‘Challenges to Academic Freedom,’ and Our Readiness to Meet Them


Today, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal runs my review of Challenges to Academic Freedom, a new book of essays considering its subject from a variety of angles. Its authors run through a series of critiques and assessments — of the social media outrage machine, the reach of Title IX and Institutional Review Boards, the barely-there academic freedom protections for adjunct faculty, and so on. I think their concerns are well-placed, and I valued the book’s variety of perspectives and approaches, especially those essays that considered the issue in a more historical framework.  

I’m left convinced, however, that even if we could resolve all the volume’s concerns we still couldn’t give academic freedom a clean bill of health, for a simple reason: We aren’t doing the necessary work of building an appreciation and understanding of its value in the current generation, and that leaves it vulnerable to the more fashionable demands of the current moment. I write:

History gives us plenty of examples to support the axiom that, in such a heated climate, we’re apt to view fundamental values like freedom of expression as mere inconveniences to be brushed aside. Case in point: at the University of Pennsylvania, where law professor Amy Wax faces a disciplinary investigation over her widely condemned remarks calling for a reduction in Asian immigration, students demanded that Penn, among other things, reform tenure to ensure that it is “consistent with principles of social equity.”

Student support for free expression is already spotty, and has been declining for years in a number of key categories, as the latest data from the Knight Foundation show. Students too often arrive at college with a deficient understanding of the basics of the First Amendment, and aren’t likely to have this education supplemented unless they go out of their way to find it. Why should we expect any better when it comes to understanding academic freedom — a doctrine which has some standing in First Amendment law but which has also acquired a set of common-law principles intricately tied to the particular history of American higher education?

There isn’t an easy or quick fix for this problem; it will require concerted effort from a number of higher education stakeholders. That includes my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whose training for first-year students includes a unit on academic freedom. What universities can’t do is wait for their hand to be forced. “A university’s first lesson on academic freedom,” I write, “can’t be prompted — as it so often is — by a controversy that has students eager to jettison a principle they never had much investment in to begin with.”

For those interested, the full text of my review is here. Thanks to the Martin Center for soliciting it.

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