“Academic” Freedom Has an Adjective in Front of the Noun

“Academic” Freedom Has an Adjective in Front of the Noun

“Academic” Freedom Has an Adjective in Front of the Noun

Stanley Fish argues that “academic freedom” is “an unfortunate phrase because those who invoke it usually emphasize the word “freedom” and “forget about its controlling and limiting adjective.

`Academic’ tells you what the scope of the claimed freedom is: It is the freedom — or, as I prefer, the ‘latitude’ — necessary to the performance of the academic task for which you are trained and paid.”

In an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Do Nothing Until You Hear from Me,” November 30, 2023), Fish spells out some implications of this view:

The bottom line, then, is that academic freedom is not a general license to say whatever you like on any topic under the sun. It is a limited freedom to follow where the evidence pertaining to an academic question leads. It certainly does not include the freedom to advocate for your political views or turn (or try to turn) your students into social-justice warriors or anti-social-justice warriors. You and they are jointly engaged in an intellectual effort to understand something, and that engagement is, or should be, intensely focused and has no legitimate room for activities that belong to other enterprises.

What is true of faculty is true of the administration. Those who insist, or should insist, that faculty stick to their academic knitting should stick to it too, pronouncing only on matters that directly affect their institutional — not general or human — responsibilities. …

This severely narrow view of what colleges are about is not in fashion now, but it has a long and rich history of adherents, including Aristotle (Ethics, book 10), Kant (What Is Enlightenment?”), Cardinal Newman, Max Weber, Michael Oakeshott, and Harry Kalven, whose report, issued on behalf of the University of Chicago in 1967, put it this way: “Since the university is a community only for limited and distinctive purposes, it … cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and its effectiveness.” And in the current scene there is this recent statement by Richard Saller, president of Stanford University, and Jenny Martinez, its provost: “We believe it is important that the university, as an institution, generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview, which is the operation of the university itself.” To the point, but a bit wordy. I much prefer the succinct response by the then provost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to demands by students that the university speak out against the impending invasion of Iraq. He said, “The University of Wisconsin does not have a foreign policy.” That is beyond perfect.

Fish doesn’t mention it in this short essay, but this interpretation of “academic freedom” as specific and focused is also the one from the “General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” as presented at the annual meetings of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, and as far as I know still the official guidance from the AAUP. A few years ago, I offered some discussion of that statement in “The Free Expression of Professors and Its Prudential Limits.”

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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