The first question that comes to mind from the topic of the article by Benjamin Mueller – John Hopkins University plans to put out its first policy on Academic Freedom – is what exactly is meant by academic freedom?
In 1915, the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Declaration of Principles proposed that academic freedom is not the absolute freedom of utterance of the individual scholar, but the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching.
William Van Alstyne (1990) defines academic freedom as a “personal liberty to pursue the investigation, research, teaching, and publication of any subject as a matter of professional interest.” (Van Alstyne, 1990).
In what could be described as a seminal case in the US in 2006 – that of Garcetti v. Ceballos an expanded definition for academic freedom was formulated. Academic freedom was defined as the freedom to teach, both in and outside the classroom, to conduct research and to publish the results of those investigations, and to address any matter of institutional policy or action whether or not as a member of an agency of institutional governance. Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence.
Donald A Downes (2009) in his paper on Academic Freedom – What it is, What it isn’t and How to know the difference, defines academic freedom as the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of inquiry. This freedom, Downes further indicates applies to institutions as well as scholars, and to students as well as faculty (Downes D. 2009).
The article by Mueller cites two distinct occurrences involving academics sharing publicly their views on a particular issue. The example of Benjamin Carson brings back to mind the 2014 case involving the University of the West Indies and Professor Brendon Bain, the then director of the Regional Co-ordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network).
Dr Benjamin Carson’s, renown professor of neurosurgery, public comment comparing those who advocates for gay marriages with those who promote bestiality and paedophilia, led to a withdrawal by Dr Carson to speak at the John Hopkins University’s medical school commencement under pressure from students. While, Dr Bain, which one local newspaper stated is regarded as a pioneer in clinical infectious disease practice in the Caribbean and a leading medical authority on the HIV epidemic in the region, had developed a formidable reputation for caring and devoted service to the HIV/AIDs community, lost his job following news reports that a coalition of lobby groups called for his head because of expert testimony he gave in a constitutional challenge brought by a gay Belizean man against that country’s criminal code in September 2010 (Jamaica Observer, March 2014.
Mueller’s article also gave the case of the criticism of a national state strategy by John Hopkins’ cryptology researcher Matthew Green. Green described a government agency strategy on surveillances as aggressive. John Hopkins initially had the blog commentary taken down, but later that decision was reversed.
It may be that we now live in a society and a world, where sharing publicly an opinion that goes against the views and opinions of groups that are considered a minority (based on sexual orientation or practice) is a certain ticket to a sentence of silence and removal. Holding and expressing views like those of Dr Carson and Dr Bain may be fast becoming the views of the minority and if shared would be subjected to intolerance, dissent, and outright rejection. Was there discrimination against either men because of their discriminatory comments against particular sexual orientations and practices? Are the tables turning? This may be for another discussion.
Academics may need to understand that they operate within a reality of limitations and restrictions to their freedom (an oxymoron). With freedom comes responsibilities and consequences for how one use or exercise that freedom. While one may still be free to have an opinion, expressing that opinion publicly one may not be free so to do.
Using the definitions and explanations of academic freedom in the case of Gracetti v. Cellabos, questions that come to mind are – was the opinion shared by Mr Green, Dr Carson and the expert advice given by Dr Bain, based on truth coming out of research into the respective matter to which they each spoke? Would their comments or advice provide any benefit to the society? Were they addressing matters of social, political, economic, or other interest? Were they sharing their views as free academics irrespective of institutions of employment or association? One could reasonably expect that these men, renowned for their work and research, would not have spoken glibly, but with a sense of responsibility and honesty, with concern for benefit of society, to provoke meaningful, open and discussion.
The students of John Hopkins in the case of Dr Carson, those in the case of Mr Green and the lobby groups in the case of Dr Bain, certainly enjoyed some freedom to share their opinions on what should happen or not happen to the related academics. It could be said that John Hopkins University acted in interest of their students who may have been offended by the utterance of Dr Carson. What though would have happened, if a small group of student wanted to still have Dr Carson – would their voices be heard, or do we err in the interest (or fear) of the majority? Did the pressure from the students in the exercise of their freedom result in academic freedom taken away from Dr Carson? Would not this speaker with opposing views be ideal for the students as they prepare to commence formal careers in a world differing views, views which does not in themselves take away from the value that each person have to bring a discussion or the intellect of the person – can we not learn from each other?
