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Posted on April 22, 2005

Introduction and resources by Byron Barlowe, Editor/Webmaster, Leadership University


Academic Freedom for Professors & Students

Free Speech, Political Correctness, Viewpoint Discrimination and Faculty Autonomy


Rancorous debate on academic freedom has spilled over the walls of the ivory tower into popular consciousness via recent news of academic extremism and through increasingly vocal and mushrooming activist groups running Web sites and blogs. Constitutional confusion and overreach that curtails freedom of speech and association for students abounds in cases involving speech codes, freedom of speech vs. establishment of religion issues, derecognition of religious groups on campus and viewpoint discrimination.  For some examples see: http://www.noindoctrination.org/related.shtml.

Imbalance Among Faculty

The problems arise out of a demonstrably politically skewed professoriate and university administrations that reflect "little ideological diversity," according to professors Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern. Their survey of political views of professors in the humanities and social sciences is included below. They write, "The 'one-party campus' is a problem irrespective of what one's own views happen to be... Even someone with Democratic views might be very disenchanted with the groupthink of campus politics today." (The authors make clear that they are indeed not conservatives.) But the evidence of unfairness is overwhelming, both in their study and in many others now making news. This, of course, is not to say that such majority-versus-minority-view conflicts are caused by party affiliation, but the correlation is all too clear.

Faculty Extremism

Ward Churchill may be one reason that the topic has been lifted from its birthplace at insular faculty gatherings to laymen's dinner tables. The tenured University of Colorado professor delivered an incendiary speech (outside of the university) claiming that 9-11 terrorist victims were somehow complicit in the oppression that ostensibly explains the attacks of 9-11. Calling them "little Eichmanns" in reference to the Nazi known as "'Chief Executioner' of the Third Reich" put Churchill in the glare not only of the media and public, but his own state government, which is debating his ouster. This, in turn, notched up the response from colleagues who say they want to diligently guard the kind of academic freedom that makes such unpopular "dissent" possible. Many observers, some on the Left and Right, feel his positions may not necessarily represent dissent given the widespread views of a number of professors. This is particularly true in the kinds of culturally charged specialties like  Churchill's, in his case ethnic studies.

Students' Rights

But aside from the lightning rod that the Churchill case has become, a multiplicity of grievances are being filed by students at universities across the land and groups like FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) rush to their aid. So far, that legal advice has caused administrations to back down every time, calling into question those who dismiss the charges as illegitimate backlash from digruntled, unenlightened kids. Political correctness "gone too far" increased at a staccato pace. Mark Andrew Snider speaks to one issue in view of the probability of such a case going to trial (see below). Since the famous Rosenberger case in the mid-90s, which involved the competing interest of the university to avoid establishing religion and the students' freedom to gain access to compulsory fees for the publication of a religious handout, a variety of association and freedom of religion and speech cases have arisen. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill embroiled itself in conflict over a Christian fraternity which chose to discriminate in choosing its own leadership.

Columbia University ran into a situation involving a Jewish student's claim that the university "tolerated anti-Semitism and intimidation in its Middle East studies classes," according to the New York Times. Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, said at a speech to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York at that time said that "academic freedom has some limits when it comes to the classroom and the broader educational experience. We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty members above every other value.... Professors, he said, have a responsibility 'to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others'."

