Hate-speech bans, free-speech zones, microaggressions, and the withering number of conservative faculty members at universities have contributed to a decline in academic freedom over the past decade.
Yet, the evolution – some might say devolution – of the American academy has been going on for much longer. Yet, recent events, media reports, and discourse both inside and outside academia have muddled the true meaning of “academic freedom.”
A recent landmark report – “Charting Academic Freedom” by the right-of-center National Association of Scholars – tracks the trends in academic freedom from 1915 to the present, addressing misconceptions and providing a first of its kind compilation of major statements by universities, legal decisions, landmark events, and scholarly works about academic freedom.
The report also compiles other helpful resources authored by academic freedom-friendly organizations, such as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Spotlight Speech Codes Database and the Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges.
Addressing the fact that “academic freedom” and free speech are not synonymous is a primary goal of the report – the NAS seeks to “put the discussion of ‘academic freedom’ back on its legs.”
NAS communications director David Randall, the report’s author, told Red Alert Politics in an email that “the flood of new statements can make it difficult to understand how the various positions of universities and organizations focused on higher education compare and what that means for academic freedom in America.”
The report’s layout helps readers to see who wrote each academic freedom statement and why, who endorsed it, what key arguments it presents, and where it is meant to apply.
“The last few years of riots and shout-downs have presented a new, pressing danger to academic freedom,” Randall explained. “We – all Americans interested in academic freedom – need to come up with new statements and tactics to preserve academic freedom against these new threats. The best way to do this is to know the range of thought about academic freedom in the last century, and to get a sense of how slow and complex a process it was to get the academic freedom we have now. Charting Academic Freedom provides ready reference to century of experience – just what we need in the years ahead, as we all hammer out how to work to defend academic freedom best.”
Kate Hardiman is pursuing a master's in education from Notre Dame University and teaches English and religion at a high school in Chicago.