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Academic freedom is the freedom of teachers, students, and academic institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference. At a minimum, academic freedom involves the freedom to engage in the entire range of activities involved in the production of knowledge, including choosing a research focus, determining what to teach in the classroom, presenting research findings to colleagues, and publishing research findings. Still, academic freedom has limits. Teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matter that is unrelated to the subject. When they speak or write in public, they may be free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution. Academic tenure protects academic freedom by ensuring that teachers can be fired only for adequate cause, such as gross professional incompetence or behavior that evokes condemnation from the academic community itself. Academic freedom is thus both a freedom and a responsibility—freedom to pursue knowledge without interference, but the responsibility to maintain both the standards of academia and society's norms.
Proponents of academic freedom believe that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy. Academic communities are repeatedly targeted for repression due to their ability to shape and control the flow of information. When scholars attempt to teach or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities, historically they have found themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death. The purpose of academic freedom is to guarantee academics as a bastion of free speech and thought, independent of the politics and public sentiment of the day.
Academic freedom is intended not for the individual benefit of teachers and students, but rather for the benefit of society as a whole. In the long run, society is best served by an educational process that advances knowledge, and knowledge is best advanced through unfettered inquiry.
The importance of academic freedom became apparent during the Scientific Revolution in Europe. In the sixteenth century, as science advanced, scientists began voicing theories that were at odds with the established teachings of the Catholic Church. Proponents of such theories were subject to harassment, imprisonment, and even execution. One famous example of the Church's influence over science involves the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, who was placed under house arrest for advocating heliocentrism. Overt actions such as this, and other covert pressures placed on scientists, made obvious the need for the development of an independent atmosphere for academics.
Academic freedom is intended to ensure that professors are free to perform sensible research and voice reasonable views. However, it is not meant to protect work that is illegal. Though one could make the argument that all opinions and lines of research should have a place in the university, academic freedom exists to provide a shield for those expressing reasoned, though possibly unpopular opinions, not irrational opinions, nor to break laws of society including obscenity and libel.
The intention of academic freedom is to guarantee that scholars are not influenced by any financial, political, or social incentive. Success, however, is debatable as many scholars are still greatly influenced by external factors. Academics have been accused of succumbing to the influence of private corporations, politicians, and harsh public opinion. Critics of the concept of academic freedom say that academics should not necessarily be free from these influences. In the case of state sponsored universities, critics argue that the public should have a say in shaping the research agenda and curriculum as their taxes are making the work possible. Students should not be subject to the whims of faculty members wishing to teach what they deem fit, as what they deem fit may be anathema to the educational aims of the students, and of the wider society.
There were a number of components contributing to the development of academic freedom. Universities in Medieval Europe laid the foundation for academic freedom. They were established as self-governing organizations, protected by royal charters and papal bulls, free to establish their own standards for admission and graduation, and to appoint their own faculties. However, religious oversight of the research and writings was strictly enforced.
The Protestant Reformation had tremendous influence as it broke the Catholic Church's monopoly over higher education with the founding of Protestant universities. This increased competition led to a renewed focus on scholarly progress rather than emphasis on religious doctrine. The founding of other private and public universities also helped to loosen the grip of religious ideology on education. Schools such as the University of Oxford and the University of Bologna operated under the idea of Constitutio Habita in which research was legally protected.
The establishment of universities independent of religious organizations was integral in the development of what would become academic freedom. State sponsored universities, funded by local governments, have fought fiercely to maintain independence from the politics of those in power. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, governmental authority replaced religious censorship over research and teaching. The University of Berlin, founded in 1811, became the beacon of academic freedom with the concepts of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn). These ideas became the model of the freedoms expected in universities throughout the free world.
The fate of biology in the Soviet Union shows why society has an interest in protecting academic freedom. A Soviet biologist named Trofim Lysenko rejected Western scientific advances and proposed a new, unscientific approach to biology (known as Lysenkoism) that was based on the principles of dialectical materialism. Because of their propaganda value, Lysenko's ideas proved appealing to the Soviet leadership, and he became the director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences; subsequently, Lysenko directed a purge of scientists who professed "harmful ideas," resulting in the expulsion, imprisonment, or death of hundreds of Soviet scientists. Lysenko's unscientific ideas were implemented on collectivized farms in the Soviet Union and China. Famines that resulted partly from Lysenko's influence are believed to have killed 30 million people in China alone.
Against this approach, Michael Polanyi argued that a structure of liberty is essential for the advancement of science – that the freedom to pursue science for its own sake is a prerequisite for the production of knowledge through peer review and the scientific method. Demands in Britain for centrally planned scientific research led Polanyi, together with John Baker, to found the influential Society for Freedom in Science, which promoted a liberal conception of science as free enquiry against the instrumental view that science should exist primarily to serve the needs of society.
However, examples of violated academic freedom continue. For example, in North Africa, a professor of public health discovered that his country's infant mortality rate was higher than government figures indicated. When he published these findings he lost his job and was imprisoned.
The idea of academic freedom as a right of the student is German in origin. In this model (known in German as Lernfreiheit), the student is free to pursue their own course of study, taking whatever courses they like at whatever university they choose. This ideal was carried to the United States in the nineteenth century by scholars who had studied at German universities. It was most prominently employed in the United States by Charles William Eliot at Harvard University between 1872 and 1897, when the only required course was freshman rhetoric.
