FAQs on Academic Freedom

What is academic freedom?

Academic freedom is the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities. Academic freedom also protects the right of a faculty member to speak freely when participating in institutional governance, as well as to speak freely as a citizen.

What are the main elements of academic freedom?

The academic freedom of faculty members consists of four interrelated elements: 

Teaching: freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom; 

Research: freedom to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression and to publish the results of such work; 

Intramural speech: freedom from institutional censorship or discipline when speaking or writing as participants in the governance of an educational institution; and 

Extramural speech: freedom from institutional censorship or discipline when speaking or writing as citizens. 

How does academic freedom apply to teaching? 

According to AAUP policies, the freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible. Faculty members are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matters which are unrelated to their subject, or to persistently introduce material which has no relation to the subject. This doesn’t mean teachers should avoid all controversial materials. As long as the material stimulates debate and learning that is germane to the subject matter, it is protected by freedom in the classroom.

How does academic freedom apply to research? 

According to AAUP policies, faculty are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results. Freedom in research is important, but it’s a common misconception that academic freedom is primarily freedom of research. This misperception is reinforced by tying the awarding of tenure to research accomplishments and by appointing non-tenure-track contingent faculty members to teaching-only positions.

How does academic freedom apply to “intramural” speech, or speech pertaining to the governance of their institution?

Academic freedom and faculty governance are inextricably linked. In order to participate effectively in governance, faculty members must be free to speak  truthfully and factually, and in order to protect academic freedom and academic quality at the institution, faculty must participate in governance. 

How does academic freedom apply to extramural speech?

This is arguably the most controversial and most challenged aspect of academic freedom, as it does not necessarily relate to disciplinary expertise. AAUP policies call for faculty members to be free from institutional censorship or discipline when they speak or write as citizens, but they also impose special obligations. When speaking on public matters, faculty should strive to be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show appropriate respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Who has academic freedom? Is it an unlimited right?

Academic freedom in the AAUP’s definition applies to faculty members; it is a professional right extended to members of the profession and is subject to certain limitations. Academic freedom means that faculty are free to engage in the professionally competent forms of inquiry and teaching that are necessary for the purposes of the university. It does not mean that individual faculty members are free to teach or publish whatever they want without repercussions.

Academic freedom of an individual faculty member is subject to

  • The collective: The faculty who are responsible for a particular course of study may share responsibility for determining courses to be offered or texts to be assigned to students. The shared academic freedom to make this decision trumps the freedom of an individual faculty member to assign a textbook that he or she alone prefers.

  •  Professional ethics: A faculty member must act ethically in their teaching and research; for example, by following regulations on human subject research. 

  • Professional competence: In order to produce and disseminate the highest quality of knowledge in a given field, academics are regulated by other academics who are in a position to judge the work of their peers. A faculty member is not entitled to teach something that their academic peers judge is invalid--for example, teaching that 2+2=5 would not be protected; neither would teaching intelligent design in an evolutionary biology class.

What’s the difference between academic freedom and free speech?

Although academic freedom in the United States receives some protection—at public universities—from the First Amendment, free speech is not a good model for understanding academic freedom because

  • The First Amendment is premised on an “equality of status in the field of ideas.” All expressions are given equal protection under the law.

  • Academic knowledge is premised on an inequality of status between differing ideas. Faculty members routinely reject certain ideas as lesser than others, and train their students to do the same. Without this process of designating certain ideas as less worthy than others, knowledge would not progress.

  • Academic freedom does not protect some speech that may be protected by the First Amendment—for example, that which manifests disciplinary incompetence.

  • First Amendment rights are focused on the individual.

  • Academic freedom rights are regulated by the collective--peers determine what constitutes disciplinary competence.

What are the main threats to academic freedom?

Some frequent threats include

  • Pressure from donors or board members. For example, when donors push administrators not to appoint a high profile faculty member whose views or public utterances they dislike.  

  • Pressure from the community when the content of teaching or research is controversial. For example, students and parents have objected to the use of nudes in an art history class.

  • Strings attached to donations or research funding. For example, donor agreements that fund academic programs and give donors a say in faculty appointments in that program; agreements for corporate funding of research that allow the company to review research findings before publication. 

  • Legislative interference. For example, in many states, legislators are pushing legislation that would restrict what can be taught about US history.

  • Targeted harassment. Over the last few years, targeted online harassment of faculty has emerged as a significant threat to academic freedom. Fueled by websites such as Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, and College Fix, campaigns of threats and harassment are directed against faculty members for what they are reported to have said in the classroom or posted on social media.

  • Lack of procedural protections. With about three-quarters of the faculty teaching off the tenure track, many faculty members are vulnerable to being quietly non-reappointed, with no reasons given. 

What are the best protections for academic freedom?

The best protection for academic freedom are institutional rules and regulations that comport with procedural recommendations developed by the AAUP, specify how and why an institution can terminate a faculty member’s service, and provide for faculty tenure. Tenured appointments should be terminated only for cause and should be considered by an elected faculty committee.

Why should students and the community care about academic freedom? Is it just a special perk for faculty members?

Those teaching and researching in higher education need academic freedom because the knowledge produced and disseminated in colleges and universities is critical for the development of society and for the health of a democracy, an idea often expressed by the phrase “for the common good” or “for the public good.” The common good depends upon the free search for truth and should not be guided by the desires of wealthy donors, by partisan political aims, by religious institutions, or by the desire not to offend. 

One example of how faculty members’ exercise of academic freedom can benefit society: 

Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University discovered in 2003 that high levels of lead were present in the Washington, DC, water supply. He spent years proving that misconduct at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency had worsened the DC water crisis and endangered children's’ health. In 2015, he found higher levels of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, and, despite reassurances by state and local authorities, his findings were again confirmed. Edwards set up a website to share his findings with the public and hold the government accountable. “I didn’t get in this field to stand by and let science be used to poison little kids,” he told the Washington Post,“I can’t live in a world where that happens. I won’t live in that world.” Academic freedom and tenure protects professors like Edwards from being disciplined, dismissed or silenced when their work risks offending powerful interests, including business or government interests.

Where did the concept of academic freedom come from; who made these rules? 

Protecting academic freedom has been the AAUP’s core mission since its founding in 1915. The classic conception of academic freedom was articulated in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which was jointly formulated by the AAUP and the  American Association of Colleges and Universities and has been endorsed by more than 250 national scholarly and educational associations. The standards it lays out are widespread in higher education. A research study conducted by the AAUP found that the 1940 Statement serves as the basis for academic freedom language in about three quarters of faculty handbooks and collective bargaining agreements at four-year institutions that have a tenure system. However, they are recommended best practices, not laws. Your administration may profess to be committed to “academic freedom” but not follow recommended steps to protect it. 

Where can I learn more?

Advancing and protecting academic freedom is the AAUP's core mission. The foundational policy statement regarding academic freedom remains the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Over the years, the AAUP has addressed the application of the principles of the 1940 statement in many particular circumstances, and has developed sample institutional regulations for protecting academic freedom. Learn more here: https://www.aaup.org/our-work/protecting-academic-freedom. The AAUP also conducts research on academic freedom. Learn more here: https://www.aaup.org/our-work/research.