Unlimited freedom?

Academic freedom and the university: Truth in the ivory tower

By LJ Evans

 

Professor imageAn 8-year-old girl was killed in Anchorage in the late 1980s when a mass of icicles broke loose from a roof, crushing her as she played under the eaves. Soon after, Rich Seifert wrote a piece in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that criticized the construction methods that had created the deadly conditions.

Alaska builders organizations denounced Seifert because of the article, which he wrote as part of a regularly appearing column.

“They said I was calling them murderers,” Seifert says. “I told them, ‘But we know how to do this right. We know how to build roofs that won’t do this and it’s just because of shoddy building practices that this happened.'”

When Seifert, now a professor of engineering, was hired by UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service, he says he was told, “We want you to be the people’s consultant on energy and building practices. Nobody is buying you. You are the watchdog for technology, to give people good advice about building practices.”

Seifert believed he was doing that — using his expertise to promote safe buildings in Alaska — and he stood his ground. The News-Miner canceled his column, but his supervisor, the CES director and the university president stood by him.

“I was protected by academic freedom before I even had tenure,” Seifert says.

(Eds’. note: Postpublication we learned that Mr. Seifert’s column in the News-Miner may not have been canceled as related in the story, but we are unable to verify the actual circumstances.)

 

 

“To me academic freedom
means artistic freedom.
I’ve never felt the need to shy
away from controversy here at UAF.”

 

What it is

Academic freedom is a key tenet of university life. It protects the freedom of faculty to teach and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations or public pressure. Closely related to it is tenure. (At UAF, tenure may be granted after a probationary period of up to seven years and after completing certain requirements.) Tenure means faculty can be fired only on grounds of serious misconduct, incompetence or misbehavior, not just because the professor took a politically unpopular stand.

Academic freedom, says biology professor Abel Bult-Ito, “allows faculty to study subjects that may be controversial in society but are nevertheless legitimate research topics that might otherwise have a politician saying, ‘Fire that person because of such and such.’ It’s a mechanism to protect faculty from political interference.”

“I have the obligation to teach the [required] subject material,” he adds, “but how I teach it and what types of materials I include in the classroom are for me to decide.”

The guidelines for academic freedom in the U.S. come primarily from the American Association of University Professors, initially in the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” and augmented with other, more recent documents dealing with topics such as electronic communications.

Provost Susan Henrichs says the AAUP guidelines reflect what she believes are the two key aspects of academic freedom: with the right comes the responsibility. Faculty have the right to communicate the results of their research and their opinions about it to students, the public and other faculty members, she says.

“With that also comes the responsibility to be thoughtful, accurate and unbiased.”

Faculty must also understand the rules are different in different settings, Henrichs says. The responsibility of an instructor in an introductory course to deal with controversial subjects is different than in an advanced graduate student seminar.