Academic Freedom and American Higher Education

Increased public scrutiny of the efficiency, accessibility, affordability, and productivity of public universities has become an increasingly common component of the national political dialogue.  In Indiana laws have been enacted, in collaboration with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, that create requirements for the universal transferability of college credits, limit the number of credit hours required for most baccalaureate degrees, expand the concurrent enrollment programs for high school students in university level courses, and most recently establish a framework for a state-wide general education program.  Taken individually these pieces of legislation are aligned with public demands for a higher education system that delivers graduates to the workplace in ever cheaper, faster, and more standardized ways.  Collectively, however, these actions are viewed by some as an extensive, systematic, and politically coordinated incursion into the institutional control of the higher education curriculum and as such ultimately call into question the meaning, the significance, and the future of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is commonly expressed as the understanding that institutional academic integrity resides primarily in the ability to provide an environment where scholars, teachers, and students are empowered to freely consider all aspects of intellectual inquiry through research, discourse, and teaching without fear of censorship, reprimand, or reprisal.  Given that universities exist to serve the greater public good, the free exercise of their mission is essential for the betterment of society.  Any limit placed on that freedom constrains their ability to add to the body of human knowledge and apply that knowledge to the improvement of the human condition.  Within American universities academic freedom exists at both the institutional and individual levels and both will be considered in light of their relationship to the other.

Institutional Academic Freedom

Institutional academic freedom originated with the establishment of the western scholastic tradition marked by the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088.  Independent of the direct authority of both church and crown, secular institutions such as the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, and Padua were organized much like professional guilds under the leadership of their senior scholars.  Conversely, in North America the nine colonial colleges founded during the late 17th and early 18th century were charted by the colonial governments with institutional authority bestowed on governing boards composed of prominent citizens of the community.  That is, the American higher educational system was founded by citizens, for citizens, and organized in such a way as citizens, not academic professionals, were charged with its supervision.  Institutional academic freedom in modern American colleges and universities is vested not in the faculty as it is in continental universities but rather in those appointed boards of trustees that oversee all aspects of institutional operation.

The legal foundation of institutional academic freedom was considered in the 1957 Supreme Court case Sweezy v. New Hampshire where Chief Justice Warren writing for the majority concluded, “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation.” (354 U.S. 234 [1957]).  In a concurring decision in the same case, Justice Frankfurter provided an explicit definition of institutional academic freedom, “It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail ‘the four essential freedoms’ of a university — to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” (354 U.S. 234 [1957]).  Likewise, the 1967 Supreme Court decision in the case Keyishian v. Board of Regents noted, “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us, and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment.” (385, U.S. 589, 385, U.S. 603 [1967]).  While these cases, along with the subsequent decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (438, U.S. 265 [1978]), did not directly address issues surrounding the validity of legislatively established mandates intended to limit and standardize university curricula they have affirmed, through the concept of institutional academic freedom, the right of the university to exercise its four “essential freedoms” independent of any extramurally imposed constraint.

Individual Academic Freedom

Given that the American higher education system originated through the creation of publicly chartered colleges under the control of governing boards rather than through the direct actions of groups of scholars, academic freedom in American universities is held by the governing boards not the individual members of the faculty.  Yet in practice there exists a rich history whereby the academic freedom of individual scholars and teachers is defined in terms of, and is naturally extended from, the concept of institutional academic freedom.  The organization most responsible for defining and defending individual academic freedom has been the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

One hundred years ago higher education in America was in the midst of a tectonic transformation driven by decades of industrial expansion and the resulting diffusion of wealth into a rapidly expanding professional class.  With increased opportunities for employment in the technical and commercial fields came the need for specialized education that extended beyond the traditional vocational apprenticeship.  The Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 were specifically designed to address the nation’s demand for higher education through the transfer of federal land (in 1862) or direct federal subsides (1890) to the states in order to fund “the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” (U.S. Code, Title 7, Chapter 13, Subchapter 1, § 304).

 The creation of the land-grant colleges had a direct impact on the understanding of individual academic freedom in several important ways.  First, the new colleges and universities created a demand for more university teachers which in turn raised questions concerning professional standards, the use of instructors not holding faculty rank, and ultimately the rights and responsibilities of the growing number of college teachers.  Second, the land-grant colleges were founded specifically to meet the educational needs of the so-called “industrial classes” of American citizens.  No longer was higher education an exclusive privilege of the wealthy.  The expansion of educational opportunities to include the working classes created unprecedented heterogeneity within the student body in terms of a common knowledge and understanding of the western cultural traditions in which wealthy students of the past had been fully versed.  Finally, land-grant colleges were leaders in the expansion, differentiation, and specialization of the university curriculum beyond the traditional medical, legal, and liberal arts curricula of the 19th century.  These factors, along with a growing sense of vulnerability among university faculty regarding the terms and conditions of their employment, were instrumental in the founding of the AAUP in 1915.

