A DIY guide to protecting academic freedom

A guide to help faculty manage and respond to threats to their academic freedom, from understanding the source of the challenges to finding allies and resources that can assist




University of Oregon
19 Jan 2023
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The DIY guide to academic freedom

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Academic freedom is a foundational guarantee for knowledge production. It enables academics to conduct and disseminate their research as members of a community of scholarly peers unencumbered by ideological, faith-based or other forms of cultural bias. Faculty today face acute threats to their academic freedom. This brief guide offers ways to understand and respond to these threats.

Assaults on academic freedom have risen and intensified in recent years, including sanctions from legislators and donors in more than 40 US states, intimidation from political organisations, harassment on social media, micro and macro invalidation, and direct threats of physical violence. Pedagogy, curricula and research specialisations are subject to unprecedented public scrutiny and criticism.

The scope and scale of the challenges are daunting. Few institutions are equipped to confront them methodically and systematically, instead relying on ad hoc, improvised approaches to respond to a particular incident. Fortunately, there are long-term strategies and practices on which universities can draw to defend faculty and bolster their academic freedom. As your academic community develops its own strategy, the following steps might be helpful:

Know your landscape: Find out what is happening in your state and on your campus. How prevalent are local threats to academic freedom and where do they come from? Remember that not all faculty face these challenges equally. Differences based on tenure status, race, nationality, gender, sexuality, field or subject and other distinctions influence how faculty members experience the threat and how secure they feel in seeking help. In addition, there are potential institutional obstacles. Consider how your legal affairs and media relations teams, and even the board of trustees, engage the topic. Public perception, negative attention, potential litigation and economic impacts might produce misalignment between the institution’s disposition and academics’ concerns. Follow the money and learn about the financial backing of these attacks. A well-constructed climate survey might reveal new perspectives and fresh insights. Alternatively, you might establish a campus forum to discuss academic freedom or host a local conference and invite colleges, universities and schools from your area. Don’t forget that these issues often affect graduate students, undergraduate student researchers and non-academic staff.

Know your rights, allies and resources: Educate yourself and your colleagues on the multifaceted issue of academic freedom and understand your rights as faculty members. Follow the informed public debates led by the AAUP on Academe and the Journal of Academic Freedom and the growing body of publications associated with the new field of Critical University Studies. Examine your institution’s stated policies, principles and procedures to gauge its commitment to academic freedom. If those do not exist, university senates, local AAUP chapters and professional unions offer useful examples you can draw from. Many academic institutions scaffold their own guidance documents. For example, the University of Iowa and Penn State provide information for faculty and administrators on how to navigate social media. These reference materials can be adapted to your local circumstances. Identify the resources on your campus to protect and advance academic freedom. Human resources, diversity, equity and inclusion offices, and Title IX offices are valuable allies. National organisations such as PEN America, the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association and the American Association of Colleges and Universities can be partners in your work, too.

Know your plan: You always need to prepare and give yourself the time and space to devise a plan. In an acute crisis, there is little room to think or breathe, so sketching out what your steps could or should be is crucial. This might fall to individual faculty to create their own plans, but it can also be a collective activity for your communities, departments and institutions. The Faculty First Responders, a team that monitors faculty harassment and provides faculty under attack with support, has created a robust website with a prep kit for academics and resources for administrators. Build communities of support where there can be active, productive and meaningful discussions, work and sharing on academic freedom. These communities can be formal (such as a task force or advisory board) or informal (such as departmental coffee talks).

If you are a scholar with a public profile, rely on field experts to help you deal with social media attacks and online harassment. For those with classroom-oriented duties, discuss syllabi and learning objectives and how they are tied to standardised programme requirements, rubrics and standards of assessment and the communication of expectations and ideas. You can also find countless online resources for teaching “hot-button topics”, explaining your research to those unfamiliar with its nuances and creating inclusive teaching spaces that allow for academic freedom to be supported for all. For any of these, you can emulate what other institutions and organisations are already doing successfully on their campuses. For example, the University of Oregon has created a robust site for academic freedom that covers policy, additional education materials and a recent conference.

Pedro García-Caro is associate professor of Spanish and provost fellow for academic freedom; Katy Krieger is project manager in the office of the provost; Joe Lowndes is professor in political science and provost fellow for academic freedom; and Gabe Paquette is, until February 2023, professor of history and vice-provost for academic affairs, all at the University of Oregon.

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