It seems that issues of academic freedom have been popping up a lot in the news lately. For a few examples, see here:
- Kansas University restricts what faculty can say on social media.
- A student at Harvard University argues for “academic justice” over the belief in academic freedom. See another student’s response here.
- A dean is fired for speaking out against the academic administration (here and here)
The idea behind academic freedom is to prevent faculty from losing their jobs due to the ideas they express. You can imagine how this might be important for institutions that are supposedly responsible for advancing knowledge, ideas, and science. The potential cost of academic freedom is that it protects those with regressive or unpopular ideas as well. Still, many find that to be an acceptable cost. I’d like to suggest that one of the reasons for the debate over academic freedom comes from the tension between the right to speak as an individual versus the freedom of expression when one is part of (and therefore representative of) an organization.
As the following examples make clear, this tension reaches beyond academic walls:
- The debate over Sterling’s racial comments (here, here, and here)
- Recent coverage of Michael Sam’s kiss with his boyfriend (this article and this video clip, which touches on many other issues, including the freedom to express unpopular beliefs)
As many of the articles above indicate, one of the reasons that these non-academic examples have become media sensations and topics of debate is due to the intervention of social media. Comments that once were unmistakably private are now potentially public. Do such comments count as remarks made by an individual or as a representative of the organizations with which one is associated? A similar question can be asked of the academic examples. Do faculty research and publications count as personal statements of a given faculty member? Or do they represent view points supported by the organization to which he or she belongs?