Vital Questions

  • Can self-policing of universities work fairly in an inherently self-referring and closed system? Or do polarizing ideologies necessarily negate the presumption of justice in such an arrangement? What genuine recourse is there for abuse of the system?
  • What about the underlying structure of universities may be to blame and what can be done to remedy those faults?
  • What about when claims of academic freedom for professors clash with the interests of fairness and academic freedom of students? Who is to say whose viewpoint has been discriminated against and who can trust whose assessment?
  • Are those in the university who espouse -- indeed who vigorously defend -- academic freedom setting up a de facto double-standard when questioned by students and others? Many who allege viewpoint discrimination by college professors and administrators say that their own concerns were met with defensiveness (and worse) while both the curriculum and stated goals of the institution hypocritically claim neutrality.
  • Is this a worldview issue? How much intentionality on the part of academe is there in cases of political correctness turning unfair, even politically incorrect?
  • How legitimate are activist groups -- student and faculty ones -- in a debate that seeks the competing interests of fairness and openness? Are blogs, activist organizations, their Web sites and publications just one more form of free speech or a threat to true academic freedom?
  • Is free speech protected or curtailed by "free speech zones"?
  • When one speaks of "openness," it begs the question, "Openness to whom and what?" Is it practical in the real world to demand openness to all things?
  • How can politics be kept at bay, or can it? How legitimate is it to survey the political leanings of professors, or students for that matter?
  • What is appropriate behavior for faculty regarding political speech? Inside the classroom? Outside of it? Is trust broken between students (and the taxpaying public) and professors who engage actively in politics or should there be a greater attempt at neutrality? Policed by whom, if anyone?
  • How much has a postmodern, multicultural ethos changed the terms of debate regarding academic freedom? How can traditionalists, who value the history of a discipline and its place in Western thought, meaningfully engage with progressives (especially in the humanities and social sciences), who focus on power struggles of minorities and use sexual and racial identity as experientially based reference points for their scholarship? Is there enough common ground?

A Disclaimer

We survey -- in limited but hopefully fair fashion -- several issues related to academic freedom, mainly from a legal and economic orientation with a bit of practical help for students and their parents. The sheer volume of material "out there" on the Internet and elsewhere renders the task of doing justice to the subject nearly impossible. Furthermore, no matter what editorial approach one may take, someone will be offended -- this is a contentious area indeed. Complicating that, the output of activists from the reactionary side, that is those who hold that academic freedom for faculty has overstepped its proper place and eclipsed student rights, is voluminous. Add to that the worldview differences at the root of such contentions and you have a mess. Finally, as an Internet outreach of a faculty-oriented organization, our concern is not just for laypeople, but for scholars, many of whom feel caught in the middle and who may not have had the luxury of critically ruminating on what seems beyond their power to effect as individuals. We trust that their future input will only add to the breadth and fairness herein. Consider our Special Focus one angle on a complicated situation. 

Featured Articles

"Academic Freedom"

When Rights are Wrong, by Professor William J. Stuntz: Stuntz brilliantly sets up a historical telescope through which to view legal rights as our forefathers saw them, examining how the concept of rights evolved. "Today, rights are about choice, and anything that restricts choice is subject to attack. And choice, in turn, is at war with standards and obligations." Yet, he says, Christians celebrating the famous Rosenberger case fell into this harmful mindset, in effect gaining victory through a ruling that forbids standards. "The issue worth arguing about in Rosenberger is what kind of student activities universities should and should not be encouraging," and not about whether to promote them, he writes.

Academic Freedom?, by Thomas Sowell, The Hoover Institution, Stanford U.: Thomas Sowell, Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, comments on the academic freedom controversy surrounding Ward Churchill and general confusion on the topic. He believes that sounding off on politics when it has nothing to do with a course's subject matter is grounds for firing, but that this does not apply to Churchill. In fact, his opinion on handling that case is to allow academic freedom to run its course.

Academic Freedom in the Classroom - When "Freedom" Becomes "License," by Luann Wright: President of NoIndoctrination.org, Wright as a credentialed college instructor, "discusses how faculty's academic freedom in the classroom can infringe upon students' rights and upon the learning process itself. Through an analysis of current cases, this study explores issues of academic freedom relating to classroom conflicts between faculty members and students. The freedom to research and publish without fear of reprisal is at the core of acquiring and disseminating knowledge. But how does academic freedom apply within the confines of the classroom? Can an overly expansive understanding of professors' academic freedom actually impede learning?  The conclusion reached here is that successful higher education requires a balance between the rights of professors and the rights of students."

What Can Be Done About Academic Freedom, University Governance?

Faculty Clubs and Church Pews, by Professor William J. Stuntz: Harvard Law professor Stuntz, an evangelical Christian, laments the way in which the two worlds he occupies, church and university, mischaracterize each other. But he sees hope for common ground, even if professors and church members are politically red and blue.

