Between Florida asserting that what college faculty say in class is “government speech” and Idaho telling college faculty that they “must remain neutral” on certain issues, an old challenge has re-emerged for college leaders. Every search committee for a college president should ask candidates this question, and then probe for understanding:
Are you willing to defend academic freedom or not?
I’ve been a candidate for several community college presidencies and have never been asked that. I’ve been asked if I play a musical instrument, whether I would impose a dress code and whether or not my wife is “weird.”* But I have never been asked about academic freedom. Not once.
The threats are serious. Leadership needs to be serious, too.
When I say “probe for understanding,” what I mean is not to take a flat yes as an answer. What does academic freedom mean to you? Have you ever defended it from a real attack? Why is it necessary? What doesn’t it include? What if you get a call from an angry legislator? What if an out-of-context video clip of a professor goes viral? What will you do? Even better, what have you done?
In a vacuum, Florida’s assertion reflects a category mistake. Yes, the institution has the authority to set curriculum. But “curriculum” does not apply to everything a professor (or any other employee) says. It applies to the learning outcomes of given courses and programs. How you achieve those learning outcomes is not prescribed nearly to the same degree.
Anyone who has taught in fields in which controversy exists knows why. Students will go off script. They’ll ask questions or bring up anecdotes that lead to dangerous waters. Sometimes they’ll assert factual inaccuracies in service of a point. Some topics have become sufficiently electric that even simple factual corrections are taken as indicators of a political position. For example, stating that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election is factually correct, even if some people don’t like it.
Of course, Florida’s assertion is not happening in a vacuum. It’s part of something much larger. The email from the University of Idaho to its faculty all but alludes to a larger political climate. Responsible college leadership has to have a moral compass and a strong backbone.
Academic freedom, properly understood, is a hunting license for truth. It matters because sometimes truth is unpopular or runs afoul of someone’s material interests. The scientists who discovered that smoking causes lung cancer upset some wealthy and powerful people. They were also right, and we’re better off for their ability to do, and share, their research.
At a basic level, the point of higher education is not indoctrination into what the currently governing party thinks. It’s about empowering students to find, and create, truth. That can only happen when colleges model the behavior they want to see. And that, increasingly, will only happen when we select leaders who understand that and are willing to fight for it.
*My answers: 1. No 2. No 3. Excuse me?