aamc.org does not support this web browser.
  • AAMCNews

    Is academic freedom in crisis?

    Professors being disciplined for espousing their views in the classroom or online. State legislators pushing bills to restrict what college professors can teach. Academic freedom is increasingly under threat. What happens now?

    Reject business male megaphone speaking, promote products, prohibit freedom of speech.

    In November 2022, a group of Harvard University faculty members met over dinner to discuss the state of free speech and academic freedom at their institution. They concluded that these freedoms had become embattled and agreed to create a new faculty-led coalition to advocate for academic freedom on campus. Subsequently, in March of 2023, more than 50 Harvard faculty members launched the Council on Academic Freedom.

    In an op-ed published by the Boston Globe in April, two of the council’s members, Steven Pinker, a psychology professor, and Bertha Madras, MD, a psychobiology professor at the medical school, wrote that Harvard was at the center of a societal debate over the state of academic freedom in the United States. They referenced viral instances of professors being mobbed, heckled, and even assaulted for espousing divergent views, and cited statistics from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) of 114 instances of professors being censored and 156 firings related to expression of viewpoints from 2014 to 2022. The op-ed also pointed to efforts by state legislators, particularly in Florida, to limit which issues can be taught at public universities.

    Not long after, the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper advised students to assess the Council on Academic Freedom’s motivations with caution, citing concerns that the rhetoric used by the group implied an overly broad interpretation of academic freedom that included freedom from criticism and activism.

    More recently, tensions around freedom of expression have reached a boiling point on some college campuses across the country as students, faculty, and administrators have responded to the Israel-Hamas war, raising even more questions around academic freedom and what faculty and administrators can and should be allowed to say on controversial issues.

    These incidents demonstrate increasing threats to academic freedom across the country, from both inside and outside academia. Currently, the United States ranks below more than 70 countries and is declining on a number of measures tracked by the Academic Freedom Index Update 2023 published by the Friedrich Alexander Universitat Institute of Political Science in Germany.

    “The culture of curiosity, which is absolutely essential, and the culture of open inquiry, requires, necessitates, speech. It cannot flourish when speech is constrained.”

    Amna Khalid, DPhil, associate professor of history and Asian studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota

    In August 2022, PEN America issued a report on the extraordinary rise in education gag orders and other state legislative attempts to restrict teaching, training, and learning since 2021, including a 39% rise in bills targeting colleges and universities. The nonprofit organization, which was founded to protect free expression, particularly through the written word, tracks legislative efforts in an Index of Education Gag Orders.

    “This has become a very critical issue in the past few years,” Madras says. The current climate in academia has “made it more and more difficult for people to voice a range of viewpoints — even voice data — that support a point of view that may be unpopular.”

    The fear of recourse from students, activists, and administrators has gone so far as to have a chilling effect on scholarship by making some professors and students less likely to discuss or investigate controversial issues, she adds.

    “I would say [academic freedom] is more endangered now than at any time since the early 20th century,” says Hank Reichman, PhD, former chair of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and author of several books on academic freedom.

    “The culture of curiosity, which is absolutely essential, and the culture of open inquiry, requires, necessitates, speech. It cannot flourish when speech is constrained,” adds Amna Khalid, DPhil, an associate professor of history and Asian studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and a scholar specializing in free expression and the history of medicine.

    But what, exactly, is academic freedom? How is it different from the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Why has it come under fire in recent years? AAMCNews interviewed several experts to help answer these questions.

    What is academic freedom?

    The AAUP was founded in 1915 by Johns Hopkins University philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy and Columbia University economist E.R.A. Seligman specifically to define and defend academic freedom, as well as to define fundamental values and standards for higher education. Currently, it defines academic freedom as “the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities … [and] protects the right of a faculty member to speak freely when participating in institutional governance, as well as to speak freely as a citizen.”

    “You want to have academic freedom for faculty members so they can pursue truth without fear or favor, [so that] teachers can teach their students to the best of [their] ability without fearing that someone is going to punish them for doing their job,” says Greg Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance for the AAUP. “You want it for researchers because you hope researchers will take their pursuit of knowledge as far as it goes and not worry they will offend a politician, administrator, or funder.”

    The AAUP recognizes four main elements to academic freedom for university faculty members: freedom in teaching; freedom in research pursuits; freedom to speak up on institutional governance matters; and freedom to speak as public citizens.

    “Academic freedom is a professional freedom that society grants to faculty members in return for their work in discovering and disseminating knowledge and educating the citizenry in a democratic society,” Scholtz says. “It’s not given for the purpose of making life better for faculty members, but to increase the quality of teaching and research, especially for the common good.”

