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Freedom and Responsibilities

By Henry Reichman
With freedom comes responsibility.  That old maxim is frequently heard in controversies involving academic freedom.  Too often it is taken simply to suggest that such freedom carries with it the responsibility to limit the degree to which freedom is exercised.  Don't rock the boat, we have been warned, if we don't want to lose our liberties.  Even the 1940 AAUP-AAC Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has long defined the American concept of academic freedom, exhorts faculty members to "be accurate," "exercise appropriate restraint," and "show respect for the opinions of others."  In the classroom, it notes, teachers should take care not to persistently introduce material irrelevant to their subject. 

Academic freedom is not the same as freedom of speech.  The latter permits citizens to voice their opinions no matter how ill-founded or offensive these might be.  The expressive rights of professors, however, are based on and limited by their training and expertise.  Academic freedom of necessity grants considerable scope to the consciences of individual scholars, but its purpose is to ensure that intellectual inquiry and debate may be conducted free of censorship or retaliation.  It is ultimately the collective freedom of the faculty to govern itself in service of the common good in a diverse and democratic society.

In that light the true responsibility that adheres to academic freedom is not the obligation to behave appropriately, however desirable that might be.  It is, instead, the duty to protect academic freedom and the principles of scholarly discourse wherever and however these may be threatened.  It is not enough to pay lip service to the concept, defending it only when attacked.  As a right adhering to the faculty collectively, academic freedom demands a collective and ongoing defense.  But sustaining such a defense demands attention, hard work, and most of all an informed and nuanced understanding of precisely what academic freedom does and does not entail.  As a fundamentally aspirational value, academic freedom cannot easily be defined by a set of clearly articulated rules.  It instead emerges from the contextual application of guiding principles developed and modified over time and may not infrequently lead to differences in understanding among people of good faith. 


I wrote Understanding Academic Freedom to help faculty members, college and university administrators and trustees, and even, I hope, legislators and concerned members of the general public learn more about this concept so that it may be applied more appropriately and wisely.  It seemed to me that the need for a concise and accessible survey and comprehensive introduction to the concept in all its manifestations has never been more essential.  Today, freedom of inquiry may be in as much danger as at any time since the 1950s anti-Communist hysteria.  It is complicated by both fiercely polarized campus environments and the emergence of social media that can extend faculty speech far beyond the lecture halls of the academy.  Moreover, the erosion over the past few decades of the tenure system -- designed as academic freedom's most effective means of defense -- has left as many as three-fourths of those who teach in higher education scandalously vulnerable to reprisal and suppression.  It is hence the responsibility of those faculty members with stronger protections to take on the defense not only of less privileged colleagues but also of the professoriate as a whole and of its most hallowed values. 
It is relatively easy to defend academic freedom when everyone is pretty much saying similar things.  But in an age when public controversies have called into question even the very legitimacy of expert knowledge, the need to defend freedom of inquiry and debate has become a primary responsibility of all those who teach and conduct research in higher education.  It is my hope that Understanding Academic Freedom will empower educators of all stripes to rise to that responsibility.  For if we do not accept this obligation, genuine academic freedom will inevitably waste away. 


Henry Reichman is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, East Bay. The author of Understanding Academic Freedom, The Future of Academic Freedom and Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools, he chaired the Association of American University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 2012 to 2021.

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