When Academic Freedom Contracts

There are good and bad statements on academic freedom. You can’t help but notice that those written and ratified by university presidents have a decided tilt. They tend to subordinate the rights of faculty (to research, teach, and publish free of reprisals) to the needs of colleges and universities (read: administrators) to “set their research and educational priorities.” The Universities Canada Statement on Academic Freedom (2011) is a prime example of this vertical maneuver to dominate the academic high ground.

Defining Academic Freedom

Now consider the Tyndale University College statement on academic freedom, which, at first glance, marks a small improvement on the one produced by Universities Canada. The core notion of academic freedom (hereafter, AF) gets defined in this way:

FREE:  A faculty member has the “right to...the free and responsible investigation of issues and ideas and the expression of conclusions and beliefs, in discussion or publications, without interference” (Academic Calendar 2019-2020, p.15).

This definition has its virtues. First, unlike the Universities Canada view of AF, this one is explicitly dual-aspected. I have academic freedom only if I am (1) free to do certain things (e.g., inquire; discuss and publish my views), but also (2) free from institutional interference (e.g., sanction, discipline, or dismissal) in doing those things. 

These are two sides of the same coin. It’s pure nonsense to tell me I’m academically free to speak, teach, and publish as I please (nay, insist on it for my earning tenure), but then tell me that I might just as well be fired for my efforts if I happen to contradict my school’s “institutional needs” and “educational priorities” (whatever those ill-defined notions come to in the end). According to FREE, AF is something I have a right to. But it would be a benighted academic indeed who insisted on the right to publish and perish! So FREE gets it right: freedom to properly implies freedom from.

A second virtueThe definition has a wide scope. It pertains to any issue or idea, and any of my conclusions or beliefs—not just those approved by my academic employer. That is also good thing. It’s not a free inquiry, nor a following of the evidence where it leads, if I’m told up front by my school what I can and cannot study, what topics I can and cannot speak to, and where I must come down on an issue before I even start my investigations. 

Restricting Academic Freedom

It’s perplexing, then, to discover that some schools have intentionally limited the scope of AF. Can that really be a good thing? In attempting an answer here, it might be helpful to consider an example. Take a look at these proposed qualifications to FREE: 

INSIDE: “Faculty members are entitled to freedom in research and in the publication of the results within their fields of academic competence” [ link ]


OUTSIDE: “Faculty members are free as individuals and as citizens to speak and write about matters whether or not the matters are directly related to their field of academic competence” [ link ].

INSIDE tells us that faculty have AF within their “fields of academic competence.” There’s certainly no disputing that; after all, where else would they have it? The only reason to mention it at all would be if you were about to draw a boundary: inside of which there was AF, and outside of which there was not. If there was any doubt this was the intent of the qualifications, OUTSIDE settles it. Notice: it speaks only of the free speech every citizen enjoys—not a whisper about AF. Implication: AF ends at the border.[1]

Following Universities Canada, certain schools have capitalized on the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech (see here for example). The latter, we are told, is a “broader concept” going beyond AF, and therefore beyond the rightful protections against institutional meddling granted by INSIDE. Faculty who “cross the border” (so to speak) are hunting without a license. They can be penalized by their institution at any time for anything said in print or person. The statement makes that a distinct possibility.

Now if you hadn’t already noticed, the OUTSIDE restriction is seriously defective along several lines. It should be promptly discarded.

Why ‘OUTSIDE’ is Outlandish

First, OUTSIDE—at least in the case at hand—is asserted without any justification at all: no supporting points, principled reasons, or sound arguments are advanced in its favour. It’s introduced by mere assertion: an ex cathedra decree. I am reminded here of the words of W. K. Clifford, British mathematician and philosopher: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” (The Ethics of Belief). It’s wrong, he says. Strong words. But then if a sufficient justification for the OUTSIDE restriction isn’t forthcoming, by Clifford’s Principle we shouldn’t believe it. And we certainly shouldn’t implement or enforce it. That only adds one wrong on top of another.

Second, the OUTSIDE restriction is predicated on the undefined notion of a “field of academic competence.” Now what, precisely, is that supposed to be? And who gets to decide what my “field of academic competence” is anyway? Our original statement is perfectly silent on these matters. Is it whatever field my PhD is in? That can’t be right. Plato and Aristotle didn’t even have PhDs. (By the way, for my Christian readers: neither did C. S. Lewis, and neither does Richard Swinburne.) 

And even if you have a PhD—let’s say your thesis is on some narrow topic in marine biology—OUTSIDE strips you of the academic freedom to speak or write on (e.g.) evolutionary biology or black holes, since you have no doctoral level training in these areas. Honestly, if that isn’t institutional overreach, I don’t know what is.

What about holding an academic position in a specific area? Is that the measure of what constitutes my “field of academic competence”? I cannot see that it is. For neither Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, nor Hume ever held an academic post. Should they henceforth be demoted to the ranks of academic incompetents? Well, obviously not.

You can see where this is going. If I’m going to be disciplined for teaching and writing outside my field, it can’t be on the basis of some ill-defined or arbitrary standard of what counts as my “field of academic competence.”

