For the Common Good 1 (RJS)

I’ve been reading a book lately, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom by Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post. This book provides a historical description of the development of the ideals of academic freedom in the US, including the forces that have push for and against academic freedom. Stanley Fish, in his New York Times review, quoted on the cover of the paperback version noted:

This book is right on target. And you just have to love a book… that declares that while faculty must ‘respect students as persons’, they are under no obligation to respect the ‘ideas held by students’. Way to go!

The book is easy to read and quite enlightening. I recommend it for anyone active in the academy or interested in the ideals of academic freedom, whether you think academic freedom has gone too far and needs some constraints, or you feel it is under attack and in need of a strong defense.

The topic of academic freedom is of interest, or should be of interest, in light of many recent events. These range from incidents involving Christian scholars in Christian institutions to concerns about the liberal bias of the  secular academy to efforts at all levels to control the university. Stanley Fish had an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times on the topic last year – concentrating on the divide between liberals and conservatives. There is also an important pragmatic push in our society to view and to shape universities as conveyors and repositories of knowledge rather than as producers of knowledge and institutions for intellectual growth. Fish has yet another opinion piece in the New York Times discussing these issues of pragmatism and vocationalism in the university. In the context of all of these issues – and more – the idea of academic freedom is worth a look.

How do you understand academic freedom?

What is the purpose of academic freedom?

Do you think academic freedom is a value to be protected or an abuse to be reigned in?

One of the key points made by Finkin and Post in their book is the importance of the distinction between first amendment rights of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Academic freedom is not an extension of freedom of speech. Rather academic freedom is a recognition that, for the common good, professionals must be allowed to govern the practice of their own discipline. It is not true that academic freedom allows any professor the right to say or do anything in the classroom or in their scholarship. But it does assert that professors have a right to practice their discipline without the interference of those wholly outside of their discipline and profession.

Academic freedom has its roots in attempts by people with power, but little or no expertise, to control what was taught in the colleges and universities of the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. This attempt for control is often, if not always, disastrous for the pursuit of truth and the advance of knowledge. American academic freedom has its origins in the response and reaction to an attitude expressed by Alton B. Parker, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals and candidate for US president, in 1902, and echoed 13 years later in a 1915 New York Times editorial in response to a flap over an abrupt firing of a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Both Parker and the New York Times asserted that the donors and trustees of a University have an absolute right to fire a janitor who doesn’t clean the bathroom the way they would like and to fire a professor who doesn’t teach the doctrine they want to see taught. Finkin and Post quote Parker (p. 25):

And as to the founders of, and donors to, institutions of higher learning, whose sole business in life – making money – may not have especially qualified them to determine what should be taught in colleges and universities, I am in favor of their having the like complete freedom within their province which I accord to teachers within theirs – freedom to insist upon it that the doctrines they believe to be true, and for the propagation of which they have expressly and avowedly founded the institutions, or endowed the chairs, shall be taught in such institutions. (23 Educ. Rev. 16, 21 (1902) quoted on p. 25)

The interference was sometimes on religious grounds as when the president of Vanderbilt University fired a geology professor for endorsing evolution which he found to be “contrary to the plan of redemption.” But far more often the interference was based on political and economic disagreements. One professor was fired from Stanford for “advocating for free silver and against the importation of cheap Asian labor (p. 31)” another at the University of Pennsylvania for teaching political and economic views considered unacceptable by the Board of Trustees. Occasionally the reason for preemptory dismissal was more peculiar.

In 1927 the University of Louisville dismissed the historian Louis Gottschalk. He had protested the administration’s summary dismissal of a colleague and had criticized the educational wisdom of certain policies pursued single-mindedly by the president. The president had threatened to dismiss those faculty members whose “‘primary interest [is] in graduate or research work’” in preference to undergraduate instruction and had, over the faculty’s objection, given students “capable of playing football” academic credit to which they were not entitled under the college’s rules. The president reiterated a demand for “loyalty” toward “the declared purposes of the University.” (p. 121)

Professors were considered to be employees hired to teach a certain subject in a certain fashion, in accord with the wishes of their employers and could be fired for public disagreement or dissent. The New York times in a 1915 editorial stated this explicitly.

