Reading The Fine Print:
Understanding Academic Freedom
Academic freedom is an “indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education” that has been seen as a cornerstone that enables our work since 1940. It is framed as the “core mission” of the American Association of University Professors. But the elements of it that are linked to a “professional standard” are ultimately described as “tied to custom and practice.” They are separate from a legal definition, which requires an understanding of both constitutional and contract law that many of us simply do not have. What this ultimately means is that most members of the Modern Language Association work without a technical or practical understanding of what “academic freedom” really is. We labor under a belief that we are protected by a legal and professional right that makes it possible for us to fully engage in the classroom and in public forums, even if our work challenges traditional modes of thinking or raises difficult questions. But then we see a rescinded job offer—or a graduate student is removed from a classroom after being doxed. If we turn to published essays in hopes of answers we are met with titles that range from the explicit “Academic Freedom Has Limits. Where They Are Isn’t Always Clear” to the more pointed “Can the Adjunct Speak?” And in this context it seems both pressing and timely to outline and then analyze the reach and limitations of “Academic Freedom.”
This panel takes its departure from an assumption that “Academic Freedom” does not actually extend to all the people or places that many of us imagine it does. Its real and imagined protections have also been troubled by external pressures and internal conflicts that are complex enough to merit a thirty-four page report on its “current legal landscape.” The classroom no longer seems safe even for professors with tenure, in a moment that Twitter can substantially alter an entire career. Any given exchange can be publicized widely, which makes it difficult to use the classroom as a space for intellectual exploration and genuine exchange. Finally, this is even more problematic for adjuncts and graduate student laborers, who are often asked to teach transformative but emotionally and politically complex courses in fields like ethnic studies or queer theory without allegedly requisite protections, which threatens both individuals and entire fields.
This panel seeks to address a series of related questions:
What does academic freedom actually cover?
What are its paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions?
Who actually has academic freedom? Does it extend to professors without tenure? What about graduate student laborers?
How can we protect ourselves (especially our most vulnerable professors)?
How can we protect the University (especially its most vulnerable areas of study)?
Our hope is that while we may never develop a clear sense of what our rights and protections are, this panel will provide a stronger foundation: an overview of the reach, limitations, and complexities of academic freedom, along with some sense of where to turn as our work as professors is threatened.