Toward a New Consensus on Academic Freedom

A new report from the Pope Center recommends legal action as the best means to balance the rights of all academic freedom stakeholders.

The current consensus on academic freedom is inadequate for today’s politically-charged higher education environment, and a new framework that more equitably represents all stakeholders is urgently needed. That is a key finding from “Academic Freedom in the Age of Political Correctness,” a new report from the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

“In principle, ‘academic freedom’ means the right to seek the truth without retribution. In practice, ‘academic freedom’ has been used—and abused—to the point that it can mean just about anything. This report provides clarity and a direction for universities and scholars who want to restore meaning to the term,” said Jenna A. Robinson, president of the Pope Center.

“Part of the difficulty in determining proper boundaries for academic freedom rights is that there are so many conflicting definitions for the concept,” said Jay Schalin, Pope Center director of policy analysis and author of the report. As the report explains, academic freedom is a natural right to some, while others hold a more “pragmatic” view and think of it in terms of “mutable guidelines that exist to serve the public interest.” Still others—on both the left and right—reject academic freedom outright in favor of political activism.

Another problem is that unlimited freedom for one campus interest, such as the faculty, can infringe on the rights of another interest. An ideal framework for academic freedom would balance the interests of faculty, students, administrators, and society.

Schalin suggests that legal cases are a better resource for policy-making than the academic freedom standards promoted by the faculty professional association, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

While AAUP guidelines naturally favor the interests of its members, Schalin said, “the legal process is uniquely constructed to develop a standard of academic freedom that is fair to all interest groups, as it permits advocacy on both sides of an issue.”