Academic Freedom is, as a counter to the common view of professors as “at will” employees, an assertion that those who hire a professor may not control the manner in which he or she carries out the job, although he or she must, of course, carry out the job. A professor is better viewed as an appointee rather than as an employee. From the 1915 Declaration on Academic Freedom quoted by Finkin and Post:

Once appointed, the scholar has professional functions to perform in which the appointing authorities have neither competency nor moral right to intervene. The responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself and to the judgment of his own profession; and while, with respect to certain external conditions of his vocation, he accepts a responsibility to the authorities of the institution in which he serves, in the essentials of his professional activities his duty is to the wider public to which the institution is morally amenable. So far as the university teacher’s independence of thought and utterance is concerned – though not in other regards – the relationship of professor to trustees may be compared to that between judges of the federal courts and the executive who appoints them. University teachers should be understood to be, with respect to conclusions reached and expressed by them, no more subject to the control of the trustees than are the judges subject to the control of the president with respect to their decisions. (p. 34)

Academic freedom is for the common good and based in the professional expertise of the faculty. A fundamental purpose of the university is to seek truth and advance knowledge. Human knowledge cannot advance in an environment where he who pays the bills calls the shots. We feel this intuitively when demanding a revelation of conflict of interest by a medical researcher who profits from the sale a drug he or she is testing.  We feel this intuitively when a company funds a study and calls the shots. Human knowledge also cannot advance in the pursuit of truth when trustees, administrators, and donors are allowed to call the shots and control the outcome of scholarly endeavor.

Academic freedom is not an individual’s right to free speech and thought – it is freedom of scholarly pursuit as a expert, within an area of expertise. The professoriat is self-governing. The purpose of the tenure-probationary period (a rather stressful time) is to demonstrate that an individual is competent to fill this professional position. Finkin and Post summarize:

Knowledge is the result of the public disciplinary practices of professional experts. Because faculty are professional experts trained in the mastery of these disciplinary practices, they are “appointed” to discharge the essential university function of producing knowledge. In this task they are answerable to the public at large rather than the particular desires of employers. (p. 35)

This does not mean that professors are free to do anything or teach in any fashion. The faculty as a whole designs the curriculum and the content and the individual professors must teach within the constraints of the curriculum. In an example given by Finkin and Post, academic freedom does not allow an astronomy professor to teach astrology. Rather academic freedom “establishes … the liberty to practice the scholarly profession” and “academic freedom protects the interest of society in having a professoriat that can accomplish its mission.” (p. 39)

In the second post in this short series I will bring the discussion around to consider the mission of the Christian college, university, or seminary and the role that academic freedom may or may not play in such an institution. Today, however, I would like to keep the discussion somewhat more general, reflecting on academic freedom in our secular public and private universities.

Does this view agree with your understanding of academic freedom?

Is academic freedom necessary for the common good?

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  • Anna

    Interesting, the point about professors being threatened with losing jobs if they questioned what benefited the political and economic powers-that-be. I recently found out that Communist East Germany somewhat tolerated Christian churches and even theology classes — as long as Christians stuck to caring for the elderly and disabled (which was helpful and convenient for the state). If they questioned or challenged the political system however, they soon got to know its rough side.

  • Diane

    Academic freedom, of course, must be protected but I worry that it has been eroded through the shift to visiting, contingent and other non-tenured faculty positions. Also, the zeal for vocational as opposed to liberal education has a de facto effect of pushing students towards the socially normative rather than encouraging them to explore the margins. Further, in an ideal world, college teaching is not day labor and students receive two benefits: both a liberal education that allows them to read and explore alternative viewpoints and a start on a decent, middle class career. In ideal world, people with Phds don’t have to teach 6 classes a semester to eke out a living and students don’t have to work 30-40 hours a week to pay for school. The point is that academic freedom doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is tied in with how, overall, we structure the economics of higher education.

  • Rick

    I think concern comes with cases such as the one with Ward Churchill in Colorado. His statements were controversial (that is an understatement), but within the spectrum of his discipline.

    How far is too far?

  • DRT

    I worked for [a large chemical company in DE that used to make gun powder] in the late 80′s and early to mid 90′s. One of the facilities there bragged that they had the highest concentration of PhD’s per square foot in the world. I grew up, so to speak, in that type of environment and not in academia.

    I was engaged as a scientist to develop future state technology in a specific area of defense. We would do a lot of fundamental research ourselves, and would occasionally hire Professor’s for specific purposes.

    There was broad recognition in industry that the companies needed to do fundamental research and not just application of knowledge. The researchers would publish, much like the academics and I myself have presented papers at symposia (though none of them are open to the public).

    Being part of a profession, a professional, necessitated independence of thought and dedication to the profession not unlike what happens in academia. At least that is what I think.

    What I don’t understand is why we need to have professors who do both research and teach. I can see that there may be some for whom this is a good model, but for the vast majority of good researchers that I have known over the years,. Teaching is a stretch.

