Harvard Educational Review
  1. Challenges to Academic Freedom

    Edited by Joseph C. Hermanowicz

    Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021. 304 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

    It’s a tough time to be an academic. Colleges and universities have spent the last decades shifting toward an adjunct teaching force marked by little job security and low pay, with 73 percent of all faculty at US institutions being off the tenure track as of 2016 (AAUP, 2018). Meanwhile, campuses have seen a considerable uptick in intense ideological conflicts that have often involved campaigns to have faculty disciplined and fired for ideas and behaviors students, administrators, or interest groups have deemed harmful, offensive, or otherwise contrary to prevailing thinking or the interests of powerful groups (German & Stevens, 2021). Challenges to Academic Freedom, a volume of essays edited by Joseph C. Hermanowicz, makes a case that these two phenomena are closely linked. 

    In the volume’s introduction, Hermanowicz defines academic freedom in contrast to freedom of speech, with which it is sometimes confused: while freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and covers the expressive liberties guaranteed to an individual by the government, academic freedom, a less robustly protected ideal, is tied to faculty’s ability to teach and conduct research in consonance with the professional pursuit of knowledge. This quasi-right of academics to pursue rigorous scholarship “constrained by professional norms” (4) is mediated by the contractual relationship between the individual academic and their employer and enjoys no constitutional protection equivalent to First Amendment free speech guarantees. So while academic freedom is held to be something of a “right” by academics and its protection is widely believed to be central to the truth-seeking mission of higher education, it is primarily protected only insofar as employment contracts guarantee that faculty cannot be sanctioned for unpopular opinions. While some of the threats to academic freedom are likely apparent on the mere basis of this distinction, the essays in this volume unpack the relationship between the rise in nontenured faculty, the protections afforded to academics through law and organizational norms, and additional factors, such as the role of administrative bureaucracies (e.g., Title IX offices, Institutional Review Board [IRB]).    

    Challenges to Academic Freedom features ten essays, ranging from the firsthand account of Patricia Adler, whose job was threatened for a controversial skit she had students perform in her course on deviant behavior, to histories of the laws structuring academic freedom and the organizations involved in interpreting them and advocating for the professorate (the American Association of University Professors’ [AAUP] guidance on academic freedom is a focus across many of the essays). 

    Perhaps surprisingly, the volume is largely concerned with the legal and administrative status of faculty speech and spends little time discussing what, to many, may seem the crux of contemporary conflicts related to freedom of academic expression: namely, the social and cultural conditions that have given rise to intolerance of opposing views among blocs of the politically strident. Given the amount of ink spilled in the popular press about the predilection among ideologues on the Left and Right for “deplatforming” and intimidating disfavored speakers in various arenas, the fact that Challenges to Academic Freedom focuses on the drier concerns of organizational norms, jurisprudence, and the structure of academic labor may feel refreshing and offer novel takes on the issue for those who have only tracked the often-sensationalized coverage of high-profile controversies. Similarly, while issues around individual identity and variation in how vulnerability manifests for faculty of different backgrounds and social positions show up frequently in the essays, the primary focus of the volume is on institutional structure.  

    Among the most illuminating essays early in the volume are Hans-Joerg Tiede’s fastidious history of the American Association of University Professors’ guidance on extramural speech and Stephen Turner’s discussion of academic freedom’s basis in administrative law. The former stands out for its clear and focused analysis of what Tiede effectively argues is a steady position on academic freedom that the AAUP has articulated throughout the years, as well as for its thoughtful framing of the relationship between public passions (which may create pressure to conform even in the absence of administrative coercion) and academics’ extramural speech. And Turner lucidly teases out the sources of legal protection for the academic freedom of individual faculty in employment law and identifies three administrative entities—Title IX offices, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), and research misconduct hearings—where particular attention is warranted regarding the power of administrators to curtail research and teaching. IRBs, for example, are explicitly designed to stop research deemed to be insufficiently safe, and there is evidence that IRB members are susceptible to political biases in determining what types of research get approved and what counts as a potential harm. 

    Later in the volume, two essays on the so-called contingent academy—the large and growing population of vulnerable faculty employed in nontenured positions—by Gary Rhoades, Eve Weinbaum, and Dan Clawson help bring awareness to the many cases of suppressed academic freedom that never become scandals. Thanks to the ease with which administrations can fire or fail to renew the contracts of contingent faculty, administrations that are ruffled by the opinions of adjuncts “can simply claim that such persons are not renewed for totally different reasons” (187). Data on this kind of occurrence are by nature elusive, but the authors speculate that such dismissals happen frequently and that faculty awareness of the possibility for easy pretextual firing almost certainly produces a chilling effect on any scholarship and teaching perceived to be controversial. 

    Despite these strong chapters, however, the absence of a focused discussion of shifting cultural attitudes about the permissibility of expressing controversial opinions and the varied logics underlying attempts to stifle academic freedom from different sources—say, groups of ideologically committed or socially motivated student activists as opposed to state legislatures looking to exert control over curriculum—will feel like an omission to some readers. More theoretical attention to the boundary between defensible and indefensible speech within the confines of professional norms, the epistemic status of scientific and moral authority, and other issues related to the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of attempts to restrict academic freedom might also have helped the volume feel like a fuller treatment of this important issue. For example, at no point does any essay slow down to take up a focused discussion about what kinds of speech or behavior might constitute legitimately sanctionable offenses. The book’s analysis would feel better tuned to the zeitgeist if the nature of the various objections to teaching and research were explored and the coherence of their underlying justifications were juxtaposed against a discussion of the purpose of the university.  

    Despite the absence of these sorts of valuable contributions to a holistic treatment of the issue, however, Challenges to Academic Freedom does draw attention to substantial vulnerabilities endemic to the present structure of higher education and in particular the administrative motives to remove academics whose work is considered offensive to influential constituencies. 

    In the absence of robust protections against retaliation for controversial work for everyone from graduate student lecturers to full professors holding endowed chairs, the intellectual mission of the university—and the intellectual life of society at large—is threatened. Only when controversial ideas and ways of thinking that may upset powerful interests more generally can be entertained and considered on their merits can a marketplace of ideas function sufficiently. Only when students, teachers, and researchers are free to criticize powerful cultural and political ideas can they be said to be participating in education, as opposed to ideological reproduction. In service to these aspirations, Challenges to Academic Freedom presents a useful guide to understanding the legal and institutional vulnerabilities of postsecondary faculty and makes a successful case for attending to those vulnerabilities in the pursuit of a healthier intellectual future. 

    eric torres


    American Association of University Professors [AAUP]. (2018, October 11). Data snapshot: Contingent faculty in higher ed. https://www.aaup.org/news/data-snapshot-contingent-faculty-us-higher-ed
    German, K. T., & Stevens, S. T. (2021). Scholars under fire: The targeting of scholars for constitutionally protected speech from 2015 to present. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. https://www.thefire.org/research/publications/miscellaneous-publications/scholars-under-fire/
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