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University of Texas objects to own courtroom stance on academic freedom

The University of Texas at Austin is the second school in recent months to argue in court that its own institutional academic freedom supersedes that of its faculty. It’s a stance at odds not only with long-recognized principles of academic freedom, but also with — according to university officials — the university itself.

Back in 2016, three UT professors sued the university and its officials, alleging that UT’s enforcement of a state concealed-carry law violated their academic freedom. The professors argued that guns chill classroom discussion and that they should have the right to ban them for pedagogical reasons.

After a trial court rejected their claims, the professors appealed, leading lawyers for the state — which is representing the university on appeal — to argue that there is no academic freedom right to assert.

“The right to academic freedom, if it exists, belongs to the institution, not the individual professor,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “Academic freedom protects, at most, the educational autonomy of institutions, not individuals.”

Only after the Austin American-Statesman reported the story did UT backtrack, saying it objected to its own attorney’s characterization of academic freedom. The Statesman suggested UT previously felt powerless to formally refute the state’s incorrect claim, since “[u]nder state law, the attorney general is entitled to decide what legal arguments to make on behalf of state agencies and universities.”

UT spokesperson Gary Susswein confirmed that the school stands by a “steadfast commitment to academic freedom,” and provided FIRE the following statement from UT President Gregory Fenves:

The academic freedom of our faculty to express, learn, teach and discover is at the very foundation of The University of Texas at Austin’s mission. Faculty members’ rights to academic freedom are well established in higher education, and the rights that we recognize at UT Austin are consistent with those norms, including AAUP’s statement on academic freedom. Individual faculty members have these rights under the UT System Board of Regents rules.

Historically, the definition of academic freedom has come from the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which places the right of academic freedom squarely with faculty. While it provides limited institutional academic freedom, a significant broadening of the rights of institutions would imperil the personal rights of faculty.

UT is at least the second major institution to make such a legal claim in recent months: Marquette University also advanced a similar argument in a recent loss before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the much-watched case of professor John McAdams. Marquette indefinitely suspended McAdams for criticizing a graduate instructor’s teaching methods on his personal blog. The school unsuccessfully argued its institutional academic freedom trumped McAdams’, and McAdams is expected to be reinstated in coming semesters.

“Institutional academic freedom is the death of academic freedom,” wrote Academe Blog co-editor John K. Wilson about the McAdams case. “If an institution owns half of the idea of academic freedom, then it will always cancel out an individual’s academic freedom, and the status quo (whatever the institution has decided) will prevail.”

We agree and hope the university will uphold its promises — and legal obligations — to ensure robust academic freedom for its faculty.

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