Statement a Victory for Academic Freedom

Last week the American Council on Education released a “Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities,” endorsed by dozens of affiliated groups, including the American Association of University Professors, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and others.

Among the tenets:

“Colleges and universities should welcome intellectual pluralism and the free exchange of ideas.”

“Academic decisions including grades should be based solely on considerations that are intellectually relevant to the subject matter under consideration. Neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions.”

“The validity of academic ideas, theories, arguments and views should be measured against the intellectual standards of relevant academic and professional disciplines.”

The release of the statement suggests that academe is beginning to take seriously the criticism from Christians, conservatives, libertarians and others that their ideas are frequently treated as unwelcome or even verboten on campus. Well over a decade’s worth of books, columns, studies, and student after student have reported on the entrenching intolerance on campus, often ironically done in the name of tolerance and ostensibly out of concern for protecting peoples’ feelings.

This statement is a departure from years of academics dismissing such criticism as overblown, “just a few stellar anecdotes.” Those were the words of North Carolina State University Faculty Senator Cat Warren, the director of the university’s women and gender studies program, reacting last fall to a campus visit by David Horowitz to speak about the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR).

ABOR is no doubt one of the reasons for the statement. Basically, ABOR would encode into law the AAUP’s own definitions of academic freedom. It lead to a “Memorandum of Understanding” between public colleges and the Colorado legislature, inspired a Senate resolution in Georgia, has been proposed before a host of other state legislatures, including North Carolina. It has also been presented before the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) and 39 others. This summer the House Education and the Workforce Committee will consider legislation containing ABOR concerns when it debates reauthorizing federal higher education programs. The worst that can be said about ABOR is that it would have the law require what conscientious academics ought to be able to take care of on their own, but don’t.

The ACE statement shows recognition of this obvious neglect in academe — and a concern that government would step in to fill the void.

“Government¹s recognition and respect for the independence of colleges and universities is essential for academic and intellectual excellence,” the statement reads. “Because colleges and universities have great discretion and autonomy over academic affairs, they have a particular obligation to ensure that academic freedom is protected for all members of the campus community and that academic decisions are based on intellectual standards consistent with the mission of each institution.”

Certainly the work of Dan Klein, a professor at Santa Clara University who will move to George Mason University in the fall, and others demonstrating that university faculty are almost exclusively Democrats also helped bring about this statement. As did the work of Horowitz and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, Students for Academic Freedom, the National Association of Scholar, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and all the concerned students, professors, trustees, and citizens who chose not to remain silent.

The statement is an important victory for responsible governance and pedagogy. Nevertheless, the need for vigilance remains. The statement fails to present as strong a case for academic freedom as it could. It leaves some wiggle room. Experience has given people plenty of reason to suspect exploitation of open-ended principles that require people to act in good faith and with good will.

Take, for instance, references to institutional mission, such as in “Individual campuses must give meaning and definition to these concepts within the context of disciplinary standards and institutional mission.” Such an acknowledgment is important especially for private and religious colleges. But what if it is subjugated to public colleges and universities’ diversity intolerance, where students, professors and administrators are forced to answer for thoughts and deeds out of conformity to diversity politics?

Or what about the clause on the validity of academic ideas? It explain the principle thus: “The responsibility to judge the merits of competing academic ideas rests with colleges and universities and is determined by reference to the standards of the academic profession as established by the community of scholars at each institution.” Again, that is an important principle. But it, too, could be twisted into the same kind of intolerant politics the statement is trying to steer academe away from when they’re applied by disciplines that are inherently political – such as women’s studies, ethnic studies, “economic justice” courses, etc.

Overall, the ACE statement is a significant step in the right direction. American higher education has not only admitted its problem, but it also now seeks to address it. Congratulations are in order for freedom lovers who care about the academy. Don’t let up now, however.

Jon Sanders is a policy analyst with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.