Academic freedom, the principle that scholars and educators can pursue knowledge and express their views without fear of censorship or retaliation, is a cornerstone of modern higher education. But how did this idea emerge and why is it important today? These questions were addressed by Stanford education scholar Emily J. Levine in a recent lecture hosted by the Stanford Historical Society.
Levine traced the origins of academic freedom to a scandal that erupted at Stanford University in 1900, when Jane Stanford, the co-founder of the university, forced out Edward A. Ross, a professor of economics who had criticized the railroad industry and advocated for populist policies. Ross’s dismissal sparked a nationwide debate and led to the formation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a national organization that has played a key role in defining and defending academic freedom in American higher education.
Levine argued that academic freedom is not a universal human right, but a specific institutional arrangement that grants autonomy to academics from external interference, while subjecting them to internal norms and peer review. She said that academic freedom is essential for universities to fulfill their social function of producing and disseminating ideas that can challenge dominant or popular views and contribute to the public good.
The challenges and threats to academic freedom in the 21st century
Levine also discussed the current state of academic freedom in the US and India, two of the largest and most diverse democracies in the world. She said that both countries have witnessed a decline in academic freedom in recent years, as universities and scholars face pressure and attacks from various sources, including governments, donors, alumni, media, and activists.
She cited examples of how academic freedom has been undermined or violated in both countries, such as the censorship and harassment of scholars who criticize the Israeli state or the Indian government, the imposition of government regulations or ideological agendas on universities, the withdrawal of funding or support for certain disciplines or programs, and the erosion of campus integrity and security.
Levine said that the decline in academic freedom affects over 50% of the world’s population, approximately 4 billion people. She said that the loss of academic freedom has negative consequences for the quality and diversity of knowledge production, the advancement of democracy and human rights, and the ability of societies to address complex and urgent challenges.
The ways to protect and revitalize academic freedom for the future
Levine concluded her lecture by offering some suggestions on how to protect and revitalize academic freedom in the US and India, as well as globally. She said that academic freedom needs to be understood and valued not as a privilege or a perk for academics, but as a public good and a social responsibility for everyone.
She said that academic freedom requires a strong legal framework and institutional support, as well as a vibrant and diverse academic community that can uphold its norms and standards. She also said that academic freedom needs to be reimagined and adapted to the changing contexts and demands of the 21st century, such as the rise of digital technologies, the globalization of knowledge, and the emergence of new social movements and issues.
She called for more dialogue and collaboration among academics, policymakers, funders, and civil society actors to create a shared vision and a common agenda for academic freedom. She said that academic freedom is not only a historical legacy, but also a living and evolving idea that can inspire and empower us to create a better world.