Tom Ginsburg Writes About Institutionalizing Academic Freedom

How to Truly Protect Academic Freedom

The recent decision by the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees to deny the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure is chilling for any publicly funded educational institution. Without academic control over who gets hired, academic freedom is under serious threat. Although Hannah-Jones was put forward for the position by the School of Journalism and approved by the administration of the institution, the political appointees on the university’s boards apparently didn’t like her ideas about race.

The UNC debacle was not an isolated incident, nor is the threat limited to the political right. Consider other recent examples: the University of Oklahoma demanded agreement from faculty and staff members with certain diversity-related statements as a condition of employment; Chapman University faculty members called for the firing of a professor who appeared at the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that took place hours before the Capitol insurrection; and Central Michigan University ended the contract of a journalism professor who invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church to class. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found widespread self-censorship among U.S. academics.

Academic inquiry depends on autonomy from politics. The job of scholars is to search for truth, which requires them to pursue ideas wherever they go, and to debate them vigorously. Like seemingly everything else in our charged and polarized era, this idea has come under attack in recent years, with demands that “unsafe” ideas be purged and suppressed. Despite lip service, very few colleges are truly committed to academic freedom. The result is needless controversy and slipping standards. The solution is simple: Colleges must institutionalize the protection of academic freedom by devoting resources to training, establishing standards, and hearing complaints when norms are threatened.

Read more at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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