Magazine Feature

Academic Freedom and the Challenge of Diversity

Upholding two core values essential to the pursuit of the common good

By Henry Reichman

Fall 2020

In March 2020, a working group established by the academic council at University College Dublin in Ireland proposed an addendum to the institution’s statement on academic freedom. The addendum called on the university and its faculty to address tensions between academic freedom and “the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education.” In establishing international partnerships, the group declared, the university should learn about and engage with “other traditions of academic freedom” and establish “whether divergent approaches to academic freedom can be reconciled or accommodated.” A faculty petition charged that under the proposed addendum, academic freedom would be “downgraded from a basic principle of academic life to a legal nicety that needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and can be sacrificed” in pursuit of other goals, in this case internationalization.

Thankfully, the proposal was withdrawn, but the contretemps was revealing, posing in unusually stark terms a question that resonates here in the United States, and not only among institutions with overseas campuses or other academic partnerships in authoritarian states. Academic freedom is undoubtedly a core value of higher education, but should it sometimes be compromised in order to accommodate efforts to tackle the many considerable challenges of the twenty-first century, from fighting climate change and global pandemics to reckoning with the stubborn legacies of institutional racism? More specifically, can American colleges and universities sustain their commitment to serving a more diverse student body, recruited from all classes and ethnic groups and increasingly from around the world, and still rigorously uphold academic freedom?

The conflict is most frequently posed as one between freedom of speech and diversity. In this view, the focus has usually been on the use of restrictive speech codes or the disruption of controversial or “offensive” speakers. But academic freedom is not freedom of speech, although the two are closely related. According to the 1940 joint Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued by the American Association of University of Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC, now the Association of American Colleges and Universities, or AAC&U), academic freedom “carries with it duties correlative with rights.” It protects the right of instructors to “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject,” but it does not entitle them to persistently introduce material unrelated to that subject or in other ways seek to indoctrinate students ideologically or politically. The statement also famously declares that when faculty members “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Yet it also advises them to “be accurate,” “exercise appropriate restraint,” and “show respect for the opinions of others.” Should such extramural utterances “raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position,” the two organizations subsequently declared, disciplinary proceedings may be warranted.

In other words, in key respects, academic freedom is more limited than free speech. A faculty member may have fewer rights to voice controversial opinions or employ provocative language, especially in the classroom, than might an outside speaker, even one with overtly racist, sexist, antisemitic, or homophobic views. Might it then be argued that faculty rights to teach and speak freely can or even should be restricted as part of efforts by academic institutions to recruit, include, and respond to the demands of a more diverse community? Might a caveat like that proposed in Dublin be added to our policies on academic freedom in recognition that a more diverse population may have different notions of the responsibilities that faculty freedoms entail?

The claim that we must choose between academic freedom and diversity is false. Without academic freedom, diverse voices may be stifled. Yet, at the same time, an institution that fails to recognize and address the needs and demands of previously underrepresented groups and individuals may maintain the forms but not the content of academic freedom. For academic freedom is not about the protection of individual privilege. As the 1940 statement declared, colleges and universities exist “for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

That “free search for truth” depends on the protection of diverse voices. As the AAUP declared in January 2020 in the important statement In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education, endorsed by AAC&U, “As more groups gain access to higher education, they bring new demands for the expansion of expert knowledge.” Take one striking example. At a prominent American medical school, a professor was lecturing on how to identify initial signs of Lyme disease, illustrating his talk with images of typical presentations of the rash associated with the tick bites that spread the disease. Recognition of that rash is critical to early diagnosis and treatment. The photos were all of pale skin, much like the pictures still used to illustrate the rash on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. A student then asked how one might identify the rash on dark skin. The professor struggled to find an answer, admitting that he hadn’t considered the question, although it certainly was an excellent one to pose. Would the question have been asked had the class been all White? What other questions, in medicine and every other discipline, aren’t posed when those with a stake in the answer are excluded?

Similarly, what insults, slurs, demeaning language, or insensitive comments might go unchallenged if those at whom they are directed are excluded? This is not mainly a matter of intent. Take, for instance, the repeated controversies over the use of the N-word in classroom discussions. No one in higher education would tolerate an instructor who employed the word as an insult, but can it even be mentioned? At Augsburg University in Minnesota, a professor repeated the word while discussing a work by James Baldwin in which it appeared, prompting his suspension. At Emory University in Georgia, a faculty hearing committee found that the law school’s administration had failed to demonstrate adequate cause for dismissing tenured law professor Paul Zwier for twice using the word in class. In a letter to the Emory administration defending Zwier, the AAUP cited its 2007 statement on Freedom in the Classroom, pointing out that ideas germane to classroom discussion can never be censored solely because students might be offended. Doing so “would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.”

