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The rise (and fall?) of academic freedom

To maintain academic freedom in higher education, we need to preserve our core value

By William G. Tierney

If global rankings for colleges and universities existed at the time of USC’s founding in 1880, only one or two American postsecondary institutions would have even made it on the list. By 1918, when USC started a school of education, a handful might have cracked the top 20. But today, a century later, the situation is dramatically different. American institutions dominate the rankings. Six of the top 10 institutions, 15 of the top 20, and well over half of the top 100 globally ranked institutions are located in the United States.

Countries and institutions now frequently look to the United States to figure out our special sauce. What enabled American higher education to become the envy of the world?

While one could make a strong case for privatization as the critical ingredient (think of all of those superb private colleges and universities), I do not think it was mere coincidence that American higher education’s core value— academic freedom—also emerged during this time. For example, virtually every major college or university that came to prominence over the past century—Stanford, Chicago, Swarthmore, to name a few—has enshrined academic freedom in its faculty handbook. And this came about after faculty were fired because of speaking out at some of these same institutions in the early 20th century.

To protect academic freedom, universities invented a structure—tenure—to ensure that, in their search for truth, America’s faculty would not face the threat of job termination or expulsion. For a century, most of our institutions, and repeatedly the courts, have stated that academic freedom is essential not simply for the well-being of the institution, but also for the health of our country.

But the success of this model doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of a protected class of academic citizens. Their freedom is a function of a shared governance model that also requires the buy-in of a board of trustees and administration. In many respects, trustees are ambassadors to the larger community—legislators, government agencies, foundations and the citizenry. The administration, led by the institution’s president, carries out the strategic plans of the college or university. When working effectively, these three bodies should mirror the checks and balances of our three branches of government.

And, also like our government, much is at stake when the checks and balances begin to erode.

Just as democracy itself is messy, a tripartite model of decision-making can be cumbersome. As a result, many today deride the shared governance model, with faculty often getting blamed for keeping institutions from acting nimbly. A popular quip states: It is easier to move a graveyard than to change the curriculum. Combine that sentiment with the massive rise in non-tenure-track faculty and many fewer tenured professors—and we see the idea of shared governance eroding at many institutions.

American higher education is at a crossroads. For our colleges and universities to maintain their preeminence, academic freedom has to stay at our core. Either we protect academic freedom and recognize that tenure is the way to do it, or we come up with some other policy that protects the ideal. The other road is to say academic freedom doesn’t matter anymore.

William G. Tierney is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at USC Rossier, and the Co-Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Among his areas of expertise are higher education policy analysis, governance and administration.