Academic Freedom and Campus Activism

With commencements now behind us, many colleges have more to be proud of than their graduates. Campus activism has re-emerged, encouraging citizens to re-examine the purposes of post-secondary education.

Sixties radicals worried that military research had perverted the university and fought to extend free speech to campus. They reminded my generation that academic freedom is central to the university's mission. A college education is more than vocational training. Academic freedom enables the varied and independent critique of reigning social institutions, upon which true personal freedom depends. Some of today's student radicals have regretfully been guilty of imposing repressive speech codes on campus debate. This is the grain of truth in conservatives' denunciations of left political correctness. But many other activists have broadened the sixties emphasis on free speech. Their concern is a corporate model of governance that limits the breadth and quality of higher education.

Tenure, now under widespread attack, has been a necessary though not sufficient prerequisite of academic freedom. Tenured faculty have the ability-- and the responsibility-- to defend academic freedom within the university community wherever it is threatened. As Cary Nelson has argued in his superb new book, Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary of Higher Education, academic freedom is more than an added extra or bonus. It is the very key to the university mission, and tenure is one of its principal instruments.

Tenure does of course occasionally encourage sloth. Nonetheless, in my experience this case is vastly overstated. Most inadequate teachers should never have been tenured in the first place. They were granted tenure because they could always be counted on to defer to powerful senior faculty and administrators.

My experiences as both a student and teacher have reinforced my sense of the importance of academic freedom. During the height of Vietnam era protest, John William Ward, the best undergraduate teacher I ever had, was named president of Amherst College. Increasingly troubled by the immorality of the war, Ward expressed his opposition through an arrest at a sit-in at Westover Air Force Base.

Ward's actions provoked a campus-wide controversy. Though he had emphasized repeatedly that that he did not speak for the college, influential alumni demanded his ouster. Ward survived, in part because he had the support not only of student activists but also of many tenured faculty, who argued that even college presidents don't forfeit their rights as citizens.

Fast forward to an era The New Republic characterizes as "the incredible shrinking college presidency." Public support for higher education has declined. Cost considerations drive all decisions and high level administrators are screened for their deference to corporate and private foundation donors. No John William Wards need apply. Administrators seek a workforce that is cheap and shares their docility. Retiring faculty are replaced with teaching assistants and underpaid -- and untenured -- adjuncts. Some administrators openly advocate abolishing tenure.

The threats to academic freedom today are apparent even at such reputedly progressive institutions as College of the Atlantic, where I taught from 1987 to 1993. From its inception, the College has emphasized its commitment to a self-directed, interdisciplinary education and a community in which students, faculty, and administrators collaborate to make school wide policy. It has always rejected tenure. The logic was not so much corporate as a kind of educational populism. The founding faculty rejected invidious distinctions between faculty and sought to foster an egalitarian educational community.

Unfortunately, untenured faculty are potentially vulnerable -- and most know it on some level -- when the president and trustees retain the right to deny contract renewals. Many faculty become reluctant to express publically even widely felt grievances about trustee interventions in curricular priorities and institutional practices. Indeed, as a 1997 reaccreditation report noted, even the college's formal personnel policies historicially have contained a dangerous ambiguity. The college professes a belief in academic freedom, but contract renewal is contingent on "minimum negative community opinion," the kind of opinions that radical critics often evoke.

In perilous financial straits throughout its history, the college has depended on the largess of a few. That largess has also included generous doses of intrusive advice. As a former colleague recently remarked to me:" it's surprising how many trustees think they are buying a toy college that they can control ..." The reaccreditation panel apparently concurred, commenting that: " trustees seem to be more involved in day to day administration ... than is typical."

Of course, meddlesome trustees and pusillanimous administrators are not the only forces that limit academic freedom. Peer pressures in academic communities, especially financially and politically beleaguered ones, often evoke a rally-round-the-flag mentality and ostracism for dissenters.

The free and open university has always been an ideal only approximated through struggles over tenure and for broader freedoms from financial and administrative constraints. The news today is mixed. A diverse group of students, staff, and faculty increasingly understand their stake in academic freedom, but students and faculty often pursue separate struggles. Graduate student unionization at Yale has raised issues both of TA wages and their political freedoms, but undergraduate support was sporadic at best. At College of the Atlantic students have organized a caucus to explore the impacts of administration decisions on their education and to give them more effective ways to express their concerns. In addition, in a parallel to sixties issues growing out of draft protests, students and faculty on several campuses are concerned about e mail "decency" codes that effectively curb political speech.

Perhaps the most promising protests are at two very different schools, City University of New York. Students at CUNY, along with some full time faculty have collaborated in protests of declining public support for higher education and exploitation of adjunct faculty. At Georgia Southern, some activists now strive to extend tenure rights to part-time faculty.

In the sixties, protests and teach-ins by activist students and faculty -- albeit minorities even on "radical" campuses -- reshaped the thinking of an entire generation. How and why a critical mass come to push successfully for major reform is one of the unresolved issues of social science. This generation of students and their teachers may once again give us occasion to explore this question.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments via e mail at:

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