Institutional Academic Freedom
May 17, 2005
by David French
Much of the confusion over academic freedom stems from a failure to understand that it is a three-part concept, aimed at promoting knowledge for the benefit of society at large. The first part relates to the university’s freedom to run its own academic affairs, determine appropriate curricula and hire competent faculty without being subject to the dictates of legislatures or governors, religious leaders, alumni or donors, or governmental agencies. Those within the institution hold their positions because of their competence in their academic areas and so are best equipped to decide what needs to be taught, what needs to be researched, and how to do both.
This in turn leads to the academic freedom of individual faculty members, who are at liberty to decide how to structure their courses and what research to pursue. Finally, the academic freedom of students consists of their right to learn and to be protected against indoctrination or demands about what they must believe or say.
In its letter, the NYCLU warns Columbia against insisting on “ideological balance” within the MEALAC Department, calling such an idea “seductive but ultimately flawed.” We would formulate the issue differently. As a private university, Columbia has the constitutional right to self-consciously advance its own mission and message. FIRE has been consistent on this message since its founding. While we have often battled private universities, we do so only when an institution represents itself as valuing free speech, due process, individual rights, or intellectual diversity and then fails to keep its own promises. There is no value in allowing a university to promise free speech but deliver selective repression, or to promise due process but deliver arbitrary justice.Likewise, Columbia has the right to hire a faculty that advances the mission it has decided upon. For example, sectarian schools often hire only those faculty candidates who agree with the school’s profession of faith and monitor faculty expression to ensure that professors continue to teach the faith according to the school’s mandate. While comparatively few students choose to attend such schools, they have the unquestioned freedom to exist and to operate according to their chosen faith and ideology. This is a crucial aspect of institutional academic freedom—the freedom to which the university as an institution is legally and morally entitled.Similarly, if Columbia chose to create the nation’s foremost “anti-Zionist” MEALAC department, it would have the right to do so. If it chose to create such a department, however, it should also be as open and honest about its mission and purpose as sectarian schools are about their missions and purposes. Full disclosure is required, both as a contractual obligation to its students and donors and as a moral requirement of the openness and transparency so crucial in higher education. If, however, Columbia’s goal is for its academic departments to be ideologically and intellectually diverse, it is not inconsistent with academic freedom for Columbia to take steps to ensure such diversity. In fact, because truly ideologically diverse faculty departments create opportunities for a wide variety of scholars, this kind of diversity could enhance – rather than threaten – academic freedom in the broadest sense.