Academic Freedom Entails Individual and Social Responsibility

April 2020

Whenever professors make bold truth claims in front of students, within published works, or in the media, they will often invoke their right to academic freedom, something considered a sacred first principle by free speech enthusiasts.

But academic freedom is not absolute. As author John Semley notes in The Walrus, professors cannot hide behind “some reductive notion of freedom as an unchecked intellectual id.” In other words, academics cannot ground truth in either gut feelings or personal preferences. According to Semley, a scholar’s claims are “subject to strict standards of inquiry.”

Academic freedom begins then with an individual responsibility to respect these standards, which are based on solid research. Although not exhaustive, examples include attitudinal surveys, poll data, cross-cultural studies, accepted authorities, and precedent-setting court cases.

When their assertions have the support of reliable sources, professors establish credibility as honest deliberators. Mark Mercer, professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, rightly points out that “the only good reasons for believing or valuing are the reasons of evidence, argument, and example.” Therefore, it is the “academic” portion of academic freedom that is a professor’s primary responsibility.

The second component of academic freedom involves social responsibility. Shannon Dea, an associate professor of philosophy and vice-president of the faculty association at the University of Waterloo, reminds us that those who are entitled to academic freedom also have “corresponding duties.” That is, professors must “pursue the truth and advance knowledge for the good of society.” Research has the potential to shape culture, as well as frame public policy and law, so the onus is on the professor to get it right, so to speak. Perfectionism, in the sense of pursuing and expanding truth, knowledge, and understanding to the fullest degree possible, is the burden professors must bear. Dea insists it’s “the price of academic freedom.”

What professors cannot do is disseminate discredited theories and then hide behind academic freedom as a shield to protect themselves from consequences. Holocaust denial would be the most extreme example, but there are others that are also prejudicial in nature. Linking intelligence to race would be irresponsible. Advocating for conversion therapy of homosexuals qualifies as gross incompetence. Blaming the world’s ills on one specific group—Muslims or Jews, blacks or whites, men or women—is an exercise in ideological, not critical, thinking.

Although pessimists may disagree, professors still enjoy an abundance of academic freedom. They can explore any avenue of research that interests them and discuss any contentious issue they want. But once research findings are made public, they must be based on sound methodology and subject to peer review. Verified as accurate and trustworthy, a professor’s insights can lead to a more enlightened citizenry. Academic freedom is important because it serves this noble end.

What does this imply for rogue professors who say or publish the “wrong” ideas? All that is required of the university is to provide a forum for an open, adversarial review of competing truth claims. Once criticism is levelled, the findings of so-called radical professors will not be dismissed because they are shocking; they will be rejected because evidentiary standards are poor or non-existent.

Academic freedom is a privilege because it assumes that professors have performed their due diligence in presenting relevant facts, analysis, and interpretations. A genuine contribution to knowledge will, in turn, improve the common good. But if professors pursue social or political agendas instead of academic interests, they risk being exposed as dishonest deliberators.

Professors undermine the nature of academic freedom whenever their truth claims cannot be supported by anything other than conjecture or crackpot theories. Worse still, using a university platform to promote discrimination, enmity, or ideology—and then citing academic freedom as a defense—is the stuff of charlatans, not professors.