Academic Freedom Article Summary

Academic Freedom Article Summary
Academic Freedom: A Realistic
philip g. altbach
Philip G. Altbach is a Monan University Professor and director of the
Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. E-mail:
Everyone seems to favor academic freedom. Indeed, if university leaders or ministers of education were asked, they
would claim that this privilege is universally practiced. Yet,
problems concerning academic freedom exist almost everywhere—created by changing academic realities, political pressures, growing commercialization and marketization of higher
education, or legal pressures. The purpose of this article is to
argue that academic freedom needs to be carefully defined so
that it can be defended in the global climate of complexity. A
new, and probably more delimited, understanding of academic freedom is needed in the age of the Internet and the global
knowledge economy
a bit of history
Academic freedom has a long history in higher education but
has always been contested by forces outside the university.
Since the time of Martin Luther and Socrates, professors have
been persecuted for their views—by state or religious authorities or by powerful interest groups who do not like dissenting
views or uncomfortable truths. Modern academic freedom was
perhaps first codified by Wilhelm von Humboldt when he
developed the research university in Berlin in 1818. The
German academic freedom idea was limited in scope. It
included Lehrfreiheit—the freedom of professors to teach in
their classrooms and to do research in the direct areas of
expertise. The Humboldtian ideal did not include freedom to
express views outside the professor’s area of expertise and
19th-century Germany often disciplined academics who
expressed dissenting opinions about politics and excluded
socialists or other dissenters from holding academic appointments. It should also be noted that students were guaranteed
Lernfreiheit—the freedom to study what they wished.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
first focused on academic freedom in 1915, and its statement
emphasized three main principles: “to promote inquiry and
advance the sum of human knowledge,” “to provide general
instruction to the students,” and “to develop experts for various
branches of the public service.” With the agreement of university presidents, the AAUP expanded the purview of academic
freedom in 1940 to include professorial expression on topics
outside of the direct academic expertise of the professor. In
other words, professors had a wider range of freedom of
expression, although the statement emphasizes professorial
responsibility and recognizes some restrictions. In both the
German and American cases, academic freedom included protection of academic appointments through a tenure system:
professors could not be fired for their research or views on a
range of topics. Professors came to be protected in roles as
members of the academic community as well. They could not
be disciplined because they might oppose university leadership on issues relating to academic governance of policy. This
broader definition, stemming from both German and
American traditions, seems to be widely accepted globally in
countries that have a traditional commitment to academic freedom, although it is possible to point to many violations of the
accepted norms.
contemporary confusion
At the same time, definitions about academic freedom are
being expanded and contracted beyond generally accepted
norms. Some now define academic freedom as virtually everything that permits effective teaching and research—faculty
involvement in governance, adequate budgets for academic
institutions, suitable conditions for teaching and learning such
as appropriate classrooms and access to technology. This
stretches academic freedom to include everything necessary
for a successful university. At the other end of the spectrum,
some countries or universities claim adherence to academic
freedom where there are policies in place that restrict what can
be taught in the classroom or on themes for research and publication.
Contemporary realities have also created complexities. The
Internet, distance education, and related technological innovations, as well as the rise of multinational media conglomerates
that increasingly control the distribution of knowledge, have
raised questions about the ownership of knowledge. Issues
related to academic freedom are involved in these technological debates.
Is academic freedom a necessary condition for high-quality
“world-class” universities today? The evidence seems to show
the requirement. The various international rankings of universities give those institutions with a high degree of academic
freedom the top scores. Few highly ranked universities systematically violate traditional norms of academic freedom. A high
degree of academic freedom is particularly important for the
social sciences and humanities, but all fields benefit from freedom of
inquiry and a sense that the university is committed to the free
expression of ideas.
the need for a new consensus
Academic freedom is without question a core value for higher
education. In the knowledge economy of the 21st century acainternational higher education
2 academic freedom
Academic freedom has a long history in higher education but has always been contested by forces outside the university.
demic freedom needs some rethinking, with all of the pressures on higher education engendered by massification, commercialization, and accountability. What is needed is a return
to the core concepts of academic freedom developed by von
Humboldt and expanded in the AAUP’s 1940 statement.
Academic freedom, after all, is the right of professors to teach
without constraint in their field of expertise, do research and
publish, and express themselves in the public space (newspapers, the Internet, and so on). Academic freedom generally
protects the employment of professors as well as providing the
most ironclad guarantees possible—through a formal tenure
or civil service system, or other arrangements.
A statement issued by professors at the University of Cape
Town in South Africa and quoted in a famous 1957 United
States Supreme Court decision states:
These ideals neatly summarize many of the essential ideas of
academic freedom.
Academic freedom does not essentially concern how universities are managed, whether they are adequately funded or
even how the faculty is compensated. Academic freedom does
not ensure that professors have a role in governance but
should guarantee that they can speak out on internal management issues without fear of sanction. Academic freedom does
not relate to accountability. Universities may legitimately
demand appropriate productivity from faculty members.
Professors’ work may be evaluated, and inadequate performance may lead to sanctions or even, in extreme cases, firing,
but only after careful procedures that do not violate academic
freedom. Academic freedom protects professorial freedom of
teaching, research, and expression—and nothing else.
current problems
Traditional academic freedom is under threat in many places
today, creating the need for more attention to be paid to contemporary challenges. These crises range from professors
being subject to severe sanctions for their teaching, research,
or expression—including firing, jail, or even violence. Groups
like Scholars at Risk provide assistance to such academics and
publicize their problems. In some countries, restrictions exist
on what can be researched, taught, and published. In some
cases the restrictions are explicit, but in most cases the “red
lines” that cannot be crossed are not clearly spelled out. Yet,
academics may be sanctioned if they violate these terms.
The list of such countries and fields of inquiry is unfortunately rather long. In the United States, which has in general
effective protections for academic freedom, problems are
emerging. Courts have recently ruled that academics who
speak out against the policies of their own universities and are
penalized for such actions are not protected by academic freedom. The growing number of part-time teachers in many
countries have no effective protection of their academic freedom, since they are often employed for just one course or for a
short and often indeterminate period of time. The ownership
of knowledge by multinational corporations or even by employing universities has become an issue of contention in some
countries. Is it a violation of academic freedom for an external
organization to control publication through ownership rights?
Is academic freedom violated if governments impose curricular requirements of various kinds, as is the case in a significant
number of countries? In short, academic freedom is under
considerable stress today, and expanding the definition of this
key concept to include basically everything makes the protection of the essentials of academic freedom increasingly difficult. The complexities of the 21st century require careful attention to the core principles of academic freedom so that they can
be protected in an increasingly difficult environment.
New Challenges to Academic
Freedom in the United States
robert m. o’neil
Robert M. O’Neil is former president of the University of Virginia and the
University of Wisconsin system, recently retired as professor of law at
Virginia, and currently directs both the Thomas Jefferson Center for the
Protection of Free Expression and the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues
Initiative. E-mail:
Academic freedom in American higher education evolves in
curious and often unpredictable ways. For those who teach
at public or state-supported institutions, the courts play a
major role in defining the scope of such freedom. For faculty
at independent or private colleges and universities, whose policies are seldom subject to court review, standards are provided
by organizations such as the American Association of
international higher education
academic freedom
Professors came to be protected in roles as members of the academic community as well. They
could not be disciplined because they might oppose
university leadership on issues relating to academic
governance of policy.
It is the business of a university to provide that
atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation,
experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in
which there prevail “the four essential freedoms” of
a university—to determine for itself on academic
grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it
shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.


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