MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan and Provost Vicki Golich hosted a forum on academic freedom on March 6.
The forum featured two speakers, Joe Goldhammer and Matthew Finkin, two of the country’s most respected academic freedom lawyers. Academic freedom is often misunderstood and misrepresented, which makes it an easy target. In today’s political climate, academic freedom is often attacked by lawmakers who seek to pass legislation regulating what opinions professors can and cannot research, teach and communicate.
Academic freedom is the principle that the faculty of an academic institution hold the right to do their job – to research and teach as they see fit, as long as they adhere to an agreed upon professional standard of care. Academic freedom is not synonymous with freedom of speech. During the forum, Finkin said that the two concepts have similarities and differences.
“The two overlap at times, but they conflict at times. They have different origins and different purposes,” Finkin said.
Academic freedom calls for the responsibility of faculty members to hold up the truth and to exercise their freedom with certain restraints. The freedoms provided to faculty are smaller but more protected than those outlined under freedom of speech.
“Academic freedom is narrower than the First Amendment, but it’s more protected than the First Amendment,” Finkin said.
Although lawmakers have attempted to regulate what and how subjects are taught for many years, bills seeking to restrict the teaching of evolution or end tenure for university professors have
become increasingly popular in the last two decades. Much of the animosity toward education, specifically universities, results from lack of understanding of the value of higher education.
“The value of a space where ideas can breed is immeasurable,” Goldhammer said, “I think it’s important for people to think for themselves and to be encouraged to disagree in a civil fashion. Our society is what it is because of the educated populace that we have.”
The lack of understanding of the sanctity of higher education has led to states like Iowa and Missouri to propose bills, which would eliminate tenure for faculty of public institutions. Arizona has proposed a bill that would prevent curriculum that promotes division, resentment or social justice against one group of people.
Institutions in which professors are intimidated by the administration from saying things that are out of the mainstream creates an environment that is incapable of education. States in which faculty of public institutions are in fear of losing tenure are facing the same difficulties. Sheila Rucki, associate professor of political science at MSU Denver, said that tenure isn’t about a professor having a job the rest of their life.
“The reality of tenure is it allows us to express unpopular opinions without us losing our jobs. That allows us to do the research and teaching we need to move society forward,” she said.
Universities have traditionally been places that foster ingenuity for students and professors alike. Professors agree that the role of a university is to expand the scope of knowledge, and silencing the voices of professors is not the role of administrations or lawmakers.
“Universities should be among the freest spaces in society,” Goldhammer said.