Against the Common Sense: Academic Freedom as a Collective Right

By Eva Cherniavsky


This essay argues that the common sense of “academic freedom” in US universities today represents a historically anemic version of the concept that is markedly misaligned with contemporary political culture and its bearing on higher education. In this commonsense view, academic freedom is distinct from and yet fundamentally analogous to free speech rights: it is a principle that protects the free expression (spoken or printed) of individual faculty. This common sense privileges only the third principle (of three) in the AAUP’s 1940 codification of academic freedom—the principle concerning a faculty member’s civic freedom—and, moreover, erroneously conceives the first two principles, regarding research and teaching, as operating on the same model of individual liberties as the third. We need to resuscitate an understanding of academic freedom as the collective right of faculty to set the norms of academic debate, free from interference by administration, governing boards, or the state.

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