Academic freedom is a term that refers
primarily to certain rights claimed by professors at universities and colleges. The term
also refers to various rights claimed by students at those institutions and by the
institutions themselves. During the 1960's, the term academic freedom came into use to
describe rights claimed by elementary-school and high-school teachers as well.
For professors, academic freedom means the right to teach, to conduct research, and to
write without fear of dismissal. For their students, it means the right to challenge the
professors' views without being penalized. For the institutions, it means the right to
determine what is taught and what research is conducted on the campus. For teachers, such
freedom means a larger share in selecting the contents of courses, and greater freedom to
engage in political and social activities.
Academic freedom grew out of freedom of thought and expression, a basic right of any free
society. Without such freedom, scholars cannot perform their vital role of seeking and
spreading new knowledge. Scholars insist on having the freedom to present the truth as
they find it, even if it conflicts with popular belief. They say that creative research is
impossible if its findings must be withheld or distorted to agree with established views.
This spirit of free inquiry and teaching helps give universities and colleges their unique
The chief importance of academic freedom is that society benefits from the knowledge
discovered by scholars. Yet, the history of academic freedom is largely the history of the
many attacks on it.
Beginnings. The idea of academic freedom developed with the rise of universities in Europe
during the 1100's and 1200's. The scholars at those institutions wanted freedom to pursue
their studies. The universities governed themselves, and many became famous and powerful.
But even the most powerful universities were subject to church control. The church
persecuted many scholars whose ideas and teaching contradicted religious beliefs. One such
scholar was the Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo. In the 1600's, the church
persecuted Galileo for supporting various theories, including the one that the earth moves
around the sun.
By the 1800's, the concept of academic freedom had been established in Germany, along with
the idea of the university as a research institution. Professors could teach whatever they
desired and could undertake any research. Students could study whatever they wanted,
subject only to their taking a final examination. Such ideas influenced the growth of
In the United States, academic freedom has faced a variety of threats. In colonial times,
religious intolerance presented the biggest danger to academic freedom. Universities
dismissed many teachers whose religious beliefs conflicted with the established views.
During the 1800's, economic and political power became the major source of threats to
academic freedom in the United States. Many private universities had wealthy benefactors
as trustees, and most state universities had politically appointed trustees. Some trustees
felt that the teaching in their universities should agree with their own economic and
political views. As a result, a number of professors lost their jobs for teaching certain
economic or political concepts. However, most university trustees respected academic
The 1900's. After World War II ended in 1945, academic freedom in the United States came
under attack by many people who feared possible Communist infiltration of universities. An
investigation by the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives
found Communists on the faculty of a few universities. As a result, many people feared
that most universities were full of Communists. A number of professors were unjustly
accused of supporting Communism and lost their jobs.
In the 1960's, academic freedom faced new challenges--from the campus itself. Many
students opposed the U.S. role in the Vietnam War (1957-1975)--and all forms of war as
well. They resented having military research conducted on campus. They thought that funds
spent for military purposes should go instead to help minority groups gain equality and to
eliminate poverty and pollution. Many students also questioned the relationship of some of
their courses to current problems. A number of faculty members joined the student
Student unrest brought different types of academic freedom into conflict with one another.
Student demands challenged the right of professors to teach and to conduct research.
Similarly, student and faculty demands challenged the universities' right to decide what
should be taught and what research should be conducted. This clash raised serious issues.
For example, what responsibilities accompany the rights of academic freedom? To what
extent does a person's academic freedom entitle him or her to interfere with that of
others? The future of universities and colleges in the United States depends largely on
solutions to these issues.
Contributor: A. Harry Passow, Ed.D., Former Jacob H. Schiff Prof. Emeritus of Education,
Teachers College, Columbia Univ.