The Antidote to Academic Orthodoxy, by Stephen H. Balch, National Association of Scholars: "Pledged to virtually every other kind of diversity, [universities] must not neglect [intellectual diversity which] goes to the very heart of their mission.... Voices of protest are increasingly insistent on the need for change, and rightly so." Balch thoughtfully lays out ways educators themselves can address--especially in the humanities and social sciences--"intellectual monopolies based purely on organizational clout." He calls for "structural reforms" to "draw academic adversaries into sustained reasoned discourse and afford some institutional shelter for diverse views."

Viewpoint Discrimination by Public Universities - Student Religious Organizations and Violations of University Nondiscrimination Policies, by Mark Andrew Snider: A legal review and policy paper regarding viewpoint discrimination involving several cases, among them the Rosenberger case at University of Virginia. Snider concludes that the Court's jurisprudence does not allow a public university to "use its nondiscrimination policy to derecognize a student religious organization that chooses its members based on its religious beliefs" -- that this would inhibit the "vitality of diverse thought and robust debate at public universities.

Review - Faulty Towers, by George Leef: Director of university policy center, Leef reviews Amacher and Meiner's book Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education. He calls it "a clear-eyed exposition of the weaknesses in our higher education system that stem from its structure. The authors, if we might resort to a medical analogy, aren't interested in treating the symptoms, but want to get to the underlying pathology." This "long-overdue analysis...ought to be widely read and discussed among education leaders and policy-makers," Leef concludes.

The State of the University

The Grand Delusion (Ch. 10), Freefall of the American University, by Jim Nelson Black: Author and former professor, Black traces the Marxist roots within many American universities and documents the increasingly leftward leanings of most. Includes a wide-ranging conversation/critique of present-day academe with Dr. Dallas Willard, philosophy professor and author from USC. They discuss the state of teaching, truth, and logic on contemporary American campuses. Black ends the chapter with remarks on atheism and liberalism.

How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities? Survey Evidence from Six Fields, by Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern: (Requires Adobe® Acrobat®) A technical paper by Klein, a U. of Santa Clara economics professor and Stern, of Stockholm University -- neither Republicans nor conservative -- whose study across six disciplines in the humanities and social sciences shows a dominance by Democrat-voting faculty and "little ideological diversity." A larger, more controlled study than one conducted by David Horowitz and others, it found that study to be fair but incomplete. Includes a discussion of Stephen Balch's "property rights" proposal as a remedy.

Free Radicals, by Professor Gene Edward Veith: Conservative cultural critic and secular university professor Veith contrasts two professors in two disturbing cases at the U. of Colorado. Tenured but embattled professor Ward Churchill's dubious record, questionable scholarship and tenure and outrageous views were met by colleagues with support for academic freedom. Yet, the record of a non-tenured but honored and demonstrably tolerant professor whose dismissal goes seemingly unnoticed by fellow faculty. These and other cases, claims Veith, indicate an upside-down system.

Free market of ideas closed, by Nat Hentoff: Hentoff, generally acknowledged as a First Amendment defense authority, opines that diversity of ideas is the one kind of diversity missing from universities. Hentoff describes the insulated arrogance of some politically correct professors and questions a knee-jerk invocation of academic freedom by university administrations. He ultimately asks, What about students' academic freedom?

What is a Parent or Student to Do?

College Guide - Intercollegiate Studies Institute (isi.org): An up-to-date "One-stop Source for Choosing the Right College," this Web site includes high-quality resources like Choosing the Right College, The Student's Guides to the Major Disciplines, Asking the Right Questions and ISI Academic Advisor.

Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth about America's Top 100 Schools, Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender: Meilander reviews the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's guide to the campus culture and educational policy of America's most selective schools (late 90s edition). He applauds the guide, since then updated, with some helpful caveats.

Indoctrination and Irresponsibility, from Chap. 5 - Choosing a College, by Thomas Sowell: This 1989 practical guide to choosing a college by widely respected columnist, author and scholar Thomas Sowell shows that present-day concerns over political correctness and academic freedom of students is not a new topic. Then-current anecdotes offer perspective, as does the section on "faculty scholarship," from an insider's point of view.

The above information is courtesy of Leadership University, part of the Telling the Truth Project: Telling the Truth at the speed of life!

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