Academic Freedom. A Guide to the Literature

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Universities exist to provide the conditions for hard thought and difficult debate so that new knowledge can be generated and individuals can develop the capacity for independent judgment. This cannot happen if universities attempt to shield people from ideas and opinions they might find unwelcome, or if members of the university community try to silence speakers with whom they disagree.

Free speech is often invoked to protect views that are considered wrong or disturbing.

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This is inevitable. No one tries to censor speech that is popular, comforting or supported by established authorities. Stephen H. Aby , James C. Academic FreedomHistory General.

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Academic FreedomHistory Cold War. Academic FreedomHistory Current Issues and General Trends. Academic Freedom and the Culture Wars. Academic Freedom and Religion.

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  6. What the German professors said, in effect, was: the university can no longer be the privileged enclave it has been since the Middle Ages; but even though the power of ultimate direction of finance has been taken over by the government ministry, we, the professors, reaffirm our historic right to autonomy in academic matters. The extent of government funding of universities has grown enormously since World War II, in Europe as in the United States, with inevitable consequences for their real autonomy.

    This has led to the familiar quip that the reason faculty meetings are so contentious is that the issues are so unimportant!

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    Nor is the situation very different in the private universities that play such an important role in the United States and Japan. More even than in Europe, it is essential for them to respond to a market — to what students believe it is worth their while to study. In both public and private universities, then, whether to build a strong program in Byzantine studies is not simply a faculty decision to be made on the basis of the excellence of the research available and yet to be done, but responds to market pressures either directly or mediated through government decisions.

    But government and market pressures do not have to translate into loss of the distinctive character of a university, if we mean by that its ethos richting as expressed in the flavor that it gives to its instruction as well as its life as a community. I think it probable that the ability of a university to retain a significant degree of operational autonomy in decisions that shape the education it provides is directly related to the insistence with which it holds to a clearly stated mission.

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    Government officials tend to push in where there is no coherent resistance. Generally they have no stomach for conflict with opponents who can articulate clearly their reasons for opposing specific external mandates. Nor is this simply a psychological effect; there is extensive legislation and jurisprudence in several European countries as well as in the United States that grants a higher protection to the autonomy of educational institutions in matters that affect their distinctive character.

    Clarity of identity also plays an important role in dealing with the market forces, which have such an enormous impact upon universities in the United States and, to an increasing extent, in Europe. As my colleague on the Advisory Committee, Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff, pointed out, higher education institutions are inclined to seek to improve their market position by becoming less specific about their distinctiveness, but this often proves a mistake.

    In short, the possession of some guiding purpose apart from responding to government dictation and market forces is itself an important shield against both. There is thus no such thing, today, as a model of what a Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Humanist university should be like.

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    Each must find its own specific way of combining academic focus in discrete disciplines with a common institutional life and sense of purpose that takes forms which students can actually experience. The identity of a university should not be seen as simply an add-on, but as a fundamental vision working its way through all that the university does. I anticipate the objection that a university should not, by affirming a distinctive character, contribute to the division of society into competing philosophical camps; that its mission is to allow all the voices to be heard in a rich symphony.

    But such diversity does not long endure, at least above the level of folkways and prejudices, unless its strands can find supporting institutional form. Reformed Protestantism, as understood by Abraham Kuyper and the other founders of VU University Amsterdam, is one of the strands that make up Dutch society and Dutch culture.

    It is not the dominating strand, nor could it realistically seek to be, but it deserves to be heard, and not just in the spheres of private conscience or community life but in the full range of intellectual life.

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    Not because of any claim to unique authority or unique access to truth, which would be inappropriate in a pluralistic society, but because perspectives, angles on the truth, need to be nurtured in friendly soil. If, as often happens in classes and discussions, religious viewpoints are ruled out a priori , there is no chance that they will be nurtured to the point that they can enter fully into the exchange at a level appropriate to the search for truth.

    Not only is the faith of the student either withered or stunted at the level of unreflecting childish sentiment, but the wide-ranging discussion which is the essence of university life is impoverished as a result. In effect, secularist orthodoxy places limits upon intellectual life that is, in its own way, as hostile to academic freedom as were the religious orthodoxies of the 18th century. The danger today, surely, is not that religious viewpoints will impose themselves tyrannically, but that they will be so excluded from the on-going discussion by which truth is discovered that — even in universities with a religious identity — they will make no contribution.

    According to well-placed observers, there is now. The goal of such opposition is [assumed to be] the continued oppression of women and of racial or sexual minorities. Can anyone imagine a specific religious doctrine coming to have equal authority at a distinguished university today?

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    But what about individual academic freedom? I am going to suggest that freedom for the individual professor, at least in her capacity as a teacher, depends at least in part upon a collective freedom, that of the institution of which she is a constitutive member rather than an employee.