    Why would we not want to have funded research in the university, and a different staff to teach?

  • Vic Woodward


    Have you read David Jeremiah’s, “I never thought I’d see the day”? I’d love to read your review of that book. I just became aware of it and have not read it yet, but the preview seems to contain things that are discussed here. Thanks.

  • rjs


    The Ward Churchill case is an interesting one. There were many factors at play and his rather controversial statements brought them all to the light of day. I am not judging any individual case – including this one – because I don’t have the information. He was eventually fired for academic misconduct, not for his statements. His lawsuits have not denied the misconduct but have addressed the issue of whether the misconduct would have been sufficient to warrant dismissal without the added impact of his inflammatory statements.

    But academic freedom is not a blanket free pass to say anything.

  • Matt Edwards

    I think some sense of academic freedom is necessary for the integrity of teaching at the University level. Research by its very nature pushes the limits of current knowledge. When you are paying someone to come up with new ideas, you have to allow them to have “bad” ideas, ideas you don’t like, or ideas that challenge conventional norms. If professors and researchers are constantly worried about where an idea is going to land them, they can’t push the limits of knowledge.

    But maybe academic freedom needs to be balanced with academic responsibility. It’s just as important to discover what is “good” as it is to discover what is “true.”

  • Rick

    RJS #6-

    “But academic freedom is not a blanket free pass to say anything.”

    Thanks, but that is not what I am seeing in the post.

    Matt #7-

    “But maybe academic freedom needs to be balanced with academic responsibility. It’s just as important to discover what is “good” as it is to discover what is “true.”

    If we apply that to the Churchill situation, what he claimed was probably seen by him as both “good” and “true”. Furthermore, “good” may be a more difficult standard to find common ground than “true”.

    I can see how these standards work well in the areas of physical science. But when you get into disciplines such as history, politics, ethics, or religion, the guardrails seem vague.

  • MikeK

    I was just reading the chapter “The Loss of the University” last night in Home Economics by Wendell Berry.

    He raises several questions in making the argument that the university produces humanity. So, what of “academic freedom” in that regard?

    I find that I haven’t had to reflect upon this question very deeply until recently. Part of what spawned this reflection are my studies, but part of it includes both a gnawing sense of fragmentation within NA culture and also the kind of people who result from such experiences that lead to the conferring of an academic degree: who in turn contribute toward the kinds of fragmentation that I referred to.

    So…what is obtained or offered to society by granting “academic freedom”? Berry wonders why we don’t insist upon a common language, as well as recover pursuit of truth. Such insistence aims to employ academic freedom as social and intellectual space for developing “fully developed human beings.”

    In other words, academic freedom is a responsibility to serve a select gathering of the human population to become “fully” human. That needs some exploration! Many academics would push back on this in a heart-beat, e.g., the contract-colleagues of DRT (4.)

  • rjs


    I don’t understand your point – could you try to give an example?

  • Diane


    Why don’t we separate research and teaching: Because ideally people want to learn directly from the person doing the cutting edge research. If Galileo were alive, I’d want to go his classes, not his classes as taught by someone else. Going to a Lacan lecture in the 1950s was a completely different experience than learning about Lacan in 2011. The learning should be alive, raw, exciting, even collaborative. What we’ve done to learning is another story.

  • Matt Edwards

    Rick #8,

    I think Ward Churchill’s essay is a perfect example of what should not be protected by academic freedom. It’s not an historical essay; it’s a rant.

    Now, I think that professors should have the freedom to present alternate interpretations of history, such as Churchill’s suggestion that 9/11 was not an unprovoked act of terrorism, but rather one battle in a war that has been going on for 1,000 years. But academic freedom shouldn’t protect your rhetoric, especially if it is insensitive, inflammatory, provocative, or hate-filled. If you want to present revisionist history, then do it the right way–give a plausible narrative that explains the data, and do so in a professional manner.

    If someone from any other profession published that essay and it received the attention it did, they would lose their job. Churchill’s academic freedom should not protect him from that.

    I don’t see why universities can’t come up with codes of conduct regarding academic freedom. All you need is a document that says something like “As you pursue what is ‘true,’ keep in mind what our community values as ‘good.’ If your research falls outside of the guidelines of our university’s values, do it somewhere else.”

  • MikeK

    rjs (10.): I have more of a question, than a point, and no examples other than those that are general, so, let me try this:

    What kind of human persons result from the academic freedom that is conferred upon faculty at universities? I suppose, furthermore, we’d need to ask about what happens to faculty who receive this academic freedom, as well as what becomes of the students who graduate.

