Essay On Academic Freedom

The topic of academic freedom on public college and university campuses has garnered national media attention and stirred passionate arguments from educators, students, and third party interests alike. This article explores the historical development of the philosophy of academic freedom and discusses its evolution from a teacher-centered to a teacher-student inclusive principle. It examines current divergent viewpoints regarding the definition and scope of academic freedom as it pertains to teachers' rights and students' rights and studies the political overtones that have come to characterize the nature of the academic freedom debate. Furthermore, the article discusses certain efforts that have been made to protect academic freedom on college and university campuses.

Keywords Academic Bill of Rights; Academic Freedom; American Association of University Professors; Bias; Diversity; Freedom of Speech; Lehrfreiheit; Lernfreiheit; Students' Rights; Students for Academic Freedom; Tenure


The concept of academic freedom on American college and university campuses is a principle fiercely guarded by educators and administrators alike. In recent years, many perceived and actual violations of this autonomy of thought and idea have met with vocal resistance, strong criticism, and, often, national media attention. Furthermore, particularly since the events of September 11, legislative and judicial intervention in academic freedom cases has increased the profile of many such cases and increased the debate surrounding the meaning and limits of what is and is not acceptable speech and action on American campuses and university classrooms.

Traditionally, academic freedom has been understood to apply to what is taught in the classroom, but educators and administrators do not hold the monopoly on academic freedom rights. Increasingly, students are asserting that these rights belong equally to them. The entrance of students into the arena of debate has not only challenged the traditional meaning of academic freedom but has also brought to the forefront of national attention the question of balancing freedom with responsibility while ensuring that the classroom remains a vibrant forum for the exchange and exploration of ideas and philosophies.


Belief in academic freedom as a necessary bulwark to a quality educational experience is not unique to the United States. In fact, the roots of such freedom extend as far back in history as the ancient Greeks. The great philosopher Socrates raised the ire of Athenian leaders by encouraging young people to ask questions in pursuit of truth. So great was the outcry against this ideological exploration that Socrates found himself on trial, accused of corrupting the youth. Convicted and sentenced to execution, Socrates nevertheless refused to succumb to the pressures of the state, maintaining until death his belief in the necessity of unfettered inquiry to the discovery of truth. Socrates' student Plato soon took up the cause of his mentor and established the Academy as a place of open discourse and learning in the pursuit of truth. Unlike his predecessor, Plato's work did not earn him a sentence of death, and one might say that his endeavor marked the first victory for academic freedom. To Socrates and Plato, academic freedom was not an end in and of itself. Rather, it was a means to an end: namely, the discovery of truth.

In medieval times, academic freedom and the pursuit of truth found a welcoming home on the first university campuses in Europe. Crabtree (2002) holds that this stemmed from a general adherence among academics and society as a whole to the Christian worldview, which taught that pursuit of truth was not merely a hobby or interest but rather a God-given calling. Thus "[a]cademic freedom was rooted in the belief that academics were carrying out a mission that transcended the authority of any man or human institution to countermand" (Crabtree, 2002, para. 7). As a result, secular and religious authorities allowed universities to operate with significant amounts of intellectual autonomy.

Fellman's work (2003), however, qualifies this assertion. He notes that, until the late 16th Century, while universities were often institutionally independent, instructors were nevertheless subject to strict limitations placed upon them both by internal and external authorities. With the 1575 founding of the university at Leiden, Germany, however, he notes that the philosophy of academic freedom found fertile ground in which to take root.

With the advent of the Enlightenment and the spread of philosophical liberalism, the concept of academic freedom as an open mechanism for the exchange of ideas grew in popularity and acceptance. Fellman notes, "[T]he rise of political, religious, and economic liberalism … [gave way to] a logical transition from the competition of the marketplace to the competition of ideas" (Fellman, 2005, p.10).

Like their medieval predecessors, American universities have staked their claim to academic freedom in the foundation of religious calling. Most early universities in the New World were religious in nature and identified their purpose as the preparation of individuals for Christian work. In keeping with this calling, universities understood academic freedom to mean the ability to function autonomously and to pursue truth apart from the interference of outside governmental entities and dictates.

Further Insights

Academic Freedom in 20th Century America

Following the American Civil War, the general understanding of academic freedom changed. Crabtree credits this to the increased adherence among intellectuals to secularist philosophies. Education became more a means of preparation for societal contributions than training for religious endeavors, and academics found themselves entering more and more into the public arena of political discourse. As a result, academic freedom in America came to mean the ability of individual professors to state their opinions and speak their ideas in the classroom without fear of retribution. As educational philosophy has come to focus on students' learning experiences as well as educators' teaching practices, however, the definition of academic freedom has expanded to encompass the right of students to learn.

The 1915 Declaration of Principles

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), under its president John Dewey, and the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, adopted a General Declaration of Principles, today commonly known as the 1915 Declaration of Principles. The Declaration identified the meaning of academic freedom as stemming from the German principle of Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, the former being the freedom of the teacher to teach and the latter referring to the freedom or right of the student to learn. The Declaration held that academic freedom consisted of three elements:

• "freedom of inquiry and research;

• "freedom of teaching within the university or college; and

• "freedom of extramural utterance and action" (AAUP's 1915 Declaration of principles).

Echoing the post-Civil War shift in popular understanding of the purpose of education from religious training to societal preparation, the Declaration outlined the three functions of academic institutions:

• "To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge;

• "To provide general instruction to the students; [and]

• "To develop experts for various branches of the public service" (AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles).

The Declaration concluded that this function was only possible in an atmosphere of academic freedom. However, such freedom was not deemed to be the ability to say what one pleases with no regard for the opinions or others or to discount the beliefs of others through intimation or open hostility. Highlighted in the Declaration was a specific admonition that rights and responsibilities are inseparable, and, while teachers should not be required to hide their opinions, neither should they attempt to suppress or discredit the viewpoints of others. According to the Declaration, the professor must "above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently" (AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles).

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom

Twenty-five years later, in 1940, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges (AAC), now the Association of American Colleges and Universities, produced the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This statement followed a series of joint conference meetings begun in 1934 and was similar in perspective to the 1915 Declaration. The purpose of the 1940 Statement was "to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities" (American Association of University Professors, 1940, para. 1).

The Statement described the purpose of education as promotion of the common good...


Books discussed in this essay:

Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth. The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan Cole, eds. Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Stefan Collini. What Are Universities For? New York: Penguin, 2012.

Alice Dreger. Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin, 2015.

Stanley Fish. Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Greg Lukianoff. Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. New York: Encounter, 2012.

Robert Post. Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

Hans-Joerg Tiede. University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. 

View the entire article "Academic Freedom and the Common Good: A Review Essay"


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