There are many ways to individually interpret the meaning of academic freedom, said Philo Hutcheson, a professor at Georgia State University.
In Hutcheson’s lecture regarding academic freedom at USF St. Petersburg’s Davis Hall on Friday, he said most faculty members and those that govern education in the United States, misconstrue the concept of academic freedom.
Hutcheson, who is the author of A Professional Professorate: Unionization, Bureaucratization and the American Association of University Professors, said lawmakers often disregard the ability for scholars to inquire about issues they deem important.
Instead, he said, academic freedom in U.S. universities is limited by barriers such as what is appropriate for reaffirming the political, civic and economic order of society.
“Conceptions of academic freedom began with a set of philosophical limitations institutional and professional,” Hutcheson said. “If we cease to inquire, we cease to be humans, but rather become input and output mechanisms — putting food in our mouths, reproducing and dying.”
USF has come under fire from the AAUP, which, at its June 14 national meeting, could vote to censure the university for violating the academic freedom of alleged terrorist and federally imprisoned Sami Al-Arian.
Hutcheson said the AAUP produced a policy statement in 1940 that stated teachers should not allow discussions of controversial matters unrelated to their teaching material into the classroom and they should exercise restraint in public utterances.
Hutcheson said this statement defaces the true meaning of academic freedom because no one is free to discuss issues or share information freely if there are regulations to obey.
Hutcheson added that he blames the current boundaries on historical events such as the McCarthyism Era. Under the leadership of Sen. Joe McCarthy, communist information was subdued and professors were fired, including the work of a several German scholars who appeared to support academic freedom.
“German professors were nationalistic adopting ‘patterns of reconciliation which allowed the state to appear the guardian of civil liberties rather than their potential enemies,'” Hutcheson said.
Though Hutcheson said he blames history for the modern view of academic freedom, he said teachers have a responsibility to correct it.
Hutcheson said when there is a foreign or domestic threat to the nation, there is a right and a wrong in politics and instructors often become fearful because they have the ability to create an uprising with information. Such was the case with Al-Arian, he said.
“Recently, we have witnessed the sanction against professors and researchers suspected of supporting the war on terrorism, the restrictions on the exercises of free political speech in schools and even sanctions against freedom of speech at high school graduation ceremonies,” Hutcheson said. “As far as the public and some scholars are often concerned, professors have the responsibility to students and to the community at large that allows for no excesses of personal inquiries.”
Hutcheson said the statement on academic freedom should be rewritten in local and global terms to incorporate freedom of inquiry and the spread of vital and general knowledge freely. He said if scholars look at the old statements of academic freedom, he believes they will see how distorted the current conception is when it refers to freedom with limitations.
In addition to reviewing the old statement and concept of academic freedom, Hutcheson said professors should become more involved with the selection of their university’s presidents. He said presidents’ backgrounds are revealing obvious shifts. Critics have said university presidents have more political experience than academic. One recent example is former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who stepped down from Tallahassee to become the president of Florida Atlantic University.
Hutcheson also said professors should be skeptical about the level of government involvement in the schools to prevent “the government universities” from occurring.
“As scholars, teachers must examine traditional and new ideas using any number of methods and draw conclusions.” Hutcheson said. “They must share information and knowledge with students raising questions and at times, offer answers about issues, and in service, teachers must bring their expertise to a problem using inquiry to aid in the solution. These fundamental activities will give rise to a complex and challenging notion — academic freedom.”