    Many people confuse academic freedom with freedom of speech, explains Matthew Finkin, JD, a labor and higher education law scholar and professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. Though related, the two are distinct.

    While freedom of speech is a constitutional right afforded to every person against state action, academic freedom is a professional right and is held to scholarly standards that free speech is not.

    “You are an expert in an area, and when you speak in your discipline, you are held to a professional standard,” Finkin says.

    “Academic freedom is a professional freedom that society grants to faculty members in return for their work in discovering and disseminating knowledge and educating the citizenry in a democratic society. … It’s not given for the purpose of making life better for faculty members, but to increase the quality of teaching and research, especially for the common good.”

    Greg Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance for the American Association of University Professors

    This means that scholars must be prepared to defend their research and statements by backing them up with evidence. If there are questions raised about the accuracy or professionalism of the statements, they can and should be assessed by a group of their professional peers, and not by politicians, donors, or university administrators, Reichman explains.

    But scholars still have the right to voice opinions — even factually incorrect or controversial ones — in areas outside of their scholarly expertise.

    For example, a tenured professor at Northwestern University, Arthur Butz, has publicly denied that the Holocaust happened, going so far as to write a book on the topic in 1974. But because he is a tenured professor of electrical engineering, not history, and he has not used his classes or professional capacity to promote the false statements, his professorship is protected by his academic freedom to speak out on a subject not related to his professional expertise. In a 2006 press release, the university’s president at the time decried Butz’s claims about the Holocaust, calling them “a contemptible insult to all decent and feeling people” and “an embarrassment to Northwestern,” but reiterated Butz’s right to speak his opinion and continue his academic career.

    Academic freedom under threat

    While much of the discourse around academic freedom has been playing out on undergraduate campuses, some medical school faculty have also found themselves embroiled in the debate.

    In June 2023, Michael Joyner, MD, a physician and researcher at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, was suspended after he was quoted in news articles criticizing the National Institutes of Health’s guidelines on the use of convalescent plasma therapy to treat COVID-19 — something he had been studying. He’d also made a comment about testosterone influencing athletic performance in an article about transgender athletes.

    The backlash to his suspension was swift. In an open letter signed by more than 200 physicians and scientists at academic institutions across the country, Joyner’s supporters wrote that “Dr. Joyner, a faculty member at a medical school that avows a commitment to academic freedom and to free expression, did not exceed the limits of his expertise in any of his statements to the press that led to these sanctions. At no time did he claim to be speaking for the Mayo Clinic, and his remarks were well within the mainstream of the range of scientific opinion on topics in which he is expert.”

    The Academic Freedom Alliance went even further: “Mayo Clinic’s admonishments, written warnings, and disciplinary actions against Dr. Joyner … are a direct attack on his academic freedom. Furthermore, the restrictions on Dr. Joyner’s ability to speak publicly on controversial and important topics is a serious restraint on his speech,” the nonprofit wrote in a letter to Mayo Clinic administrators.

    In a statement, a Mayo Clinic spokesperson said that Joyner’s suspension was not related to academic freedom and was, instead, a response to ongoing personnel issues.

    “Mayo Clinic did not discipline Dr. Joyner for statements he made about testosterone or transgender athletes. Mayo disciplined Dr. Joyner for continuing to treat coworkers unprofessionally in violation of Mayo policy and for making unprofessional comments about the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) guidelines for convalescent plasma. Dr. Joyner’s comments about the NIH were not the expression of a scientific opinion, as is protected by our academic freedom policy. Instead, his comments were the unprofessional venting of his personal frustration with the NIH’s decision not to recommend a therapy he had championed,” the statement reads in part. “A committee of Dr. Joyner’s physician peers recommended his 2023 discipline, and after he appealed, a separate committee of physician peers upheld the discipline.”

    The email notifying Joyner of his suspension, published by FIRE, specifically mentioned the “idiomatic language” he had used in the interview about the NIH.

    AAMCNews reached out to Joyner for comment and was directed to his lawyer, who was not available for an interview.

    “The thing about extreme positions is precisely that the more extreme one side gets, the other mirrors it. And that makes the polarization even more intense.”

    Amna Khalid, DPhil, associate professor of history and Asian studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota

    The Mayo Clinic incident is just one of many that are stirring up tension on college and medical school campuses. In Florida, Idaho, Texas, and elsewhere, state legislatures – and particularly Republican lawmakers – are seeking to limit the discussion of race; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and transgender and LGBTQ+ issues. More recently, some university administrators have sought to influence discussion of abortion as well as controversial viewpoints on the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East.

