It’s Time for an Overhaul of Academic FreedomRoundup
tags: free speech, academic freedom, tenure, academic labor
Emily J. Levine is the author of Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2021, and is associate professor of education and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University.
Academic freedom is front page news. The decision by the trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to refuse tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones sparked outrage among academics and UNC students, as well as Jones’s fellow journalists. It shined a spotlight on tenure, which protects scholars from dismissal except under extraordinary circumstances, and exposed the limitations of a system in which American academic freedom depends on tenure.
Yet, while academic freedom is a seemingly self-evident feature of American higher education today, it did not always exist and took years to be formalized. The unique and incomplete process by which it became codified produced a narrow definition that not only excludes many members of the academy but also refrains from advancing a positive vision of what exactly academics are free to do.
Academic freedom’s roots lie in 19th century Germany. German universities’ autonomy was predicated on their usefulness in preparing graduates for the civil service and the military. German academic freedom was never absolute. The political order granted it in exchange for loyalty. The conditional nature of this freedom was underscored in 1870 when the head of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Emil Du Bois-Reymond, referred to professors as “the intellectual bodyguard[s] of the Hohenzollerns, billeted across from the royal palace.”
The American version of academic freedom developed quite differently, born of conflict within a university, rather than in response to state pressure. In 1900, Stanford President David Starr Jordan demanded the resignation of one of the university’s most popular professors, Edward Alsworth Ross.
During the 1896 presidential campaign, the outspoken Ross, an economist and sociologist, advocated for silver monetary policy — a rallying cry among populists. A year later, he spoke at a socialist rally in Oakland, Calif. In the spring of 1900, after Ross expressed opposition to Japanese immigration to California, Jane Stanford, Leland Stanford’s widow and the sole trustee of the university, wrote to Jordan, “Professor Ross cannot be trusted, and he should go. ... He is a dangerous man.”
It is not clear from the archival record whether Stanford recoiled from Ross’s racism, or whether racism was a merely a pretext for firing him for his socialism. But his dismissal sparked a broader movement to protect scholars within institutions of higher education.
Stanford University, which had adopted the German motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” (often translated as “the winds of freedom blow”), had been an unlikely place for such a scandal. Shortly before he asked for Ross’s resignation, Jordan confided in a friend, “I had resisted Mrs. Stanford’s evident wish … as long as I could, in the interest of academic freedom.” But Jordan’s personal embrace of academic freedom was more custom than formal policy. Before 1915, American professors possessed no formal rights, legal guarantees or economic security.
Ross’s termination and its reverberations changed that. Although Ross landed on his feet at the University of Wisconsin, historian Arthur Lovejoy resigned from Stanford in protest. In 1915, controversies surrounding World War I gave Lovejoy, John Dewey and James Cattell an opening to establish the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). With the war underway and concerns about freedom of speech rampant, this all-star group of scholars drafted its first document, the “Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” which the historian Walter Metzger once called the “philosophical birth cry” of academic freedom.
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