Zwier’s use of the term was similar to how University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, a well-known advocate for campus free speech, had employed it in his teaching to illustrate the “fighting words” doctrine, which refers to the First Amendment’s treatment of language that could incite violence. After the Chicago Maroon, a student newspaper, published an article that called Stone’s use of the word racist, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, he spoke with several Black students who “were very passionate about how hurtful it was even when it’s being used without the intention of being hurtful.” After that conversation, Stone decided to no longer use the word in class. “I’m persuaded that the value is offset by the distraction and the harm it causes,” he said.

It is important to emphasize that Stone’s decision was a pedagogical choice of the kind instructors make freely every day, not a product of institutional pressure or threat of disciplinary action. In the Augsburg case, a faculty petition argued that “academic freedom in defense of language that harms students turns the very principle that makes true learning possible into a mechanism for enforcing institutional racism,” adding that “further conversations about academic freedom can only take place after we acknowledge that harm has been done to these students.” But does the mere mention of a loaded term, used by a prominent writer in a classic work, cause “harm”? As Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, an African American author of a book on the history of the N-word, posed, must “a central pillar of the academic enterprise . . . be put on hold until everyone agrees to the highly contestable claim that ‘harm’ has been done”?

The Augsburg professors called on the university to “require meaningful and challenging diversity, equity and justice training for all faculty.” Kennedy dismissed that suggestion as “all too predictable,” but it is not in principle a bad idea, and certainly not necessarily one that violates academic freedom. To be sure, tales of “diversity training” exercises that are heavy-handed, overly prescriptive, or amount to political indoctrination are widespread and complaints about them frequently justified. Of course, some techniques, which have involved embarrassing or shaming participants, may cause more harm than good. But because a practice may be abused or done poorly is no reason to reject that practice altogether.

Instructors and, for that matter, their students may be ignorant of the experiences, customs, and sensitivities of those whose life experiences differ from their own. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, who has been honored by the AAUP for her defense of academic freedom, stresses in a piece for AAUP’s Academe magazine that many of the low-income students of color her institution now serves can best thrive under “a culture of welcome and encouragement to help students navigate the unfamiliar and sometimes alien territories of academic and cocurricular life.”

In creating such a culture, it is frequently essential, as the saying goes, to “educate the educators.” During the twenty-five years I taught at California State University, East Bay, the student body changed dramatically, so that today no single ethnic group constitutes a majority. In response to the growing diversity of our students, the faculty launched several promising initiatives. For instance, as more Asian and Pacific Islander students enrolled, many faculty members struggled with pronouncing or even remembering names unfamiliar to them, which often made students and faculty alike uncomfortable or worse. To address the problem, a group of faculty produced a guide to pronouncing these names that proved immensely helpful.

Hiring practices also needed to change. It was not simply a matter of increasing the number of candidates who were women and/or people of color. My colleagues and I realized that often the candidate with the more prestigious degree or the most exciting research project might not be as well suited to the job of teaching our students as the candidate from a less well-known university who had taught for several years as an adjunct in a community college. Critics who claim that such an approach amounts to hiring those “less qualified” fail to recognize that it is justifiable and sensible to define qualifications by the open position’s demands, which include teaching a diverse and inclusive student body.

This is why a growing number of institutions, including nearly all University of California campuses, have begun to require faculty job applicants and sometimes candidates for tenure and promotion to submit diversity statements. Such statements are supposed to explain how an applicant’s experience can support efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. These requirements have been criticized as “an affront to academic freedom,” to quote a widely circulated tweet by a former Harvard medical school dean. Abigail Thompson, a vice president of the American Mathematical Society and chair of the Mathematics Department at the University of California–Davis, called diversity statements a “political litmus test,” likening them to the notorious 1950s California anti-Communist loyalty oath. In response, more than five hundred mathematicians signed a letter stating that “diversity statements help assess a candidate’s ability to effectively teach a diverse group of students.” They added, “If our goal as mathematicians and educators is truly to reach as many students as possible, thinking about diversity and inclusion is necessary.”

