It’s the Fourth of July, a good day to talk about freedom.

And since we are College Parents of America, this is a good place to write about a certain aspect of freedom under great debate on college and university campuses.

I am referring to academic freedom.

Just last week, a cross-section of some of the major organizations representing higher education released a consensus document addressing the questions related to academic freedom. Groups ranging from the American Council on Education to the College Board to the NCAA felt the need to issue this “Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities,” because they believed that all stakeholders in higher education should indeed take a stand when it comes to intellectual pluralism.

I would like to share with you some highlights of this statement. I do so because I also believe that the meaning of academic freedom should be something that you – as a current or future college parent – are well prepared to discuss with your son or daughter.

Of course, academic freedom and intellectual pluralism are complex topics, difficult to deal with in a single column and even more difficult to address in a way that applies to all current or future college parents. Since America’s colleges and universities are so different, with varying fields of study, dispersed geographical locations and widespread sources of origin, it is extremely important that each school develop its own way of giving meaning and definition to these concepts, all within a context guided foremost by the school’s mission and disciplinary standards.

Having said the above, I do agree with the mainstream higher ed community that there are some “central, overarching principles that are widely shared within the academic community, and which deserve to be stated affirmatively” as a starting point for discussion of academic freedom either on campus or at your kitchen table.

In summary, these principles are:

  • American higher education is diverse in mission and purpose and that unique aspect of our culture should be valued and protected;
  • Colleges and universities should welcome and encourage debate over complex issues and such debate should be held within an environment characterized by openness, tolerance and civility;
  • Academic decisions, including grades, should be based solely on intellectually relevant information and no one should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of his or her political opinions. Any member of an academic community – student or teacher – should have access to a clear process through which his or her grievance may be addressed;
  • The validity of any ideas, theories or arguments should be measured against the intellectual standards of relevant academic and professional disciplines and the responsibility for making those judgments rests with colleges and universities, according to standards set by the scholars at those institutions; and
  • Government’s recognition of and respect for the independence of colleges and universities is essential for academic and intellectual excellence AND because institutions of higher education have great discretion and autonomy over academic affairs, those in school leadership positions have a particular obligation to ensure that academic freedom is protected.

 I hope that sharing the highlights of this “Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities” with you will get your mind working, as it did mine when I came upon it at a recent meeting in Washington, DC.

I find myself agreeing with the thrust of the document, while also having a bit of a quibble with it here and there. I do sense a defensiveness on the part of the school community, and believe that the statement may be a certain type of damage control, or attempt at inoculation, given some of the high-profile cases in the past year where controversial academic freedom issues have captured the attention of media and political leaders. Yet overall I come down on the side of the who cares why the issue is being addressed crowd, agreeing with them that it is much more important when these touchy subjects are dealt with before they become public controversies.

A heavy column perhaps, especially for those of you who might have been hoping for some holiday frivolity. Enjoy the rest of your Fourth of July and have a great week.

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