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Academic Freedom

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Academic Freedom
By: Duane Leonard & Richard Mahon

What is academic freedom? In the American context, it has been the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), founded by Johns Hopkins Philosophy Professor Arthur Lovejoy and American Philosopher John Dewey in 1915, and the organization’s 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” that most community college faculty are probably familiar with. That statement opens:

The purpose of this statement is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

For California Community Colleges, the idea of academic freedom is also established in Standard
I.C.7. of the Accrediting Association for Community & Junior Colleges (ACCJC) accreditation standards:

. . . [T]o assure institutional and academic integrity, the institution uses and publishes governing board policies on academic freedom and responsibility. These policies make clear the institution’s commitment to the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, and its support for an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom exists for all constituencies, including faculty and students.

It is important to distinguish freedom of speech and academic freedom. The Supreme Court has extended the constitutional right of free speech quite broadly, even to that which is demonstrably false (such as denying the moon landing or the Nazi Holocaust). By contrast, the AAUP statement demands that academic freedom carries responsibilities, noting, “Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.”

Increasingly, academic freedom is a privilege of that dying breed, the tenured faculty member. As colleges and universities in California and across the globe rely more on contingent faculty (even if some are full-time with short-term contracts), it is correspondingly easier for institutions to shed inconvenient faculty members without needing to threaten the few tenured faculty who remain.

Even for tenured faculty, however, there is an increasing threat to academic freedom. As colleges focus more compulsively on outcomes-based models of student success, technological tools like RateMyProfessor may curtail course assignments to tenured faculty. As Canvas becomes the default Learning Management System for California Community Colleges, a string of additional software packages may narrow the structure of how faculty teach. The growth of grant-funded initiatives and programs increases the pressure to prioritize sponsors above all else.

In the moment we now find ourselves, where knowledge is alleged to be whatever the commander-in-chief and his surrogates allege it to be, the need to understand and promote the value to society of academic freedom has never been greater. Conversations on this very issue are taking place across America in four-year universities. Now is the time for local academic senates and bargaining agents in our community colleges to review and enforce their district’s current policies on academic freedom and ensure they are vigorously defended against external political and corporate pressures.

Duane Leonard teaches ESL at Sacramento City College.
Richard Mahon is dean of academic affairs at Allan Hancock College.

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