What exactly is “academic freedom?” Who has it, under what circumstances, and why should we care? The intersection of academic freedom and freedom of speech will be the topic of discussion at the June 22 Badger Club Forum.
Academic freedom permits college teachers and students to pursue knowledge without unreasonable interference or restrictions. This protection means teachers can raise issues in the classroom or in their research that evoke their intellectual concern and expertise. Students can form conclusions for themselves and express their opinions.
The justification for these freedoms is their benefits to society — for students to develop as independent thinkers who contribute to society, and for faculty to pursue novel ideas that in the past have sometimes led to transformative discoveries in the arts and sciences. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the leading organization that advances the rights that pertain to academic freedom, initially developed standards in 1940 for faculty and institutions.
However, academic freedom can be challenged at different educational levels, especially around moral or religious beliefs and is subject to critiques that faculty are pushing their agenda. A politically conservative Caucasian student may feel suppressed or inhibited by a professor discussing white privilege. Can a pro-life medical student be a practitioner if they don’t learn about abortion procedures? The polarization of today’s society has bubbled over to learning environments — witness controversies over the past few years regarding safe spaces, hate speech, and invited speakers on college campuses.
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Layered on top of academic freedom is the constitutional protection of free speech by teachers and students.
Even though these concepts are related, there are important legal distinctions. As an example, faculty are entitled to academic freedom in the subject matters of their expertise, but should refrain from introducing controversial matter that has no relation to the subject.
In addition, professors and administrators should be free from institutional censorship, but it may be difficult to dissociate their role as a university official completely.
Our local community has had many recent experiences related to academic freedom and free expression. The January 29 guest opinion by a Columbia Basin College faculty member to the Tri-City Herald about Japanese internment camps, Washington State University football coach Mike Leach’s endorsement (as a private citizen) of Donald Trump, and the Facebook posts on immigration by two Prosser School District academic staff are all recent examples. Where is the line between these individuals’ free speech rights in a public forum versus the public’s identification of them as a school official?
This coming Thursday provides an opportunity to explore what is academic freedom, the intersections with free expression, and the aspects of public perception and image of an institution when faced with controversial or unpopular subjects. A presentation will be given by Dr. Craig Parks, assistant vice provost and professor of psychology at Washington State University, to provide a historical and contemporary perspective on academic freedom and free expression.
After the formal presentation, there will be a 30-minute question-answer period, where we hope to explore the topic from a local, national, and global perspective. Please remember that to ask a question, you must be a member of the Badger Club, and it is possible to join at the forum.
The Columbia Basin Badger Club is a nonpartisan Tri-City organization that is dedicated to civil discourse on topics important to our region.
Allan Konopka is a member of the program committee for the Badger Club. He is a retired microbial ecologist who lives in Kennewick.