What is Academic Freedom?

Julia Schleck is Associate Professor of English, longtime AAUP officer and member, and author of Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism (University of Nebraska Press, 2022).


In the early twentieth century, faculty at US institutions were increasingly dismissed from their positions for their views on politically sensitive topics of the day, like Chinese immigration, the gold standard, and child labor.  Several UNL professors were fired for being opposed to WWI or for having the misfortune to be specialists in German literature and history at the time. In response to these firings, educational reformers forged a new argument about the role and function of higher education in society and a new conception of the norms governing faculty work within universities. They argued that university faculty should be given very wide latitude in their research and teaching, and protection from employment consequences if their choices of research project or their courses angered those outside the academy for political, religious, economic, or other reasons.  Reformers sought to provide protections for faculty work, not for the sake of faculty per se, but because the work they did was seen as contributing to the progress of US society as a whole.  Protecting faculty work, the reformers argued, was a necessity if our society wished to progress economically, scientifically, morally, and socially. 

Many of these reformers became the founding members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) such as philosopher Arthur Lovejoy, economist Edwin Seligman, and law professor Roscoe Pound, who went on to be one of UNL Law School’s more illustrious deans. The AAUP is an organization that advocates vigorously for this understanding of the university and its place in society.  The AAUP first articulated its arguments about academic freedom in its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and more briefly in the 1940 Statement. The 1915 Declaration laid out the principles of academic freedom as it would be understood for most of the twentieth century.  In it they state that “The importance of academic freedom is most clearly perceived in the light of the purposes for which universities exist”, namely, to “to promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge,” to teach students, and “to develop experts for the use of the community” (1915 Declaration, 296).  To achieve these purposes, the 1940 statement insisted that faculty must have:

  • full freedom in research and in the publication of results
  • freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject
  • ability to speak freely on matters of governance, including and especially points of critique–this would ensure that they could fulfill their duties to share governance of their institutions
  • freedom to “speak or write as citizens . . . free from institutional censorship or discipline”.  This ensured that a professor’s speech as a citizen could not be used as cover for a firing that was in fact linked to their research and/or teaching.

Importantly, they made clear that faculty work could not be done properly without these freedoms.  To ensure them, a rigorous set of procedures and protections would be slowly codified and regularized into what is usually referred to as tenure and due process.  Advocates of tenure and due process justified these extraordinary employment protections by grounding them in the value to society of the work done by faculty.  This is usually expressed in the insistence that faculty work in research and teaching is done for the common or public good.

Academic Freedom is Collective

Academic freedom is therefore collective: it is given to the faculty body with the expectation that it will self-govern in matters related to their expertise in for teaching and research.  This means an individual faculty member’s decisions regarding their research pursuits and teaching are not subject to administrative or outside censorship, but they are subject to peer review by fellow faculty.  The development of expert knowledge, it was reasoned, must be solely in the hands of experts, who were the only people in a position properly to evaluate it.  Thus, faculty are given control over the curriculum and over the review, hiring, and promotion of other faculty, and the responsibility of reviewing all dismissals to ensure they were not being done (overtly or covertly) on intellectual grounds, which would be a violation of the faculty’s academic freedom and damaging to society.  This dynamic is often encapsulated in the phrase “rights and responsibilities”.  When the faculty gained the right to academic freedom, they also gained the responsibility of self-regulation through peer review and shared governance of the institution.  The two things are inextricably linked.  

Academic Freedom is Different from Free Speech

Although academic freedom is commonly thought of today as a kind of “free speech for professors”, it was in fact grounded in the function that the university was thought to play in society and the necessity of protecting that work.  Constitutionally protected free speech is a political right, ensuring that the government will not persecute its citizens for their speech.  It says nothing about employers, who regularly punish their employees for speech they find problematic, whether uttered on the job or in someone’s off hours.  In contrast, the legal status of academic freedom has not been well developed. It tends to show up parenthetically in legal cases—for example, in a footnote or as an exception to a ruling.  However, it is a very strong norm within higher education and one that most academic employers strive to respect if they wish to be taken seriously as an institution of higher learning.  Internal rules of process, usually called bylaws, protect the academic freedom of faculty.  In sum, the First Amendment provides protection to all citizens from the government while academic freedom provides protection to faculty from their academic employers.

There’s a subtler difference between free speech and academic freedom as well, one that has to do with expertise.  In First Amendment doctrine, all speech utterances are more or less equal in terms of the protection they warrant, regardless of their content.  This is not the case with scholarly methods of knowledge production, which require careful assessment and an ultimate judgment on the superiority of certain ideas over others. Within the academy, all ideas are not equal. Or rather, all ideas may be equally expressed, but that’s only the first step.  After that, they will all be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and some will be rejected as flawed or inadequate. Academic speech is aiming at creating knowledge, and it relies on the collective judgment of experts to sort through which ideas are worth keeping and which should be rejected. 

Threats to Academic Freedom & how to Protect It

By far the biggest threat to academic freedom today is the relentless shift from tenured faculty positions to ones that carry no possibility of tenure.  Nearly 75% of today’s professors are working without the protection of tenure, which means that anything they write, teach, or say as part of their duties in shared governance or on their own time as citizens has the potential to cause them to lose their jobs.  Many of these people will reasonably choose to protect their livelihoods rather than boldly pursue their research, teaching, and creative activity in accordance with their best professional judgment.  This damages the pursuit of knowledge and its honest transmission to students and ultimately harms our society as a whole.

All faculty, regardless of whether they were hired on a tenure-track contract or not, should fight to extend the protections of tenure to all faculty in order to protect the integrity of faculty work and the service we offer to society through knowledge creation and dissemination.  Promotion and merit reviews recognize and reward high quality academic work.  Tenure, in contrast, is a basic academic freedom protection that should be extended to all those considered sufficiently competent by their faculty peers to be hired for more than six consecutive years.

The procedures known as “due process” were similarly designed to protect academic freedom, but many of these processes rely on knowledgeable faculty oversight and judgment through review panels and committees.  Faculty must be willing to staff such panels and learn how they operate in conjunction in university bylaws to protect and preserve academic freedom.  Such advocacy and oversight work is often undervalued by faculty and administrators alike.  Yet it is crucial to the protection of academic freedom.  We all recognize the necessity of speaking out publicly against high-visibility attacks against academic freedom and value those who do so.  We must equally value the quieter but no less critical work of participation in the institutional processes designed to protect the work that all of us hold dear.  This should be done not only publicly and rhetorically, but in concrete ways through recognition of this skilled labor on merit and other evaluation processes.

Finally, faculty should educate themselves and their students on the history, traditions, and necessity of academic freedom in higher education.  One of the greatest threats to academic freedom is simply a loss of knowledge about the critical importance of academic freedom to our universities and to society as a whole.

Further reading:

AAUP, 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Henry Reichman, Understanding Academic Freedom.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

Matthew Finkin and Robert Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic

            Freedom. Yale University Press, 2009. 

Julia Schleck, Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism. University of

            Nebraska Press, 2022.