Resolutions to Protect Academic Freedom of Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Delaware

By on November 19, 2010

Faculty bodies around the country have been enacting new academic freedom protections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, about which we have written plenty here on The Torch. In a footnote in Garcetti, the Court reserved the question of whether professors at public universities have academic freedom to criticize university policies or even enjoy academic freedom in their own research and teaching, but some lower court decisions in academic freedom cases since Garcetti have nevertheless further endangered faculty members’ traditional academic freedom. Joining the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, the Faculty Senate at the University of Delaware has enacted new, strong protections of faculty academic freedomand the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) is on the way to promising similarly strong protections to its own faculty.

These new protections are wise in light of the special importance of academic freedom to faculty members in a free society and in the face of the threats posed by Garcetti and its progeny.

At UNC-CH, the Faculty Executive Committee reaffirmed its support on Monday for a proposed "Resolution on Academic Freedom," which was passed by the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly on September 17. (The Faculty Assembly’s website states that it is "the elected body of representatives of the faculty of the seventeen campuses of the University of North Carolina.") As reported by the Daily Tar Heel this week, the Faculty Executive Committee will vote on December 17 whether to support UNC-CH’s adoption of the resolution. Hopefully, each of the member institutions of the state system will likewise decide to adopt the Faculty Assembly’s resolution.

This resolution would make major strides in amending existing policy at UNC-CH regarding academic freedom. The resolution, which is worth reading in full (PDF), declares that "academic freedom is fundamental to the University’s goal of advancing and transmitting knowledge" and that "students, faculty, and administration are all best served if faculty are free to express themselves on institutional and other matters without institutional control or intrusion." The resolution also specifies that academic freedom, properly understood, necessarily includes the "Freedom of Research and Publication," "Freedom of Teaching," "Freedom of Internal Criticism," and "Freedom of Participation in Public Debate."

These are all essential points in any proper understanding of academic freedom, and as such we commend the Faculty Assembly for producing this resolution. The resolution is in essence a codification of the recommendations of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) which, as we’ve covered before, has organized a national campaign toward improving academic freedom protections at colleges and universities nationwide. (The AAUP has used the previously mentioned policy at the University of Minnesota, along with two policy drafts of its own, as model academic freedom policies for other schools to emulate.)

The UNC resolution also recommends specific changes to the "The CODE of the University of North Carolina" that would further ensconce academic freedom protections in university policy. Fortunately, members of UNC-CH’s Faculty Executive Committee have expressed such strong support for the resolution to the Daily Tar Heel that I am optimistic about its success statewide:

"By accepting this resolution, we are sending a message to the UNC system, the state and the Board of Governors that this is how we feel about academic freedom as a family of universities," [Faculty chairwoman McKay Coble] said.

FIRE will keep reporting on the rising star of academic freedom in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, at the University of Delaware (UD), the Faculty Senate has finalized an amendment to its handbook to protect the free speech of professors, as reported by the UD Review this week. According to the Review,

The amendment revised ambiguous language regarding free speech, giving faculty the right to freely address any matter, institutional policy or action of the administration. The revised policy now covers faculty governance, an aspect of academic freedom that allows professors to speak freely when discussing policies or changes in faculty or administrative structure.

"We now have a policy that’s as strong as any I’ve seen at any university," said Jan Blits, chairperson of the Committee on Faculty Welfare and Privileges within the Faculty Senate. "Faculty governance is now broadly stated so that any forum in which I voice an opinion or anyone else voices an opinion on university matters would be protected."

Indeed, these are crucial protections, and they too seem to be right out of the AAUP playbook in its national post-Garcetti campaign. FIRE applauds Professor Blits (a recipient of FIRE’s Prometheus Award in 2009) and the Faculty Senate for achieving such a vital goal.

Just as importantly, the initiative appears to have administrative support at UD:

Administrators say they are fully behind the actions of the Faculty Senate and support academic freedom.

"The University of Delaware is taking a leadership position on academic freedom," university Provost Tom Apple stated in an e-mail message. "I strongly support the recent action by the Faculty Senate which ensures that faculty are free to speak their mind without fear of reprisal unless their statements or actions are unethical or incompetent. Academic freedom is essential to lively and open debate and discussion."

So long as the exceptions for "unethical" or "incompetent" speech are applied with full respect for faculty members’ legitimate expression, it looks like faculty academic freedom is safe at UD.

We’ve written before about the importance of these types of measures on the part of faculty bodies at universities. Given the propensity of courts post-Garcetti to rule against professors in academic freedom cases and to fail to recognize their right to speak out on matters of public concern, both within the institution and in terms of issues of social and political significance, it is vital that faculty members take steps on their own to bolster institutional policy on academic freedom.

It is great to see two more universities, especially two major public institutions such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware, in the lead along with Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We will continue to provide updates on the academic freedom front here on The Torch.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill University of Delaware