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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2009

Much to Learn from US Study

By Donald Savage
For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, Matthew W. Finkin & Robert C. Post. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009; 263 pp; ISBN: 9780300143546, cloth $27.50 US.
This is a lucid and concise account of the evolution of the idea and practice of academic freedom in the United States over the last century. The book is grounded on the seminal statements on academic freedom of the Ame­­rican Association of University Professors in 1915 and 1940 as well as on specific cases from the AAUP files since 1915. The authors discuss the application of these principles in a series of chapters on specific areas — freedom of research and publication, freedom of teaching, freedom of intramural and extramural expression, and professional responsibility. They note controversies and difficulties along the way.

They argue that academic freedom provides “the liberty necessary to advance knowledge, which is the liberty to practice the scholarly profession,” and that such independence, therefore, allows the university to function as it should for the common good. They quite specifically do not treat academic freedom as a synonym for the First Amendment that applies to the actions of government, but rather see it as a construct of the academic community to ensure independent scholarship and professional integrity.

They note that from the beginning AAUP rejected the view that academics were employees like any other and could, according to 19th century employment doctrine, be dismissed without cause by their employers. Instead they should be regarded as having a key role in the development of the educational policies of the academic enterprise. This then is the justification for intramural academic freedom.

The authors do not, however, regard academic freedom as an absolute right to say anything or do anything a faculty member wishes because the very existence of the university requires judgments on the qua­lity of teaching, research and publications, and these cannot be eliminated by appeals to academic freedom.

The authors recognize there are a variety of procedures such as ten­ure designed to protect academic freedom but they don’t deal with these, instead insisting on discussing the fundamental values that make up academic freedom. That leads to a discussion of how the university ought to govern and manage itself in the areas noted above. For­tunately for those who want more, Finkin published The Case for Tenure (1996), which deals with one of the important procedu­ral safeguards for academic freedom.

Another procedural safeguard not discussed by the authors is collective bargaining. This is a bit surprising because Finkin is director of the program in comparative labour law and employment law and policy at the University of Illinois, and a glance at his CV shows a wide variety of significant publications in labour law. The authors would presumably take the same view as they did with tenure, namely that it is important to know the principles and values one wants to defend before discussing various mo-dalities for doing so, such as collective bargaining. The use of collective agreements explicitly as a device for the defence of academic freedom is a road CAUT travelled earlier than AAUP.

The authors were motivated, in part, by the current climate of attacks in the U.S. on the university and on its faculty that go hand in hand with demands for legislative review and control. They note two in particular. One is the current right-wing mantra that most aca­demics are liberals, atheists or socialists and, therefore, should be required by law to provide equal time for other views.

This goes hand in hand with the view that liberal faculty create a hos-tile educational climate for conservative and religious students who need the protection of the state — an odd position for those who would on principle favour the withering away of the state since legislative oversight would inevitably require a bu­reaucracy which would have to de­cide which were acceptable and unacceptable subjects for teaching.

“All too often,” the authors note, “a ‘hostile educational environment’ may merely be one in which faculty have not allowed students to rest complacently and comfortably with their beliefs.” They point out that this is not an entirely new problem since “… Josiah Royce noted more than a century ago (1883) such constraints would suppress education in the classroom, for no instructor could ever know ‘when he will be accused of atheism for having mentioned in his classroom Voltaire, without warning his pupils against Voltaire’s books’.”

These attacks go hand in hand with demands that the faculty be responsible (i.e., tone down their views) and exercise restraint (i.e., self-censorship) so that they do not offend the general public or powerful figures in the government or the community. The authors note the founders of AAUP were parti­cularly concerned about the tyranny of public opinion and of enforced public pieties whether secular or religious.

They deal head on with the view of some boards of governors that they should be able to sanction faculty for extramural speech, parti­cularly political analysis, which the trustees consider harmful to the brand name of their university or offensive to the funders of the university whether public or private. They do not take the easy way out and say solely that faculty are citizens like everyone else and should have the same rights.

In fact they note that most Ame­rican workers do not have the rights claimed by faculty despite a line of political thinking in America that suggests they should. They take the view that, in the university, freedom is indivisible and that successful attacks on the extramural speech of faculty inevitably lessen freedom of teaching and research.

Why should Canadian readers be interested in a discussion of academic freedom in the U.S.? The founders of CAUT were strongly influenced by the 1940 Statement of the AAUP and by AAUP procedures as well as by academic and political events in the U.S. Quite early on, however, CAUT showed some differences, notably in the case of religious universities and colleges.

For a long time AAUP hesitated about whether or not its principles of academic freedom should apply equally in religious as well as sec­ular institutions. Nowadays it says that they do. CAUT was forced by the events at United College in the Crowe case to face up to that problem at an early date although the question has by no means gone away as events at Trinity Western University suggest.

Furthermore Canada is seeing exactly the same sorts of attacks on university faculty as in the U.S. We need to work together with AAUP to ensure the principles of academic freedom are well understood and vigorously defended on both sides of the border — free trade in freedom. Ensuring this book is read by all those who have to deal with the application of academic freedom in the university would be a good start.

The book is a delight to read, with many interesting case examples, along with splendid footnotes. It is particularly useful in how it shows the evolution of the idea of academic freedom and its application. It includes as appendices excerpts from the 1915 and 1940 AAUP statements. The authors are distinguished professors of law and holders of chairs in their home institutions, namely the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Yale. Post has recently become dean of law at Yale. Finkin has acted as general counsel for AAUP as well as, in the 1980s, chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Donald Savage is a consultant in higher education, former executive director of CAUT and a retired professor of history.