Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Senate Assembly adopts Statement on Academic Freedom

The Senate Assembly, acting on behalf of the Faculty Senate, has adopted a Statement of Academic Freedom that defines how it believes the concept should apply to U-M faculty.

While the statement approved Monday affords no specific, direct legal protection, it outlines the faculty’s position regarding an issue that has not always been understood clearly, says Bruce Frier, who chaired the committee that drafted the statement.

“There’s never been an authoritative statement from the University of Michigan that academic freedom is protected here. I’m not saying that it isn’t. It’s just that, one, (the concept) is very ill defined. It exists more in the minds of people without any particular clarity of statement. And second, the protections that are afforded by virtue of academic freedom are also very ill defined.” says Frier, the John and Teresa D’Arms Distinguished University Professor of Classics & Roman Law.

The statement passed unanimously with four abstentions.

Frier and Senate Assembly Chair Michael Thouless said a formal faculty definition of academic freedom is important in the wake of recent federal court rulings that some perceive as abridging protections faculty may have thought they were entitled to under the U.S. Constitution.

In such a legal atmosphere, Frier says, the American Association of University Professors has suggested that colleges and universities begin defining academic freedom issues internally, rather than relying on the courts to protect them.

Frier stresses no specific disputes at U-M are driving the creation of the academic freedom statement. “There’s no immediate crisis that’s sparking this document, no sense that the administration has done anything wrong, or anything like that.”

That, adds Thouless, makes this a perfect time to deal with the issue. “You don’t want to deal with these issues when there is a problem. I think it allows you to think about it more calmly and deliberatively.”

Although the statement represents the position of the faculty, Thouless says it will be forwarded to the administration and Board of Regents with the hope they may consider adopting their own version in the future. The committee was in contact with administrators from the offices of the president, provost and general counsel throughout the drafting process.

The statement includes four specific freedoms:

• Freedom of research and publication. “Within the broad standards of accountability established by their profession and their individual disciplines, faculty members must enjoy the fullest possible freedom in their research and in circulating and publishing their results.”

• Freedom of teaching. “Faculty members must be able not only to disseminate to their students the results of research by themselves and others in their profession, but also to train students to think about these results for themselves, often in an atmosphere of controversy that, so long as it remains in a broad sense educationally relevant, actively assists students in mastering the subject and appreciating its significance.”

• Freedom of internal criticism. “Faculty members, because of their education and their institutional knowledge, play an indispensable role as independent participants in university decision making. By virtue of this role, they are entitled to comment on or criticize University policies or decisions, either individually or through institutions of faculty governance.”

• Freedom of participation in public debate. “Both within and beyond their areas of expertise, faculty members are generally entitled to participate as citizens in public forums and debates without fear of institutional discipline or restraint, so long as it is clear that they are not acting or speaking for the University.”

The statement also acknowledges that the concept of academic freedom is not absolute, nor does it parallel the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

“Academic freedom is not a defense against allegations of professional misconduct in research or teaching, nor does it provide complete protection against illegal or otherwise justifiably prohibited conduct or speech, particularly if it significantly disrupts teaching, research, administration, or other authorized activities on the campus,” the statement says.