academic freedom for individuals and for groups

One type of academic freedom belongs to individuals. A teacher, researcher, or student either has freedom or not. The question is whether academics may say what they wish to say.

This form of freedom is very important, and I am an avid defender of it, although it has some limits. First, academics shouldn’t be able to say literally anything as part of their jobs, including making demonstrably false statements. Second, it is not always clear when this right should become a positive one. Although I shouldn’t be fired for adopting a controversial position, do I have a right to be hired, published, or invited to speak after I’ve done so? (If I have a positive right to speak, then I want my invitation to the University of Hawaii right now.)

Although academic freedom in the individual sense is important, it is not the only kind. I have worked at universities for 29 years. Only for the last three have I had individual academic freedom, safeguarded by tenure and a right to earn my salary primarily by teaching. Before that, I was always involved in collective efforts–team projects–that had funders, staff, and partners. These projects involved communication and advocacy as well as research. I always had to be careful what I said because that could affect my colleagues and allies. On occasion, I said things that had negative consequences for our fundraising or other goals. Much more often, I held my tongue.

Only very rarely did I experience this situation as a lack of freedom. Generally, I thought of myself and my colleagues as being free in the political sense of the word. We could collaboratively develop and implement strategies to influence society. People who opposed us weren’t violating our freedom; they were freely acting at odds with us. Much more common than actual opposition were decisions not to support us for various reasons. If (for instance) someone chose not to approve a grant proposal that we had submitted, that was not a violation of our rights. The alternative would have been to fund us and reject someone else. We operated in a controversial space with numerous decision-makers and finite resources. To the extent that I complained about limitations on our liberty or rights, it was only when arbitrary–from my perspective–bureaucratic rules interfered. I suppose I would have cried foul if administrators within our own institution had blocked us because of their beliefs, but then I would have been complaining about their overstepping their specific responsibilities. More generally, I expected opposition and competition and didn’t think of those as threats to our freedom.

If you want a classic framework for this distinction, Benjamin Constant’s will serve. Normal academic freedom is an example of what Constant called the “liberty of the moderns.” The freedom to collaborate in a contested space is the “liberty of the ancients.”

I think there are epistemological as well as ethical reasons to enhance collaborative, applied forms of research as complements to individual scholarship.* These approaches come under such headings as “transdisciplinary research,” “civically engaged research,” “community-based participatory research” (CPBR), and “participant-action research” (PAR). For such efforts, we need a robust account of academic freedom as the ability to build things together, often in the face of opposition that is legitimate. The question cannot be whether an individual is permitted to say what is in that person’s mind. It should become a question about the resources and rewards available to groups of people who seek to co-create knowledge and thereby change the world.

According to this theory, when the NIH, the Ford Foundation, or the American Political Science Association increases its support for engaged research, freedom is enhanced. (Support can mean money, training–like ICER–or recognition.) However, there will never be enough resources to allow every group to undertake every project it wants to do. Many applicants will be rejected; in fact, competition is desirable. Freedom of this kind is not a yes-or-no matter but an outcome of wise institutional design and allocation of resources.

*See civically engaged research in political science; how to keep political science in touch with politicsmethods for engaged researchwhat must we believe?civically engaged research in political sciencewhat gives some research methods legitimacy?; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.