    I am also thinking that the university has a tacit theological perspective on what it means to be human. Having academic freedom, I would guess, helps to “incarnate” that perspective. Some of that perspective is good; some of it deserves reconsideration, some even deserves to be set aside, academic freedom notwithstanding.

    Does that help? Sorry…I know I am processing this and related questions; but academic freedom makes an important contribution to what kind of people emerge from and participate within the university.

    I wonder- without examples!- if it has been esteemed so highly that it precludes common or shared discourse across disciplines, and consequently whether there will be any shared convictions or “common good” of what kind human person will graduate from the university. Your thoughts?

  • rjs


    I think an opening question – what kind of persons result from the university – both the faculty in the university and the students who graduate is worth considering. I don’t really see what academic freedom explicitly has to do with this, but perhaps it does.

    We can only talk about ideals – because one can find negative counter examples to anything – overall though academic freedom should add a level of intellectual integrity to the pursuit of a discipline.

    A governing body cannot declare that certain topics will not be broached. A scholar can explore whether minimum wage is a good idea or a bad idea, whether a given treatment is effective or ineffective, without fear for reprisal because the topic or the result is unpalatable to the boss(es). The work will be judged on its intellectual merit, including the appropriate use of methods.

    There are minefields in any discipline, but outside forces cannot drop bombs as well – and to a certain extent within the discipline there must be room for reasoned dissent and disagreement.

    Ideally the university produces humans (faculty and graduates) who are capable of analyzing and evaluating arguments – who learn how to think rather than regurgitate information – and who can think creatively within the confines of a critical realism.

  • rjs

    Rick (#8),

    If you are seeing academic freedom as a blanket free pass in my post and summary of the book then either I am not communicating well (always a possibility) or you are bringing something to the post that is putting a twist to what I am saying.

    Where do you get the idea from this post that academic freedom is a free pass?

  • MikeK

    rjs (14.),
    Thanks for the reply. In part, my reply was also my ongoing reflection of Berry.

    I suppose that academic freedom is being described as value that is almost inviolable. Yes, there are supposed to be disciplinary boundaries, and presumably those within the guild socially demarcate those lines. While I would agree in theory about “reasoned dissent and disagreement,” I’d suggest that more often than not knowledge is far more powerfully shaped by relationships and conferred authority/esteem within the guild before any changes occur from the disagreements. So, academic freedom cannot be merely limited to evidence of scholarly, professorial practice: it gets authorized in a network of relationships. That network contributes to the inviolability of academic freedom; it’s not the only participant, but it deserves better recognition.

    Moving ahead, if I’ve followed your posts- Scot’s as well- then my sense is that an issue such as academic freedom as explored by Finkle and Post cannot be contained by slogans such as “the common good.” In other words, it begs the question, what is it that is common, and for that matter, what is good?

    I would posit that “good” can be understood and agreed upon pretty quickly among the Christian community, and most likely shared with those outside of it. But, “common” would be contested pretty vigorously, even within the Christian community.

    In this case, I find that Berry is a good ally, in that he shares our concern regarding what kind of people emerge from the university. He doesn’t speak directly to academic freedom directly as Finkle and Post are: but he is concerned that the university hasn’t come around to ascertaining what is meant by “common”, and he’s mindful that we’d all be suspicious of any institution naming or defining “common.” But, it would be an important step forward, and suggests to me it would grant some wisdom in how academic freedom could be responsibly exercised in a new and deliberate fashion.

  • rjs


    This book is a historical description of academic freedom, the context and justification and a presentation of case studies that have worked out the understanding. The authors are lawyers.

    The book is not a philosophical defense or idealization.

    Of course human relationships and structures play a role in the professional circles. I don’t think anyone would deny or doubt that. These are all human institutions. And they are fallible – one needs to look not at the exceptions but the average.

    But the alternative to academic freedom is not constraint imposed by some wiser authority. The alternative is control by those with money or political clout and by the whims of public opinion.

    I am not quite sure here where Berry comes into the picture – how it relates to this point.

    I would suggest you read this book – it isn’t perfect, but it is enlightening.

  • MikeK

    Yes, I have the book coming. Thanks.

    Besides “what” gets researched, we need to ask how academic freedom contains responsibility for how faculty educate their students. That it does have responsibility is not contested: how it does seems to vary widely. It is not the only element at play in what kind of person emerges upon graduation: but, this conversation does give it better attention.