In any event, wouldn’t it be a case of my school’s speaking outside its field, if it decreed that (as a philosophy professor) I’m not competent to speak on, say, provincial funding cuts to education, or (more broadly) the U.S. border controversy? It most certainly would. For my competence (or lack thereof) isn’t determined a priori by the subjective opinions of school administrators. It is determined by those actually competent to assess the merits of my work: conference organizers, journal editors, peer reviewers, and the like.

Third, the OUTSIDE restriction, if widely embraced, would silence the voices of of such public intellectuals as Noam Chomsky, C. S. Lewis, Victor Davis Hanson, and Jordan Peterson—assuming, that is, that they were anxious to avoid being sacked or sanctioned by their employers. Chomsky’s PhD and appointment are in Linguistics, yet he speaks with authority on U.S. foreign policy.[2] Hanson is a classicist who has written whole books on military history. Peterson is a clinical psychologist who frequently lectures outside his (quote/unquote) “field of academic competence”: on postmodernism, totalitarianism, and even the bible.

C. S. Lewis’ case is particularly interesting. His academic expertise was in Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature. So here’s a question for you: should Oxford and Cambridge have interfered with his writing such theological works as Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Screwtape Letters, and Reflections on the Psalms?[3] Maybe he should have been told to check with the members of the Faculty of Theology first: to secure their input and approval. Surely he could have taken some of them on board as co-authors. Wouldn’t that be the courteous thing to do?

Now if we’re going to say this is a matter of courtesy, then presumably Lewis’ not checking with his colleagues before going to print (or going on air with the BBC) was an act of discourtesy—even disrespect; in which case we must indict him for moral impropriety here. He really should have been chastised by Oxford’s Provost for his uncollegial behaviour. The entire notion is, of course, preposterous.

Fourth, it seems to me that OUTSIDE is tone deaf to the growing interdisciplinary nature of academic inquiry. Take my own area: Philosophy. It includes an enormous variety of sub disciplines. There is Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Mathematics, and more.

But look: life is short. I have a PhD in Philosophy; but I don’t have PhDs in Linguistics, Science, or Religion. And yet surely I am well within my rights (even my academic rights) to speak directly into these areas, if only because they sometimes fall into error due to basic misunderstandings of philosophical concepts and ideas (e.g., justification, truth, objectivity, existence, identity, and so on). Indeed, since any proper academic discipline involves arguments being given for its truth claims, and since Philosophy includes the study of logic and valid inference, there won’t be any area in which (in some measure) I’m not competent to speak.

And then, finally, there are Christian universities, such as the school at which I teach: Tyndale University College. It’s not uncommon for faculty to be told that they must integrate faith and learning: the deliverances of the Christian faith—its propositional content—with their specific area of study. Appropriate progress must be made in this project to achieve tenure. So we’re told.

But now think about that for a second. It at once places me under two competing obligations. I am obliged by my institution to integrate; but inevitably, if I am to fulfill that obligation, I will have to teach and write in areas where (as OUTSIDE would have it) I am afforded no academic freedom whatsoever. I am pressed into interpreting biblical passages, assessing individual theological claims, and perhaps even evaluating whole systems of theology (e.g., dispensationalism) to keep my position. In short, I am compelled to hunt without a hunting license, all the while knowing that at any moment I might be taken into custody. Well, it’s hardly fair, is it?

A philosopher I admire once told his class: “A little reason is a good reason, if there’s no reason on the other side.” Perhaps so; but if so, I cannot help but think the converse is also true: having no reason is a very bad reason, if there are multiple good reasons on the other side. And that, I submit, is where the proponents of the OUTSIDE restriction presently find themselves in the debate over academic freedom.

— Richard Brian Davis


[1] Objection: “You say that OUTSIDE affords no protection against academic interference. This is incorrect. The statement explicitly says that when a faculty member speaks outside her ‘field of academic competence,’ the institution ‘will not limit individual expression in any respect’.”

Reply: Right. It won’t interfere with your “individual expression” (i.e., freedom of speech). But at least in Canada, that wasn’t a legal possibility anyway, since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression” (see Constitution Act, 1982, Part 1, 2(b)). So all the statement is saying is that I have the legal freedom to express my thoughts and opinions outside my “field of academic competence.” It doesn’t follow—and the statement doesn’t say—that I have the academic freedom to do so. Hence, by no means am I free from institutional interference when I do. There is zero protection against that.

[2] In Chomsky’s case, he spoke out against U.S. foreign policy at a time when the academic programs at MIT “were almost entirely funded by the Pentagon.” See Chomsky, “Academic Freedom and the Corporatization of Universities,” Lecture at the University of Toronto, Scarborough College (April 6, 2011). [link]

[3] Lewis never lost his position for having spoken outside his field. However, it may have cost him a professorship at Oxford. According to Dame Helen Gardner, “a good many people thought that shoemakers should stick to their lasts and disliked the thought of a professor of English Literature winning fame as an amateur theologian” (“Clive Staples Lewis 1898–1963,” Proceedings of the British Academy 51 (1965): 425).