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Academic Freedom: Collective Right and Social Good

“Academic freedom” is a phrase, like “critical thinking” and “shared governance,” that may be uttered more often than it is understood. Its relevance is clear in the face of efforts to curtail the freedom of intellectual work, through increasing use of contingent contracts, firings or censure for public statements by researchers, and the presentation of austerity budgeting as a normal working condition. When academic freedom is threatened, it is important not only to stand in favor of it, but to discuss what it is. Distinct from the First Amendment freedom of speech, academic freedom is the collective right of faculty to determine research and teaching priorities for the promotion of the common good.

Recently, the Academic Policies and Procedures committee of the University Senate held hearings to consider an unusual number of requests from the administration to discontinue academic programs at KU. A key factor in the increase was a directive from the Kansas Board of Regents that the baseline for program viability is 25 majors, regardless of the budget or faculty resources supporting the program. After the hearings, the committee recommended that several of the programs be continued, based in part on evidence of their value presented by faculty. This conflict over evaluative criteria between upper administration and the faculty is a conflict over academic freedom. The professional standards that mandated these hearings were articulated by the American Association of University Professors, an organization founded in 1915 specifically to limit the influence of governing boards on academic matters. Whether the KU administration will accept the AP&P committee’s recommendation remains to be seen.

Another crisis in the freedom of academics occurred this fall when the President of the University of Florida moved to prohibit faculty from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state over restrictive voting policies. The ban suggested that since the University is an agency of the state, faculty could be forbidden from working against the political aims of the party currently in power. After a national outcry led by Florida Academics United, the faculty labor union, the President backed down. At issue here was not a curricular question but faculty members’ freedom to make their expertise available to the public, to inform public proceedings, to offer legitimate critique, and to benefit the common good.

As a professional standard, academic freedom remains as precarious as the working conditions of academics. In Florida, faculty had recourse to Article 10 of their 140-page union contract, which commits the university to academic freedom as a right “ fundamental to the faculty member’s responsibility to seek and to state the truth as he/she sees it.” Such formalized commitments are crucial to defend and extend the degree of academic freedom present within society. An academically free society turns to the intellectual sector for the best knowledge its research has produced. When that access is limited by politics or administrative overreach, we all lose.

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