“Academic” Freedom Has an Adjective in Front of the Noun


Stanley Fish argues that “academic freedom” is “an unfortunate phrase because those who invoke it usually emphasize the word freedom' and forget about the controlling and limiting adjective. `Academic’ tells you what the scope of the claimed freedom is: It is the freedom — or, as I prefer, the ‘latitude’ — necessary to the performance of the academic task for which you are trained and paid.”

In an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Do Nothing Until You Hear from Me,” November 30, 2023), Fish spells out some implications of this view:

The bottom line, then, is that academic freedom is not a general license to say whatever you like on any topic under the sun. It is a limited freedom to follow where the evidence pertaining to an academic question leads. It certainly does not include the freedom to advocate for your political views or turn (or try to turn) your students into social-justice warriors or anti-social-justice warriors. You and they are jointly engaged in an intellectual effort to understand something, and that engagement is, or should be, intensely focused and has no legitimate room for activities that belong to other enterprises.

What is true of faculty is true of the administration. Those who insist, or should insist, that faculty stick to their academic knitting should stick to it too, pronouncing only on matters that directly affect their institutional — not general or human — responsibilities. …

This severely narrow view of what colleges are about is not in fashion now, but it has a long and rich history of adherents, including Aristotle (Ethics, book 10), Kant (What Is Enlightenment?”), Cardinal Newman, Max Weber, Michael Oakeshott, and Harry Kalven, whose report, issued on behalf of the University of Chicago in 1967, put it this way: “Since the university is a community only for limited and distinctive purposes, it … cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and its effectiveness.” And in the current scene there is this recent statement by Richard Saller, president of Stanford University, and Jenny Martinez, its provost: “We believe it is important that the university, as an institution, generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview, which is the operation of the university itself.” To the point, but a bit wordy. I much prefer the succinct response by the then provost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to demands by students that the university speak out against the impending invasion of Iraq. He said, “The University of Wisconsin does not have a foreign policy.” That is beyond perfect.

Fish doesn’t mention it in this short essay, but this interpretation of “academic freedom” as specific and focused is also the one from the “General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” as presented at the annual meetings of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, and as far as I know still the official guidance from the AAUP. A few years ago, I offered some discussion of that statement in “The Free Expression of Professors and Its Prudential Limits.”


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