The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s time for an overhaul of academic freedom

Linking academic freedom to tenure has led to an impoverished definition of the concept

The Old Well is seen near the South Building on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., on April 20, 2015. (Gerry Broome/AP)
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Academic freedom is front page news. The decision by the trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to refuse tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones sparked outrage among academics and UNC students, as well as Jones’s fellow journalists. It shined a spotlight on tenure, which protects scholars from dismissal except under extraordinary circumstances, and exposed the limitations of a system in which American academic freedom depends on tenure.

Yet, while academic freedom is a seemingly self-evident feature of American higher education today, it did not always exist and took years to be formalized. The unique and incomplete process by which it became codified produced a narrow definition that not only excludes many members of the academy but also refrains from advancing a positive vision of what exactly academics are free to do.

Academic freedom’s roots lie in 19th century Germany. German universities’ autonomy was predicated on their usefulness in preparing graduates for the civil service and the military. German academic freedom was never absolute. The political order granted it in exchange for loyalty. The conditional nature of this freedom was underscored in 1870 when the head of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Emil Du Bois-Reymond, referred to professors as “the intellectual bodyguard[s] of the Hohenzollerns, billeted across from the royal palace.”

The American version of academic freedom developed quite differently, born of conflict within a university, rather than in response to state pressure. In 1900, Stanford President David Starr Jordan demanded the resignation of one of the university’s most popular professors, Edward Alsworth Ross.

During the 1896 presidential campaign, the outspoken Ross, an economist and sociologist, advocated for silver monetary policy — a rallying cry among populists. A year later, he spoke at a socialist rally in Oakland, Calif. In the spring of 1900, after Ross expressed opposition to Japanese immigration to California, Jane Stanford, Leland Stanford’s widow and the sole trustee of the university, wrote to Jordan, “Professor Ross cannot be trusted, and he should go. ... He is a dangerous man.”

It is not clear from the archival record whether Stanford recoiled from Ross’s racism, or whether racism was a merely a pretext for firing him for his socialism. But his dismissal sparked a broader movement to protect scholars within institutions of higher education.

Stanford University, which had adopted the German motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” (often translated as “the winds of freedom blow”), had been an unlikely place for such a scandal. Shortly before he asked for Ross’s resignation, Jordan confided in a friend, “I had resisted Mrs. Stanford’s evident wish … as long as I could, in the interest of academic freedom.” But Jordan’s personal embrace of academic freedom was more custom than formal policy. Before 1915, American professors possessed no formal rights, legal guarantees or economic security.

Ross’s termination and its reverberations changed that. Although Ross landed on his feet at the University of Wisconsin, historian Arthur Lovejoy resigned from Stanford in protest. In 1915, controversies surrounding World War I gave Lovejoy, John Dewey and James Cattell an opening to establish the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). With the war underway and concerns about freedom of speech rampant, this all-star group of scholars drafted its first document, the “Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” which the historian Walter Metzger once called the “philosophical birth cry” of academic freedom.

Armed with the case of Ross and others like his, the newly founded AAUP translated academic freedom into a set of formal guidelines that protected tenured faculty from removal in the case of questionable speech or inquiry. The “Declaration of Principles” made explicit an ideal of academic freedom that was previously implicit.

American academic freedom, based on the AAUP principles, permitted tenured faculty to express much-debated views such as Ross’s without fear of dismissal. But even from the beginning, this narrow formulation provoked a mixed reaction. Although he co-founded the AAUP, Lovejoy was disappointed that the declaration conceded too much power to trustees. He had hoped for more radical change. Indeed, the declaration left nontenured faculty with no protections at all. And Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin, believed that it was a mistake to exclude students, signaling a weak commitment to freedom of learning.

Despite these weaknesses, academic freedom became a constitutive feature of American higher education.

But Van Hise prefigured an enduring flaw: The declaration left the scope and purpose of academic freedom undefined. By focusing on protection from removal, the AAUP created what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called a negative rather than positive liberty — a freedom from rather than a freedom for. It never spelled out exactly what scholars were gaining freedom to do.

The AAUP revised its guidelines in 1940 and again in 1970, attempting to strengthen academic freedom each time. But in neither case did it attempt to spell out a positive vision of what academic freedom’s purpose was, nor to apply it more expansively. In practice, that has significantly narrowed academic freedom in recent decades, as, increasingly, tenured faculty have been replaced by nontenured instructors. According to the AAUP, as of 2016 only about 27 percent of the academic labor force in America was tenured or tenure-track.

Even as it protects an increasingly small share of academia, the absence of a positive vision for academic freedom untethers its beneficiaries from responsibilities to society or citizenship. Academic freedom and tenure are instead linked in a circular logic: Academic freedom is expressed through tenure, and tenure is justified by the need for academic freedom.

When we only talk about academic freedom in moments when it is at risk of being taken away, it is because we have an impoverished negative definition of the concept.

Moreover, academic freedom has been defined through litigation as an extension of broader civil liberties (a “special concern of the First Amendment” in the language of the U.S. Supreme Court). But this means it will never fully express the educational or social purposes that can only emerge from higher education itself.

Higher education’s inability to state the purpose of academic freedom enables professors to make spurious claims, whether racism masquerading as scholarship or dubious public health recommendations. Such claims damage academia, fueling calls for the removal of tenure and academic freedom, and criticism of the unfairness of a system in which some academics enjoy absolute freedom, while others have none at all. These claims also hurt society, lending a patina of respectability to practices and ideas that contradict core academic values, like the search for truth and a reliance on evidence.

In the absence of a positive definition of academic freedom, educators risk repeating the AAUP’s initial 1915 mistake by emphasizing the procedural means, rather than the principled ends. Only through a new consensus can educators move beyond a negative definition that arises out of conflict to a positive definition attuned to speech in an educational environment that furthers the mission of the academy. For the benefit of higher education and society, we need a new articulation of what academic freedom seeks, with an academic social contract at its heart.