About a century ago, there was a tussle in higher education policy about the freedom of professors to express opinions. Academic tenure was not yet well-established, and so the prospect of professors being fired because they openly disagreed with someone in academic or political power was quite real. In 1915, the \”General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure\” was presented at the annual meetings of the American Association of University Professors. It was published in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors
(December 1915, pp. 15-43), and is readily available through the magic of HathiTrust
In my reading, the report sought to strike a balance. It affirmed in strong terms that professors had a right to speak out, conclude what they wanted from their research, write what they wanted, join political movements,and so on. However, it also stated that professors should either forebear or be cautious, in several specific contexts, from expressing political opinions. In particular, the report argued against professors bringing their political beliefs into the classroom or into the institutional purpose of the university. To put it another way, part of the tradeoff for the freedom and security of academic tenure in the personal sphere was an assumption of responsibility that the university itself not take overtly or excessively partisan positions, whether officially or in its classrooms. It also argued that this standard should be enforced by other faculty members.
(Of course, as with so many good things in life, this report had some origins in economics. The report began in 1913 as a joint effort by the American Economic Association , the American Political Science Association , and the American Sociological Society. Then in 1914, it was expanded to become a more general effort by the American Association of University Professors. The 15-member committee was chaired by economist Edwin R. A. Seligman of Columbia, and included two other economists, Richard T. Ely from U-Wisconsin and Frank A. Fetter from Princeton.)
Here\’s a comment on how the report saw problems of academic freedom as they relate to the social sciences: in some private universities, professors were losing their jobs because they were insufficiently opposed to socialism; in some public universities, professors were losing their jobs because they were insufficiently supportive of socialism. The Committee wrote:
The special dangers to freedom of teaching in the domain of the social sciences are evidently two. The one which is the more likely to affect the privately endowed colleges and universities is the danger of restrictions upon the expression of opinions which point towards extensive social innovations, or call in question the moral legitimacy or social expediency of economic conditions or commercial practices in which large vested interests are involved. … On the other hand, in our state universities the danger may be the reverse. Where the university is dependent for funds upon legislative favor, it has sometimes happened that the conduct of the institution has been affected by political considerations; and where there is a definite governmental policy or a strong public feeling on economic, social, or political questions, the menace to academic freedom may consist in the repression of opinions that in the particular political situation are deemed ultra-conservative rather than ultra-radical. The essential point, however, is not so much that the opinion is of one or another shade, as that it differs from the views entertained by the authorities. The question resolves itself into one of departure from accepted standards; whether the departure is in the one direction or the other is immaterial.
This brings us to the most serious difficulty of this problem; namely, the dangers connected with the existence in a democracy of an overwhelming and concentrated public opinion. The tendency of modern democracy is for men to think alike, to feel alike, and to speak alike. Any departure from the conventional standards is apt to be regarded with suspicion. Public opinion is at once the chief safeguard of a democracy, and the chief menace to the real liberty of the individual. …
An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university. It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world. Not less is it a distinctive duty of the university to be the conservator of all genuine elements of value in the past thought and life of mankind which are not in the fashion of the moment. Though it need not be the “home of beaten causes,\” the university is, indeed, likely always to exercise a certain form of conservative influence. For by its nature it is committed to the principle that knowledge should precede action, to the caution (by no means synonymous with intellectual timidity) which is an essential part of the scientific method, to a sense of the complexity of social problems, to the practice of taking long views into the future, and to a reasonable regard for the teachings of experience. One of its most characteristic functions in a democratic society is to help make public opinion more self-critical and more circumspect, to check the more hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling, to train the democracy to the habit of looking before and after.
The Committee also argues that academic freedom brings with it certain responsibilities: in particular, a responsibility in setting forth conclusions to use \”a scholar\’s method and held in a scholar\’s spirit,\” to engage in \”competent and patient and sincere inquiry,\” and to communicate with \”dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.\”
Since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in inquiry; it, is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim. The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar\’s method and held in a scholar\’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.