    “This [current climate around academic freedom] isn't coming out of the blue and these two sides [politically liberal and conservative] I feel are interacting and reacting to each other,” Khalid says. “The thing about extreme positions is precisely that the more extreme one side gets, the other mirrors it. And that makes the polarization even more intense. So, I will say that the general kind of tribalism that we see in American society and culture right now is the backdrop to this entire conversation about academic freedom that is taking place.”

    Khalid says that the legislative attacks on academic freedom are the most serious threat currently, but that it’s also important to acknowledge and push back against the threats from within academia that often come from university administrators and campus cultures that are hostile to free expression.

    The change in the academic atmosphere comes, in part, as institutions have lost public funding in recent decades and have become more focused on marketing themselves to students than on fostering conditions for open inquiry, Khalid says.

    “They need to be making sure that these very complex issues are being discussed responsibly, with expertise, in an educational setting where students are there to learn,” Khalid says. “This is not about posturing where you are on the political spectrum. That's not what higher education is about. It is about learning how to understand the world, even before we go out into it.”

    Are there limits to academic freedom?

    While outright bans on the teaching of certain ideas have proliferated, there also is widespread disagreement and debate within academia about how far academic freedom protections should go, Scholtz says.

    “There’s not a commonly understood legal framework that can be used to define academic freedom,” argues Inara Scott, JD, senior associate dean and associate professor of business law and sustainable business at Oregon State University, who has written scholarly papers and op-eds on the issue. “There are a few Supreme Court and federal court cases that address academic freedom, but some cases are contradictory, and it’s not clear what the boundaries are.”

    “If I’m teaching chemistry, there’s no academic freedom for me to use my chemistry class to espouse my personal political views,” Scott adds. “My university, even if it’s public, is within their rights to say, ‘You’re teaching chemistry, we need you to talk about what is germane to the class.’”

    However, academic freedom should not give professors license to speak without considering the well-being of their students, argues Eli Schantz, a third-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine who has written on issues of academic freedom.

    “We have to contextualize academic freedom relative to other freedoms, including freedom from discrimination,” Schantz says.

    He recalls a professor of business economics and public policy at Indiana University who was outspoken on social media about his views that university administrators called “racist, sexist, and homophobic” in a statement condemning the posts, but reiterating that the professor would not be disciplined.

    “This is the conversation that we’re having… This is a faculty member who was exercising a form of academic freedom,” Schantz says. “From where me and my peers sit, you have a right to research what you want and say what you want on Twitter [X], but you do not have a right to be an endowed professor and you do not have a right to teach students.”

    “Where will we be as a society if there’s no critical thinking, no analysis, no debate, if we all just toe the party line and have to repress what we believe and think?”

    Greg Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance for the American Association of University Professors

    Scott says that academia must take on the complex task of balancing the needs and well-being of students with the rigorous debate necessary for scholarly advancement.

    “I don’t want us to see restricting opinions in the classroom because they make people uncomfortable,” Scott says. “At the same time, we do have to think about how we protect students from harm and what the boundaries are with our conversations.”

    Khalid, however, thinks this is the wrong approach.

    “This entire framework of harm on campus is misplaced and is actually detrimental to education,” she says. “When we treat people as rolled in cotton wool and want to protect them in that way, we are really infantilizing our students and not equipping them for a world where they can live lives that are true to themselves and their principles.”

    Still, academic freedom does have limitations, Scholtz says. “Academic freedom does not protect incompetence or misconduct ... If the professor in class consistently, for example, makes reference to sexual matters that have no relevance to the course, are not germane, we don’t believe that that speech is protected by academic freedom.”

    But encouraging discussion of germane matters, even controversial ones that some students may find offensive, is essential to the advancement of knowledge and scholarship in general.

    “Where will we be as a society if there’s no critical thinking, no analysis, no debate, if we all just toe the party line and have to repress what we believe and think?” Scholtz says.

    Khalid fears that the United States could follow in the footsteps of her home country of Pakistan, where “public education has been driven into the ground because of interventions from the state.” And she argues that if faculty members, especially the small percentage who have tenure, don’t speak up more in defense of academic freedom, the United States’ higher education institutions are at risk of devolving into bastions of autocratic propaganda.

    Says Khalid, “U.S. higher education … has been the envy of the world [and] has only managed that because of academic freedom.”