Academic Freedom

The concept of academic freedom is based on the idea that the free exchange of ideas on campus is essential to good education. Specifically, academic freedom is the right of faculty members, acting both as individuals and as a collective, to determine without outside interference: (1) the college curriculum; (2) course content; (3) teaching; (4) student evaluation; and (5) the conduct of scholarly inquiry. These rights are supported by two institutional practices—shared governance and tenure (see below.) Academic freedom ensures that colleges and universities are "safe havens" for inquiry, places where students and scholars can challenge the conventional wisdom of any field—art, science, politics or others.

Defending academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas on campus is a central component of the work of AFT Higher Education. This work is reflected in the union's organizing and collective bargaining activities, and in our involvement in professional and political affairs. The work is essential because academic freedom rights are under constant attack and because a majority of today's instructors—those in temporary contingent jobs—do not have the critical protections these rights provide to the educational process.

Of course, academic freedom and its attendant rights do not mean that "anything goes." No one would argue that a professor can hold students to his or her belief that the sun revolves around the earth, for example. Faculty must act professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students and other faculty. Institutions of higher education and academic disciplines ensure this through policies and procedures that safeguard both students and the academic integrity of the institutions and disciplines.

Academic freedom and shared governance

Shared governance is the set of practices under which college faculty and some staff members participate in significant decisions about the operation of their institutions. Shared governance practices differ from campus to campus, but typically the work of shared governance is undertaken by elected faculty committees working with the administration. On AFT campuses, the union contract often guarantees shared governance rights, and the union may play a role in implementing shared governance. Shared governance is democracy in action, intended to ensure that academic decisions are made for strictly academic—not political, commercial or bureaucratic—reasons.

Academic freedom and tenure

New faculty members typically undergo a multiyear probationary period during which their teaching and research are evaluated by their colleagues. Those who meet all these requirements successfully may be awarded tenure. Tenure simply means that a college or university can not fire a tenured professor unless it presents compelling evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally, or that the institution is in grave financial distress. Tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee—it is a guarantee of due process that enables tenured professors to do their work without being subject to removal because of shifts in the political winds, institutional favoritism, or for crossing the "wrong" student, trustee, colleague or supervisor.

Tenure promotes accountability and quality in higher education. It ensures that the institution's curriculum, teaching, research and other academic programs will be framed and developed by trained and motivated professionals who possess a deep, lasting commitment to the institution. It gives faculty the independence to speak out about contentious matters and to challenge the administration on issues of new curriculum and quality without putting their jobs on the line.

Threats to academic freedom

Academic freedom is always being threatened from interests outside of the academy. Recently, for example, there has been a concerted nationwide movement to introduce state legislation, so-called academic bills of rights and intellectual diversity bills, that would inject political considerations into academic decision-making regarding hiring and curriculum development. Other groups have attempted to intimidate professors with whom they disagree by intervening in hiring or tenure decisions. These actions have the potential to chill an academic environment that thrives on a robust free exchange of ideas.

The AFT has placed a special emphasis on combating these external threats as a leading member of the Free Exchange on Campus coalition. The AFT and its partners in the coalition have been able to stop bills that would have restricted academic freedom in 30 states, and have educated the broader public about the importance of unfettered intellectual discourse in our colleges and universities.

The threat to academic freedom engendered by the growing number of faculty members working off the tenure track is particularly worrisome. Over 70 percent of the academic workforce labors without the protections of tenure and its process. Contingent faculty (those working off the tenure track) have no meaningful job security and, as a result, find their voice limited in terms of what they can say in the classroom, in their research and about their institutions. For more information on the issue of contingent academic labor, please see the Academic Staffing section.

The AFT is working vigorously to protect academic freedom on a number of fronts:

  • By encouraging locals to guarantee academic freedom for faculty through strong contract language;
  • By strongly advocating for the rights of contingent faculty, particularly on job security, academic freedom and a role in shared governance;
  • By working to increase the ranks of tenure-track faculty;
  • By monitoring and responding to attacks on faculty and higher education institutions; and
  • By working with other higher education groups, student groups and civil liberties groups to protect the free exchange of ideas.

The U.S. system of higher education is based on a rich tradition of academic freedom, peer evaluation, tenure and shared academic governance, as well as on the promotion of a range of ideas and a diversity of voices. It is widely seen as the most successful higher education system in the world. The AFT is working to protect this foundation from those who would chip away at academic freedom for the sake of politics, as well as from its steady erosion at the hands of a changing academic staffing structure.