The Volokh Conspiracy

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Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom at Public Universities is in Trouble

Legislatures and regents across the country are restricting intellectual freedom


The Academic Freedom Alliance was founded with a particular concern for defending individual instructors and scholars at universities whose rights to intellectual freedom were being violated. Many universities in the United States have reasonably good contractual protections for academic freedom on the books (though there is room for improvement), and the First Amendment provides some protection for professors at state universities. Universities are not always very good at living up to the commitments that they have made, however, and individual professors need help when universities behave badly.

Unfortunately, there is a serious danger of a rollback in existing protections for academic freedom. Defending what rights individuals have at particular institutions will matter less if the rights that they have been granted are not very robust. Proposals have been floated at many private universities, including at Princeton University, that would carve out big holes in traditional academic freedom protections. Professors attempting to persuade their colleagues and their institutions to adopt the kind of principles and protections offered by the Chicago Statement have encountered remarkable resistance (and I remain grateful that Princeton was an early adopter).

Public universities are facing an additional threat. Politicians and governing boards across the country are actively considering measures that would significantly weaken protections for academic freedom or that would directly interfere with intellectual life on college campuses. In some cases, those proposals have already become a reality. Tenure protections are being weakened. Scholars are being discouraged from sharing their expertise. Unpopular ideas are being banned.

Over at the Washington Post, I have a new piece taking a look at some of these efforts and the difficult road ahead for public universities in the United States.

Across the nation, state legislatures are proposing laws to limit the teaching of certain viewpoints on campus, curb the tenure system or otherwise blur the already thin line between higher education and state politics. If states continue down this path, they will undercut the excellence of their own institutions of higher education, some of which currently can be counted among the best universities in the world. They could send these institutions into a downward spiral, as the gap expands between the intellectual freedom secured at private universities and what is on offer at public universities.

Scholars and teachers at universities across the country — at both public and private universities — already have too many reasons to shy away from controversial topics. Offend the wrong on-campus constituency, and university administrators will soon be lobbied to have the offending scholar banished from campus. All too often, administrators yield to such lobbying efforts, and even when they don't, everyone gets the message to tread carefully.

But state legislatures and boards of regents are now getting into the game — at a much greater scale.

Read the whole thing here.