who’s ever taught knows) discovery and discussion are integral to the process. As Finkin writes, “Independence of mind is an active virtue, not a passive one. It cannot be drilled into students; it must be drawn out of them.”

Obvious as the virtues of free thought, inquiry and discussion may be to educators, history shows that such perspectives are not always shared by others. The 20th century is scored from beginning to end with episodes that range from the firings of faculty alleged to be pro-German during World War I – “Michigan dismisse[d] a dozen different people for doing things like failure to buy enough Liberty Bonds,” educational historian Tim Cain observes – to an attorney general’s recent subpoena to a professor at the University of Virginia over the latter’s research on climate change. Cain, who is on the faculty of the College of Education, has made a study of the continuing history of conflicts over research and discourse in American universities and colleges, which begins – well, nearly at the beginning.

“One of the more famous cases was a faculty member at Cornell, Henry Carter Adams, who gave a talk in 1886 … Sort of a pro-labor-type talk,” Cain observes at an interview in his office, a small space pitched by modernist rafters and lined with books. “The chief of the board of trustees went into the president’s office and said, ‘Get rid of him, or you’ll never receive any money from me again.’ So [Adams] was not renewed.”

In response to such early incidents, the AAUP formed in the early years of the 20th century, issuing its Declaration of Principles in 1915. This iconic document affirms that academic freedom “comprises three elements: freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extra-mural utterance and action.”

Central to the Declaration is the German concept of “Wissenschaft” – a word without synonym in English, which affirms the value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Wissenschaft emerged in Europe as the antithesis of religious orthodoxy, sprung from centuries of intellectual darkness during which people were tortured and killed for observing and questioning. The wellspring of academic freedom in Germany both for individuals and institutions, Wissenschaft found its way across the Atlantic after the Civil War and was welcomed into American higher education.

A key difference from Germany – where universities and colleges are administered by faculty – is that U.S. institutions of higher education have, for the most part, traditionally been overseen by governing boards. Singular to academic freedom in American higher education is the idea that faculty are appointed, rather than employed, by the boards of the institutions they serve – an affirmation that they possess expertise that can only be judged by their peers and that they thus cannot be summarily terminated. When faculty members are dismissed for questionable reasons, the AAUP advocates on their behalf. Such inquiries are based not on the principle that scholars should be able to say anything they like, but, as Finkin puts it, “the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching, of the academic profession.”

Tolliver, whose successor as head of the executive committee of the UI Academic Senate takes over at the beginning of the fall semester, observes that: “We are much better off than in many institutions because we have a history of respect for real shared governance and for consultation.”

In the end, academic freedom in America draws its authority from the compact that colleges and universities have with society to advance knowledge. An educated citizenry is also part of this excellent bargain, through which prosperity has flowed on an impressive scale through Illinois and the country. (One need only look at the social transformation wrought after World War II by the GI Bill to see what education can do for a nation.) “The draftsmen of the 1915 Declaration sought to establish principles of academic freedom capable of ensuring that colleges and universities would remain accountable to professional standards rather than politically or financially beholden to public opinion,” Finkin writes. “They hoped to construct institutions of higher education as instruments of the common good.”

The language on academic freedom to be added to the University Statutes has been passed by the Academic Senate and is making its way through the University, with the ultimate goal of approval by the Board of Trustees. Of these words, Finkin observes: “Is it thinkable that our trustees would suddenly fire a professor because he criticized them?

“I don’t think it’s thinkable, but you want to have a rule to make sure they don’t.”

He adds with a chuckle, “As Madison and the Federalists said – if men were angels, we wouldn’t need any government.”

Patrick Henry would surely have agreed.