While it is not difficult to imagine how such statements could be abused, there is so far scant evidence that they actually have been. In its 2011 statement Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions, the AAUP declared that all such decisions, including new appointments and renewals, “should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities.” If such responsibilities include teaching and otherwise serving a diverse student body, such a statement might be one method of determining fitness for a position.

“Fitness for position” is also the main factor that the 1940 joint AAUP and AAC statement deems relevant to justifying disciplinary action in response to a faculty member’s extramural expression. Which raises the issue of those faculty members whose publicly expressed personal views offend significant segments of the academic community. Arthur Butz, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, has long been a prominent Holocaust denier. He has, as far as anyone can determine, never brought up these ideas in his engineering classes nor is the topic relevant to his academic work or his ability to teach engineering. But while his views are and should be protected by academic freedom, might not Jewish students enrolled in his classes fear they would be treated unfairly? There is, to my knowledge, no evidence to suggest he has been discriminatory, but out of caution, Northwestern stipulated that if Butz ever teaches a course required for graduation, a different section with a different instructor will also be offered.

The University of Pennsylvania Law School took a similar stance in the case of controversial professor Amy Wax. In response to a series of inflammatory and arguably racist comments that she made—including telling a national conservative conference that “our country will be better off with more Whites and fewer non-Whites”—more than a thousand student groups and individuals affiliated with Penn petitioned for her to be relieved of all teaching duties. The law school dean issued a statement condemning her remarks, adding that she would no longer teach required courses.

Princeton University professor of politics Keith Whittington responded that Wax “should be fully protected from employer sanction based on the content of the views that she has expressed in her public writings and speeches. This principle is foundational to the modern protection of academic freedom, and there is no exception for faculty speech that makes students uncomfortable or contradicts a dean’s opinion about the values of the institution.” Although Whittington acknowledged “little sympathy” for Wax’s views, he added that “professors are allowed to denigrate groups of people in such a way that students might fear that they will not be treated fairly in the classroom. Professors are not allowed to in fact treat students unfairly.” He continued, “Professors might say things in public that give administrators good cause to scrutinize whether professors are in fact treating students unfairly. But the fact that students are made uncomfortable by the fact that a professor might think badly of a group to which they belong—or even think badly of an individual student!—does not define the boundary of academic freedom.”

But could one not argue that Wax’s repeated disparagement of people of color, including specifically of students of color at Penn, might create a situation in which such students could not reasonably expect evenhanded treatment, even if the evidence that Wax has in fact discriminated is inadequate? And could it therefore not be argued that this goes to “fitness” for her position? Removal from teaching required classes can be viewed as a legitimate use of institutional authority to assign workload. After all, faculty appointments, including those with tenure, do not guarantee that appointees will always be able to teach the classes they desire. However, could such a reassignment not be seen as punishment? And would such punishment be justified by alleging the relevance of Wax’s expression to her “fitness” to teach these classes? Such questions would best be resolved through academic due process at the institutional level.

Neither academic freedom nor a commitment to inclusion can be placed in a hierarchy of competing values. Both are core values because each is essential to the pursuit of a broader common good. In April 2018, the Faculty Senate at American University voted without dissent to approve a resolution, How Academic Freedom Supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which gets the relationship between academic freedom and diversity/inclusion right:

The Faculty Senate remains committed to initiatives being developed, to provide more mentors from diverse groups, sensitize colleagues to the needs of our campus’ communities, cultivate empathy and civility across our community, and reinforce the strengths we all gain from the broadest exposure to the human experience. . . . At the same time, increased attention to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion need not come at the expense of academic freedom. In fact, a central purpose of academic freedom is precisely to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. The right to dissent—in a civil and respectful manner—must remain sacrosanct in the classroom. . . . Inclusion and academic freedom go hand in hand at institutions of higher learning in free societies aspiring to generate knowledge and wisdom.

It is easy to defend academic freedom and free speech when everyone is saying pretty much the same things. But diverse communities give voice to diverse experiences, diverse assumptions, and diverse needs. And with diversity comes disagreement. In the wake of sometimes disruptive protest movements against institutional racism and in the context of the country’s political polarization, we sometimes hear complaints that universities have become too contentious and hence, we are told, unpleasant places. But the very nature of higher education demands contentiousness. Argument and debate, sometimes polarizing, are at the core of what we do. Both academic freedom and diversity exist to protect and encourage that sort of contention, and together work to render it constructive.

Image Credit: Typography by Tom Brown


  • Henry Reichman

    Henry Reichman