Polarizing Times Demand Robust Academic Freedom
Today, the integrity of research, teaching, and learning in US higher education is under sustained attack. In the aftermath of the events of October 7, 2023, powerful campus outsiders—including donors, legislators, and well-funded political organizations—have escalated demands that institutions crack down on what can be said or expressed on campus.
Since its founding in 1915, the American Association of University Professors has been the most prominent guardian of academic freedom for faculty and students. The AAUP has developed and promulgated standards to define, defend, and strengthen that freedom within the world of higher education. In our recent statement on academic freedom in the context of the current crisis in the Middle East, Academic Freedom in Times of War, the AAUP reasserted those standards, stressing that “institutional authorities must refrain from sanctioning faculty members for expressing politically controversial views and should instead defend their right, under principles of academic freedom, to do so.” Yet today, many colleges and universities are not only failing to protect academic freedom, they are actively undermining its scope and meaning.
By acceding to external political pressures and demands for political censorship instead of encouraging the utmost freedom of discussion, college and university administrations abandon their own responsibility for protecting the academic community’s central mission of education, research, and service to the broader society and to the public good. Administrators who claim to defend academic freedom and then condemn the content of faculty and student speech and expression that it should protect risk chilling speech and expression and eroding the very academic freedom that they claim to protect.
As recent AAUP statements, investigations, and reports have made clear, much current suppression of faculty and students’ rights of expression and association is tied to political campaigns “to restrict the public education curriculum and to portray some forms of public education as a social harm” (AAUP, Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism). Attempts to ban critical race theory, as well as efforts to discredit the teaching of US history—particularly histories of empire, slavery, gender, and sexuality—thus form the context within which the current controversies surrounding the turmoil in the Middle East unfold on college and university campuses. The political climate of fear those campaigns produced has prompted some college and university administrations to constrain faculty autonomy and academic freedom. They have unilaterally changed curricula, created academic programs and advisory/policymaking bodies without faculty consultation, and canceled classes, speaker invitations, and public events. After October 7, as external demands for action escalated, academic administrators criticized, investigated, suspended, or fired outspoken faculty and staff members who expressed unpopular views. These violations of academic freedom and shared governance now undermine the ability of faculty members to make educational decisions about their teaching and research without fear of outside intervention or reprisal.
The AAUP rejects the characterization of pro-Palestinian speech or critiques of the Israeli state as invariably antisemitic. As institutional leaders combat discrimination and uphold principles of community, they should not lose sight of how “[p]roponents of overly broad definitions of antisemitism and proponents of eliminating teaching about the history of racial and other violence share a desire to mobilize the government to enforce particular, emaciated accounts of history, harm, and injury” (AAUP, Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism). These efforts to control what is thought, said, taught, and researched are antithetical to the educational mission of a university and the democratic values upon which it rests.
The AAUP therefore calls on college and university administrations to:
- Recommit themselves to fully protecting the academic freedom of their faculties to teach, conduct research, and speak out about important issues both on and off campus, as called for in Academic Freedom in Times of War.
- Protect the freedom of students to express their positions on such issues on and off campus. Students should be free to organize and join associations to promote their common interests, and students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately, in the words of the AAUP’s Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.
- Safeguard the independence of colleges and universities by refusing to comply with demands from politicians, trustees, donors, faculty members, students and their parents, alumni, or other parties that would interfere with academic freedom.
Just as we condemn all incursions on academic freedom by overzealous institutions or external actors, the AAUP condemns the climate of intimidation that now attempts to silence people who express unpopular views on the current conflict in the Middle East. College and university leaders have no obligation to speak out on the most controversial issues of the day. Their duty is to protect the academic freedom, free speech, and associational rights of faculty and students to speak on all topics of public or political interest without fear of intimidation, retaliation, or punishment.