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Current threats to academic freedom include weakening of the faculty’s role in university governance.

Free Speech on Campus a Focus of January 2017 ‘New Criterion’

By January 4, 2017

In October, I had the good fortune to be invited to England to participate in a symposium around the issue of “Free Speech & the Academy,” jointly hosted by the American arts journal and literary magazine The New Criterion and the London-based Social Affairs Unit, the publisher of Standpoint magazine and other publications exploring social issues. I used my allotted time to share some observations gleaned from my years studying campus free speech trends at FIRE, in particular their implications for academic freedom. That presentation formed the basis for my feature in this month’s issue of The New Criterion, titled “Inverting academic freedom.

My article ties the current threats to academic freedom to, among other things, contemporaneous weakening of the faculty’s role in university governance. This weakening is itself the result of other long-term trends, such as the significant increase in the number of non-academic administrators employed by universities and universities’ increasing reliance on adjunct professors with no chance of gaining tenure. “The natural effect,” I write of these long-term changes, “has been that administrators have usurped more and more decision-making ability from the faculty.” I further note:

[I]t is not simply that the traditional faculty role in university governance has been watered down as universities have become bigger, more sprawling, and more corporatized. It is also that university administrations are increasingly willing to disregard faculty input even in areas where faculty expertise has traditionally been given deference.

Faculty were particularly vulnerable to the sweeping changes that resulted from the newly assertive role on Title IX issues taken in recent years by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), beginning with its April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter. The classroom has not been immune to the culture of fear OCR has created with the prospect of its invasive and burdensome investigations, and numerous professors have been investigated for expression that should be plainly understood as being protected by their academic freedom. I briefly discussed some of these cases, including at the University of Denver, Appalachian State University, and Louisiana State University. Among the common features of these cases is the fact that each university rejected its faculty’s legitimate academic freedom concerns—often flagrantly so. In another case at a Texas university, the university’s Title IX officer flatly informed a professor under investigation that “academic freedom rights do not apply to violations of [University System] Policy and regulation.” Such statements should be understood not only as serious threats to academic freedom, but also as signs of faculties’ weakened governance position, as universities feel increasingly empowered to ignore their input and expertise.  

The full text of my article (subscription required) can be read at The New Criterion’s website, along with those of the other symposium participants. Thanks to Roger Kimball and The New Criterion for inviting my participation, and for the generous space they gave me to expand on my thoughts.