An Essential Guide for the Battles Ahead

By Matthew Boedy

Understanding Academic Freedom by Henry Reichman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

In his 2019 book The Future of Academic Freedom, Henry Reichman laid out the massive threats facing academic freedom. That book is a practical and informative guide for faculty who, over the decades, have too often taken for granted a principle so central to higher education. Last year, Reichman, past chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, published a companion book, Understanding Academic Freedom, in which subtle reminders about the vulnerability of academic freedom have given way to stark warnings. He writes in the introduction that academic freedom “may now be in as much danger as at any time since the dark days of the 1950s anti-Communist hysteria.”

For any reader not sufficiently awakened to the perilous state of academic freedom by Reichman’s 2019 book—which discussed practical questions in chapters such as “Can Unions Defend Academic Freedom?” and “Can Outside Donors Endanger Academic Freedom?”—the examples that open his 2021 book should be as alarming as a bullhorn or a red flag. References to faculty members who were “pressured to resign,” “dismissed,” or “fired” speak not only to particular threats to academic freedom but also to the often losing battles that the AAUP undertakes nationally and locally on behalf of academic freedom. Of the seven cases described in the opening lines of the book, only two could be deemed successful defenses of academic freedom, as only those two professors kept their jobs. Other failures litter the book's two-hundred pages. We have won some battles, but we should also remember those we have lost.

As the president of a state AAUP conference in the antiunion state of Georgia, where the university system board of regents recently gutted tenure, I read Reichman’s book with great interest. And soon after finishing it, I used language from it to organize talking points against legislation that mirrors laws, known as educational gag orders, already passed elsewhere. There are no better guides than Reichman’s 2019 and 2021 books for administrators, state legislators, and faculty to learn more about the academic freedom principles at stake in the intense battles ahead.

For audiences who invoke the social media lingo of “tl;dr” or “too long; didn’t read,” the last section of Understanding Academic Freedom is noteworthy. In the book’s appendix, Reichman provides a seven-page summary of key principles of academic freedom.

The chapters in Understanding Academic Freedom echo those in Reichman’s 2019 book. Although chapters in either book can be read individually, those in the 2021 book cohere around a broader focus on understanding academic freedom. The concept is multifaceted and faces a multipronged attack in the United States, but if you are looking for general principles applied to a specific academic freedom problem that you are facing—such as those regarding institutional review boards, calls for “neutrality” in teaching, or protection against the myth of tenured faculty as “deadwood”—then relevant portions of Reichman’s succinct 2021 prose will meet that need.

For example, in the chapter titled “Citizenship” in Understanding Academic Freedom, Reichman revisits the subject of a 2019 chapter on faculty members speaking freely as citizens. He tells those who would judge the social media posts of professors that they “must apply to a faculty member’s statements on social media the same fitness standard appropriate for older formats.” That strong admonition is paired, though, with a darker picture of the nonrenewal of contracts, particularly for non-tenure-track faculty, when administrations dislike professors’ social media posts. Reichman notes that “while such actions may be mitigated by union contracts,” vulnerability to such moves “remains high even among the unionized.” He adds that the “massive erosion” of the tenure system since the 1970s remains “by far the single gravest threat to academic freedom.”

The most intriguing chapter for me in Understanding Academic Freedom is the one titled “Law,” wherein Reichman lays out the legal history of academic freedom. Already we have seen lawsuits in attempts to fight back against state laws banning the teaching of certain subjects. For example, groups in Oklahoma, including AAUP chapters, are challenging on First Amendment grounds the state’s law limiting instruction on race. There is some hope that lawsuits may result in stronger legal protections for academic freedom.

However, Reichman argues in “Law” that “if the academic freedom of professors . . . is to find strong support, it is now likely to come less from First Amendment law and more from common law tradition and contractual protections designed to strengthen the faculty’s role.” He makes this claim based on a litany of cases discussed in the preceding pages, noting that even the latter approach has its limitations. In the United States, academic freedom “can claim limited, at best, legal standing.” Perhaps one former AAUP legal counsel’s description of the judiciary’s approach to academic freedom, which Reichman quotes, also applies to ill-informed and unmotivated faculty: “a series of gut feelings in search of a coherent philosophy.” If, indeed, you have always thought academic freedom was central to your career and your institution as well as to the academic profession—and perhaps have even expounded it to others as a lofty ideal—yet you lack understanding of its historical, legal, or pedagogical foundations, then this is the book for you.

Reichman obviously can’t address every example and every known case. But in presenting his understanding of academic freedom, he almost always presents ways to apply that understanding—or examples of misunderstandings or misapplications. He warns readers that, while the “theoretical definition” of academic freedom is clear, its practical application can be difficult. And, like any good academic, he notes that such practice depends on context: “This book is not a manual for the application of rigid dogma. . . . There may be no obviously ‘correct’ way to apply accepted values.”

At the end of his 2019 book, Reichman insisted that it was up to the faculty to press the case for academic freedom. We can do so in matters applicable to law and legislation. But we have the greatest chances of success in broader public arenas because the fight over academic freedom is tied to a larger fight over the purpose and power of higher education as it relates to democracy. Reichman reminds us in his 2021 book that the founding of the AAUP and its development of principles of academic freedom were outgrowths not only of professional authority and identity but also of a “movement seeking to expand democracy in both state and society.” He then argues that “for academia to rebuild democracy in the university, it must also advance democracy in society—and vice versa.” Wider understanding of and adherence to the principles of academic freedom can help build a new “compact” with society concerning the public good of knowledge that higher education advances. But it can’t do that without faculty. The ball is in our court. 

Matthew Boedy is associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. He is the president of the Georgia state conference of the AAUP. His email address is [email protected].