These responsibilities apply with particular force in the classroom, because the job of a professor is \”not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves.\”
The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently. …
There is one case in which the academic teacher is under an obligation to observe certain special restraints–namely, the instruction of immature students. In many of our American colleges, and especially in the first two years of the course, the student\’s character is not yet fully formed, his mind is still relatively immature. In these circumstances it may reasonably be expected that the instructor will present scientific truth with discretion, that he will introduce the student to new conceptions gradually, with some consideration for the student\’s preconceptions and traditions, and with due regard to character-building. The teacher ought also to be especially on his guard against taking unfair advantage of the student\’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher\’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own. It is not the least service which a college or university may render to those under its instruction, to habituate them to looking not only patiently but methodically on both sides, before adopting any conclusion upon controverted issues. By these suggestions, however, it need scarcely be said that the committee does not intend to imply that it is not the duty of an academic instructor to give to any students old enough to be in college a genuine intellectual awakening and to arouse in them a keen desire to reach personally verified conclusions upon all questions of general concernment to mankind, or of special significance for their own time. …
These constraints, the Committee notes, are not intended to prevent professors from taking an active role in public life, joining political movements, or even running for political office. But even in such cases: \”It is manifestly desirable that such teachers have minds untrammeled by party loyalties, unexcited by party enthusiasms, and unbiased by personal political ambitions; and that universities should remain uninvolved in party antagonisms.\”
In their extra-mural utterances, it is obvious that academic teachers are under a peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression. But, subject to these restraints, it is not, in this committee\’s opinion, desirable that scholars should be debarred from giving expression to their judgments upon controversial questions, or that their freedom of speech, outside the university, should be limited to questions falling within their own specialities. It is clearly not proper that they should be prohibited from lending their active support to organized movements which they believe to be in the public interest. And, speaking broadly, it may be said in the words of a non-academic body already once quoted in a publication of this Association, that it is neither possible nor desirable to deprive a college professor of the political rights vouchsafed to every citizen.”
It is, however, a question deserving of consideration by members of this Association, and by university officials, how far academic teachers, at least those dealing with political, economic and social subjects, should be prominent in the management of our great party organizations, or should be candidates for state or national offices of a distinctly political character. It is manifestly desirable that such teachers have minds untrammeled by party loyalties, unexcited by party enthusiasms, and unbiased by personal political ambitions; and that universities should remain uninvolved in party antagonisms. On the other hand, it is equally manifest that the material available for the service of the State would be restricted in a highly undesirable way, if it were understood that no member of the academic profession should ever be called upon to assume the responsibilities of public office. This question may, in the committee\’s opinion, suitably be made a topic for special discussion at some future meeting of this Association, in order that a practical policy, which shall do justice to the two partially conflicting considerations that bear upon the matter, may be agreed upon. It is, it will be seen, in no sense the contention of this committee that, academic freedom implies that individual teachers should be exempt from all restraints as to the matter or manner of their utterances, either within or without the university.
What happens when professors cross these lines in their professional or public communications, or in their teaching? The Committee suggests that professors should be self-policing. However, the Committee also warns: \”If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others …\”
Such restraints as are necessary should in the main, your committee holds, be self-imposed, or enforced by the public opinion of the profession. But there may, undoubtedly, arise occasional cases in which the aberrations of individuals may require to be checked by definite disciplinary action. What this report chiefly maintains is that such action can not with safety be taken by bodies not composed of members of the academic profession.
[I]t is, in any case, unsuitable to the dignity of a great profession that the initial responsibility for the maintenance of its professional standards should not be in the hands of its own members. It follows that university teachers must be prepared to assume this responsibility for themselves. They have hitherto seldom had the opportunity, or perhaps the disposition, to do so. The obligation will doubtless, there- fore, seem to many an unwelcome and burdensome one; and for its proper discharge members of the profession will perhaps need to acquire, in a greater measure than they at present possess it, the capacity for impersonal judgment in such cases, and for judicial severity when the occasion requires it. But the responsibility cannot, in this committee\’s opinion, be rightfully evaded. If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others—by others who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities.
The 1915 report is in part useful as a reminder that the mix of professors and partisanship has been a live issue for a long time. Re-reading the report is also useful as a sincerity check on what people really believe about the principles behind higher education. Then and now, universities consistently state that when it comes to teaching, they exist to teach students how to think, not what to think. But then and now, a meaningful proportion of professors and administrators clearly also believe that when students learn how to think, the students will pretty much all agree with a certain right answer.
As someone with degrees from two institutions of higher education, who has worked at several colleges and universities, who has two college-age children at different universities, and who reads more than the average person about what\’s happening in higher education, I see a lot of messages and emails from colleges and universities about various issues. The general tone of these messages–whether related to racial discrimination, environmental protection, the need for additional government financial aid, divestiture of certain companies from the college endowment, or other topics–often has a strong point of view. Such messages almost never suggest that recipients of such messages should \”become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue,\” as the 1915 Committee put it, and such messages almost never \”provide … access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.\” Of course, it\’s very human to believe that all beliefs should be rigorously questioned, except for one\’s own. But it\’s a habit to which colleges and universities should be wary of succumbing.