Why shouldn't public colleges be allowed some say in the type of research done by their professors or the funding sources if a line of inquiry might negatively affect the school?
To allow colleges to restrict a field of research, either by censuring a professor or by limiting funding, would be to suggest that no academic advances should be made in that field. Such an attitude would seem to run contrary to the purpose of institutions of higher education. Where a college blocks a professor’s efforts to research a particular issue, the implication is that the censors fear what might be found.
As government entities, public universities are just as precluded by West Virginia v. Barnette from deciding “what shall be orthodox” as Congress is. That means that although a school administration may question the methodology or classroom performance of a professor, it cannot prohibit a field of inquiry simply because the subject is controversial.
What is academic freedom?
Academic freedom has an institutional and individual component. Academic freedom refers to the right of a university to determine its educational mission free from governmental intervention. This is institutional academic freedom. Academic freedom also refers to the right of an individual professor to teach her or his curriculum without undue interference from university officials. This is individual academic freedom.
The American Association of University Professors in its 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure defined academic freedom as “full freedom in research” and “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” The statement with regard to freedom in the classroom also states that teachers “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”
Still another aspect of academic freedom refers to the ability of university professors to be able to speak as private citizens without fear of reprisal from their universities or the government. The AAUP’s statement provides: “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.”
Is academic freedom limited to professors?
No. The Supreme Court recognized in its 1957 decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire that a university, as an institution of higher learning, has the freedom “to determine for itself on academic grounds” four basic questions: “who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
None of these institutional freedoms, however, should be interpreted as limiting the individual freedoms of students or faculty. Public colleges and universities are still prohibited from taking action against professors and students based on their thoughts, opinions or pursuits, which may be unorthodox, so long as their work and expression doesn’t directly damage the university’s academic purpose. Courts have consistently overruled the efforts of public colleges to establish speech codes or otherwise burden free speech and expression on their campuses.
Some educational administrators have sought to protect students from various forms of sexual and racial harassment by invoking “academic freedom.” Their argument is that no student can be truly free in his or her scholarly efforts where there is the shadow of racism, sexism or heterosexism.
A number of schools have implemented plans to prevent such attitudes from affecting students, but the result has been an uneasy tension between the rights of students to have a learning environment free of hostility and the ability of professors to engage their classes freely without having their own expression chilled by fears of mistaken intentions. This is a contentious issue and one that seems unlikely to find a simple or quick solution.