The AAUP’s first significant act was to adopt a “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” drafted by a committee of fifteen eminent senior scholars and chaired by the economist Edwin Seligman of Columbia University.  By first affirming that the basis of academic authority resides with the university’s governing board, this declaration highlights the fact that the board exercises a public trust that is distinct in every regard from the absolute authority associated with private proprietorships.  That is, a board of trustees differs greatly in its rights, responsibilities, and limitations from those vested in a corporate board of directors.  While the board is responsible for overseeing the management and operation of the institution, it has “no moral right to bind the reason or the conscience of any professor.”  Indeed, all responsibility for maintaining academic freedom on behalf of the public trust resides in the board.  In 1907 Harvard President Charles William Eliot, during an address at Cornell University, concluded “the board of trustees is the body on whose discretion, good feelings, and experience the securing of academic freedom now depends.”  It is therefore both necessary and appropriate that the board serve as the guarantor, protector, and advocate for an intellectual environment that supports and sustains open inquiry, bold discovery, and free expression.

The Declaration goes on to consider the nature of the academic calling.  With clarity and forcefulness the AAUP states that the professorial office must possess both “dignity and independence” in order to provide college teachers and researchers with the “freedom to perform honestly and according to their own consciences the distinctive and important function which the nature of the profession lays upon them.” By stressing the unique aspects of the terms and conditions of the faculty appointment, it is the AAUP’s strongly held option that a university is not “an ordinary business venture” nor is an appointment to the faculty a form of “purely private employment” and as such faculty are entitled to the free enjoyment of the privilege of academic freedom.

The Declaration also defines a tripartite function of the academic institution “to promote the inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge; to provide general instruction to the students; and to develop experts for various branches of the public service.”  The social and economic transformation of American higher education at the turn of the 20th century significantly expanded the mission of universities to include an emphasis on the discovery of new knowledge through research and on the delivery of professional and technical instruction.  In this principle the AAUP formally recognized the expanded mission of American higher education and explicitly extended the right of individual academic freedom to members of the faculty in all three aspects of university work.

Finally, the Declaration also recognized that by accepting the autonomy and security provided by academic freedom, teachers and researchers must exercise their duties in ways that are respectful of the dignity of the institution from which that freedom flows as well as the rich history and traditions of their chosen profession.  An extraordinarily powerful, and perhaps prescient, warning was given: “If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others – by others who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action is sure to breed suspicions and recurrent controversies deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities.”  Legislative mandates intended to reform higher education, undertaken in the name of efficiency and accountability have, without question, disrupted the internal order and diminished the public standing of higher education. 


It is time, indeed past time, that all members of the university community, faculty, students, administrators, and boards of trustees acknowledge and embrace the unbounded benefits as well as the solemn responsibilities of institutional and individual academic freedom.  Only in so doing will our institutions of higher learning fulfill their essential societal mission and realize a future rich in cultural, artistic, and scientific contributions.

Sapere Aude –


8 thoughts on “Academic Freedom and American Higher Education

  1. First, thank you Carl, for starting this blog and for this post. I can’t help but notice the timing amid recent revelations concerning Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ ham-fisted attempts to ban Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States from classrooms while serving as Governor of Indiana. While he did this as Governor and not as President of a university, I am unsure of the ideological or even cultural adjustments that Daniels may have made in the two or so years since eight out of ten of Daniels’ political appointees in turn appointed him to serve as President of Purdue.

    Given Daniels’ continued public statements and ad hominem attacks, it is not clear what specific aspects of Zinn’s work he finds objectionable, beyond that he believes Zinn’s work is “execrable” and “foisted” upon students. Many times we discuss academic freedom as coming with specific responsibilities for faculty. But the Daniels affair demonstrates that the freedom academic administrators and Boards of Trustees also enjoy also should come with a set of responsibilities. If academics “must exercise their duties in ways that are respectful of the dignity of the institution,” are those charged with being responsible stewards of academic institutions themselves exempt from those same responsibilities?

  2. Steve, thank you for your comments. One of the goals of my essay was to illustrate that academic freedom is the responsibility of all members of the university community. Mutual understanding and respect for the importance of academic freedom is essential to the advancement and betterment of society. Please continue to provide input and feedback on this and other topics I hope to address, including tenure, grades/assessment, and distance education.

  3. A provocative mini-essay (perhaps too short to be called a publication) that I take as an important warning to those who fail to take seriously their responsibility to respond, not to the fleshy press of their narrow self-interest, but to the public trust upon which they draw their authority. I hope, as I’m sure you do, that more than the proverbial choir have their eyes open and their ears unplugged. If not, perhaps there is a way to bring the broader community into this conversation . . .

  4. Abe

    Bringing the broader community into this and other conversations regarding higher education was my purpose in establishing this blog. I am, as you say, hopeful that readers will invite external stakeholders to review and comment on the topics I will be addressing.

  5. A richly illuminating essay addressing the crucial relationship between the university and the public, among other issues; indeed, they concern all members of the university.

  6. Let us follow in stride as you suggest Dean Drummond! Truer words were never spoken than….fall victim to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. As an Art College, we are very concerned about the misinterpretation of metrics! Quality is everything to us and very hard to measure in the standard metrics you mention in your cautionary tale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s