Downes (2009) argues that the principle of academic freedom is not as simple as many of its advocates assume. It involves both rights and responsibilities in a professional context, and it has both individual and institutional dimensions that can sometimes be in tension (Downes, 2009). Maybe, like professional athletes who have a list of banned substances, that should be checked regularly for updates before taking anything into their body, there should be a checklist of ‘banned public opinions and views’, for academics to check regularly for updates before engaging the public speech.
Some questions raised in the editorial column of The Jamaica Observer (March 2014), comes into focus again – Must all academics of the University now subscribe wholly to the lifestyle of the various communities they serve? Was it in Dr Bain’s job description, as well as that of the other academics at the UWI, that he must hold no public opinion against homosexuality? How far must the university go in censoring and muzzling its academics to suit interest groups? Is this the end of scientific freedom and freedom of expression in the academic community? (Jamaica Observer, March 2014). The same questions could come up for Dr Benjamin Carson, was it in his invitation to be commencement speaker that he shall not make any public statement of his views of those who advocate for gay marriages?
The heart of academic freedom is the protection of the right of teachers, students, and researchers to express their ideas with intellectual honesty and without fear of reprisal. But professional responsibility requires that instructors and researchers abide by basic standards of intellectual integrity (Downes, 2009). If this position is to be taken, then it could appear that neither Dr Carson, Mr Green nor Dr Bain acted out outside the heart of what academic freedom intends or allows when they shared their views publicly of what they believe to be true– however all three were met with some form of reprisal. In the case of Mr Green, his ‘academic freedom’ was restored. This seems to imply that the topic or issue at hand may determine the level of freedom, allowance and tolerance extended within the framework of academic freedom. There seems to be intolerance on both sides for contrary views.
Controversies involving academic freedom often arise in gray areas, requiring practical wisdom if they are to be resolved. In such cases, it is wise to make freedom the default position, because an enlightened citizenry depends on honesty and courage in teaching and research (Downes, 2009). Arthur O. Lovejoy and Austin S. Edwards (1933) in their book- Academic Freedom and Tenure: Rollins College Report, states that research is rendered impossible to find new truths if the work of the academic/researcher is shackled by the requirement that his or her conclusions shall never seriously deviate either from generally accepted beliefs or from those accepted by the persons, private or official, through whom society provides the means for the maintenance of universities (Edwards and Lovejoy, 1933).
On whose side, should the Institution stand? It appears that honesty and courageousness to share what one may believe to be true was not met with acceptance or tolerance by the “enlightened” citizenry in the cases sited.
I think the real issue at hand in the article by Mueller was nicely summarized by Downes (2009) when he indicated that, in the past, the academic freedom of the institution and the individual were largely in harmony. The contemporary university, however, is torn by a cultural clash between traditional notions of individual freedom and recently emergent ideologies that stress the need to be sensitive and caring, especially toward members of historically oppressed groups. Many institutions have adopted speech codes and related policies that restrict what faculty members and students can say about matters relating to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the like (Downes, 2009). This may be where the short fall lies for John Hopkins University, there may not have been clear policies, codes and restrictions on academic freedom. John Hopkins is to come up with its policy on academic freedom. All Universities should have one of their own policies to protect themselves, their students, faculty and staff.
Academic freedom, may not be so free after all depending on the shackles of what may be the current views or prevailing opinions of the time. We may have to return to the primitive and restrictive definitions of academic freedom, such as 1915 AAUP’s definition and that of William Van Alstyne in 1990. To extend the meaning of academic freedom beyond seems to lead to more shackles of controversies and gray areas.
AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles. Retrieved from
Downes, D. A. (2009). Academic Freedom, what it is, what is isn’t and how to tell the
difference. Retrieved from
Mueller, B. (March 2014). John Hopkins U. Plans Its First Policy on Academic Freedom.