In the U.S., students' academic freedom is legitimately regulated by the faculty's freedom to determine which viewpoints are supported by scholarly standards, peer review, and established norms in their disciplines. According to a U.S. appellate court decision, "a professor's rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are paramount in the academic setting." For this reason, U.S. students do not have the right to insist that professors provide "equal time" for competing viewpoints. A student may be required to write a paper from a particular viewpoint, even if the student disagrees with that viewpoint, as long as the requirement serves a legitimate pedagogical purpose. However, the faculty's rights to determine legitimate subject matter are not absolute to the point of compromising a student's right to learn in a hostility-free environment." Professorial speech is protected only to the extent that it is "germane to the subject matter."
The concept of academic freedom as a right of faculty members is an established part of most legal systems. In the United States, academic freedom is derived from the guarantee of free speech under the First Amendment; the constitutions of other countries typically grant a separate right to free learning, teaching, and research.
While most countries give faculty members constitutional rights to pursue research and publish their findings without restraint, they still differ in regard to the professor's freedom in a classroom situation.
In the German tradition, professors are free to try to convert their students to their personal viewpoint and philosophical system. In regard to teaching, there should be no duties required of the professor, no prescribed syllabus, and no restriction to a particular subject. Nevertheless, professors are discouraged or prohibited from stating their views, particularly political views, outside the class. This concept of freedom of teaching (Lehrfreiheit) originated at the University of Berlin. The tradition helped to form the atmosphere in which many notable academics worked, including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, G.W.F. Hegel, and in which the founders of the Communist philosophy Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels studied.
In the United States, academic freedom is generally taken as the notion of academic freedom defined by the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," jointly authored by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC). These principles state that "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject."  The AAUP works with colleges and universities, including private and religious institutions, to implement these principles as the basis for contractual relationships with faculty. Colleges and universities found to violate these principles are placed on a list of censured institutions.
A professor at a public French university, or a researcher in a public research laboratory, is expected, as are all civil servants, to behave in a neutral manner and to not favor any particular political or religious point of view during the course of his duties. However, the academic freedom of university professors is a fundamental principle recognized by the laws of the Republic, as defined by the Constitutional Council; furthermore, statute law declares about higher education that "teachers-researchers [university professors and assistant professors], researchers and teachers are fully independent and enjoy full freedom of speech in the course of their research and teaching activities, provided they respect, following university traditions and the dispositions of this code, principles of tolerance and objectivity." The nomination and promotion of professors is largely done through a process of peer review rather than through normal administrative procedures.
A prominent feature of the English university concept is the freedom to appoint faculty, set standards, and admit students. This ideal may be better described as institutional autonomy and is distinct from whatever freedom is granted to students and faculty by the institution.
The Supreme Court of the United States summarized the "four essential freedoms" that constitute academic freedom for a university, namely that it is an atmosphere in which a university can "determine for itself on academic grounds:
In the U.S., freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." By extension, the First Amendment applies to all governmental institutions, including public universities. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that academic freedom is a First Amendment right. However, the First Amendment does not apply to private institutions, including religious institutions. In addition, academic freedom involves more than speech rights; for example, it includes the right to determine what is taught in the classroom. Therefore, academic freedom is, at best, only partially protected by free speech rights. In practice, academic freedom is protected by institutional rules and regulations, letters of appointment, faculty handbooks, collective bargaining agreements, and academic custom.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the resulting patriotic feelings that swept the U.S., public statements made by faculty came under media scrutiny. For example, in January 2005, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill published an essay in which he asserted that the attack on the United States was justified because of American foreign policy. On some conservative news and talk programs, he was criticized for describing the World Trade Center victims as "little Eichmanns," a reference to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. Many called for Churchill to be fired for overstepping the bounds of acceptable discourse. Others defended him on the principle of academic freedom, even if they disagreed with his message.
The principles of academic freedom state that teachers should be free to teach and students should be free to learn. What happens when these freedoms appear to be in conflict?
Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) was founded in 2001 by David Horowitz to protect students from a perceived liberal bias in U.S. colleges and universities. The organization collected many statements from college students complaining that some of their professors were disregarding their responsibility to keep unrelated controversial material out of their classes and were instead teaching their subjects from an ideological point of view. The organization drafted model legislation, called the "Academic Bill of Rights," intended to offset the liberal bias in the nation's colleges and universities, evening the playing field for the expression of the full spectrum of ideas.
According to Students for Academic Freedom, academic freedom is "the freedom to teach and to learn." They contend that academic freedom promotes "intellectual diversity" and helps achieve a university's primary goals, namely "the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large." Accordingly, the Academic Bill of Rights calls for state and judicial regulation of colleges. Such regulation would ensure that professors:
Some opponents claim that such a bill would actually restrict academic freedom, leaving education to ideologically-motivated legislators and judges, rather than ideologically-driven professors. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Academic Bill of Rights is, despite its title, an attack on the very concept of academic freedom itself: "A fundamental premise of academic freedom is that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards." The Academic Bill of Rights directs universities to implement the principle of neutrality by requiring the appointment of faculty "with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives," an approach they claim is problematic because "it invites diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession." For example, "no department of political theory ought to be obligated to establish 'a plurality of methodologies and perspectives' by appointing a professor of Nazi political philosophy." Concurring, the president of Appalachian Bible College in West Virginia feared that the Academic Bill of Rights "would inhibit his college's efforts to provide a faith-based education and would put pressure on the college to hire professors... who espouse views contrary to those of the institution."
Proponents claim that the language of the bill itself makes clear that the objective is simply neutrality in hiring. According to this logic, if hiring in today's university were not politically driven there would be a balance of conservative and liberal professors rather than a preponderance of political liberals on college faculties.
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