Blogs > Cliopatria > Fichtner on Academic Freedom

May 13, 2004 1:47 am

Fichtner on Academic Freedom

My friend and former colleague, Paula Fichtner, published an important analysis on academic freedom in this morning’s New York Sun. Fichtner argues that

a skeptical public, particularly the part of it that is indentured to the circussize tuition fees of today, has some reason to ask if professors are accountable to none other than themselves when they speak and write.

Not quite. Today’s academic freedom came out of 18th and 19th century Germany, where students and professors “freed” themselves from the traditional primacy of theological studies at universities.

Scholars subsequently gained the right to teach their discipline as their research dictated, with minimum control from the state. The American counterpart of this doctrine came from the American Association of University Professors in l940. Though updated several times, its basic principle has never changed: Professors, tenured and untenured, are not to lose their jobs because their scholarship and the courses they developed from it include “controversial matter” (

Thus, both in Germany and here, academic freedom privileged scholars to use their professional research “freely” in writing and teaching. It was never a license to run off at the mouth. Controversial classroom material, says the AAUP, must be related to the subject of the course and reflect the expertise of the instructor.

Fichtner’s article reminds us how academic freedom too often has been defined as the freedom of academics to say or do whatever they want, rather than as a right derived from the specialized training of faculty members in their fields. I encountered this pattern in my tenure case, when the head of the Brooklyn Faculty Council, Physical Education Professor Charles Tobey (scroll down for quote), reasoned that “free speech and academic freedom” gave a right to deny tenure based on some senior colleagues’ opposition to an untenured professor’s opinions on curricular and personnel matters. Meanwhile, the head of the University Faculty Senate, Susan O’Malley, apparently believed that “academic freedom” gave her the right, as an academic, to publish false statements in the UFS Newsletter about my publication record and the process that the University followed in my case. After a letter from my attorney informed her otherwise, she issued an apology and retraction.

When pressed for an example of what they consider a violation of academic freedom at CUNY, the leadership of the UFS and our union, the PS (the same figures, including O’Malley, dominate both organizations) have cited the case of Mohammed Yousry. Yousry, an adjunct at CUNY’s York College and a translator for attorney Lynne Stewart, was arrested, along with Stewart, on charges that they conspired to relay messages from Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who organized the first attack on the World trade Center, in 1993, to contacts within his organization. Bail for Yousry was set at $750,000.

The faculty contract gives the university an absolute right not to renew adjuncts’ contracts, which CUNY exercised in this instance. While making no statement on Yousry’s innocence or guilt, the institution contended that since adjuncts were only employed on a term-by-term basis, there was no reason to hire for another term someone who had been charged with a serious crime. The faculty union, on the other hand, contended that the non-reappointment violated Yousry’s academic freedom, and grieved the matter. The PSC/UFS leadership, which has maintained repeatedly that the passage of the Patriot Act threatens CUNY’s integrity (for a conference the group organized on the matter, click here), based its arguments on a claim that CUNY’s action implicitly recognized the constitutionality of a prosecution under the Patriot Act. Since Yousry, through his attorneys, has cited the measure as unconstitutional, the PSC argued that the non-renewal violated his academic freedom to protest the Patriot Act.

It came as no surprise that the union lost the grievance. In a scathingly written judgment, the arbitrator tartly noted that academic freedom does not cover being accused of a crime. (Both sides in the case stipulated that CUNY acted in response to Yousry’s arrest, and not because of anything that he said in the classroom or that he wrote.) That the faculty leadership of a major institution like CUNY would seriously believe that alleged criminal acts fall under the definition of “academic freedom” should make the Fichtner article required reading for all professors.

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Ralph E. Luker - 5/13/2004

And, then, there is the St. Johns model, where the faculty member is expected to be prepared to teach the curriculum.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/13/2004

Approved? As often as not, the institution ASKS you to teach outside your training, sometimes it insists on it. Most institutions hae curriculum review processes that vet the course, but not the instructor. I could teach Milton, or Physics, as far as the university is concerned, as long as the course is in the catalog and I'm on staff.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/13/2004

Richard, I'm afraid that it happens very often.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/13/2004

Fascinating that alleged criminal acts are considered by faculty leadership to be protected by academic freedom. I note this gem:

"Controversial classromm material, says the AAUP, must be related to the subject of the course AND REFLECT THE EXPERTISE OF THE INSTRUCTOR." [emphasis added]

I'm reminded by this of the case of Tony Martin at Wellesley, a Marcus Garvey scholar who teaches a course, Africans in Antiquity, without any expertise in African or classical languages, or anthroplogy or acheology, and who claims that Cleopatria was black. How does one get approved by a major educational institution to teach a course which one is manifestly not competent to teach?