Academic Freedom and Higher Education: A Brief Exploration

by Mark-Elliot Finley, Exodus Contributor


Education is based upon selfless service, serving the next generation through the diffusion of knowledge to better a future age. Individuals taking the educational mantle must recognize their role is one of service to others for society’s betterment. Certain freedoms are afforded to educators to ensure the continued growth of knowledge and truth. It is from this philosophy that academic freedom is birthed.

As with many elements surrounding educational spheres, academic freedom comes with its fair share of controversy. My goal is to share key takeaways and knowledge about academic freedom from a non-partisan standpoint. Should one wish to explore the political implications and arguments surrounding this crucial element embedded within our educational institutions, I can only hope this article can give the reader a preliminary understanding of the complex intricacies surrounding academic freedom. This article will explore exactly what academic freedom means according to the original principles and statements, along with its origins. From there, I track some limitations and legalities surrounding academic freedom and critical receptions to the academic liberties afforded to educators. My hope is that readers will walk away with a solid foundation of truth regarding academic freedom, should they wish to explore this paramount subject further into the political and societal realms.

Academic freedom provokes a broad range of emotional and political responses. However, it would behoove us to appreciate what is explicitly meant by the term academic freedom. In essence, academic freedom enables the scholar (teacher, researcher, etc.) to seek knowledge towards truth in a manner consistent with the professional standards of the field. Academic freedom, as described above, is mostly confined to the publicly funded university setting. K-12 public school teachers are subject to much narrower liberties when instructing students (Downs 4, Gordon 1).

While a teacher’s First Amendment is protected, Vivian Hopp Gordon notes free speech is limited to the subject matter and presentation of such content: “his or her [teacher’s] professional obligation to provide appropriate, relevant subject content [should] be consistent with the teaching assignment and the students’ maturity” (1). For the purposes of this article, I focus on academic freedom as it relates to the collegiate environment. However, Gordon’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration should be consulted for additional information on the relationship between academic freedom and K-12 public schools.

When considered in the university context, academic freedom guarantees the professor liberty in determining course content without interference from external factors (social or political controversies) or internal pressures from within the department itself. Not surprisingly, academic freedom is identified as a centerpiece of higher education; academics even cite academic freedom as being “one of the things most important for their identity and self-esteem” (Davies 987). Students are also afforded the freedom to learn, as outlined in the American Association of American Professors’(AAUP) statement on student freedom in 1967 (Downs 3). Students have the “right to choose their courses and organize their studies,” empowering them in their educational journey while cultivating a desire for truth and wisdom (Hansson 340). In theory, both the student and teacher strive towards the same end–knowledge leading to truth. The academic freedom tradition, while seemingly a relatively recent development in higher education, has origins in the medieval ages. More contemporary, modern understandings of academic freedom can be traced to statements made by the AAUP in the early twentieth century.

The Roman emperor Frederick I issued the Authentica Habita around 1155, one of the first documents reflecting academic freedom in the medieval ages. This document acted as a safeguard for scholars against arbitrary arrest at a time when there were relatively few universities in existence. During the thirteenth century, more documents were produced in Europe, further protecting academics from political intervention (Hansson 339). Over time, the protection of the professoriate became commonplace. However, it was nineteenth century German academic philosophy which shaped our modern conception of academic freedom (Hansson 340). German academies were the first in the modern world to express academic freedom as a necessary tenant of the university system. Academic liberties were “enshrined in a political constitution [and] eulogized in official speech and ceremony” (Metzger 94). Germany’s idea of academic liberty eventually translated into the American university system.

In 1915, the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure came together under the presidentship of John Dewey to craft the “AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles.” The Committee explicitly cites intellectual indebtedness to the Germanic academic movement: “The term ‘academic freedom’ has traditionally had two applications–to the freedom of the teacher and to that of the student, Lehrfreiheit [to teach] and Lernfreiheit [to learn]” (155). The statement outlines academic freedom as consisting of three elements: “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extra-mural utterance and action.” The declaration is divided into three sections: 1) the basis of the academic calling, 2) the nature of the academic calling, and 3) the function of the academic institution.

While it is not my intention to give a thorough analysis of the AAUP’s Declaration in this article, I would like to point out a reoccurring motif evident in its text; the Committee cites professors’ “quest for truth” (158). While the AAUP notes “we are still far from a comprehensive of the final truths, and from a universal agreement among all sincere and earnest men [and women],” the document outlines the mission of the professoriate, that being the search for truth through the discovery of new knowledge (159). The AAUP attempted to separate the individual professors from political entanglements which may have interfered in the professor’s quest for truth. At the time, there were fears certain discoveries could bring controversies into the limelight for the university and society at large. Naturally, the Second Amendment and its relation to academic freedom starts to be questioned. The Supreme Court has endorsed academic freedom as it relates to the First Amendment; however, the courts have never given input as to the practical application of its endorsement (Downs 2). So, what is the practical implementation and legalities of academic freedom within the academy?

As noted previously, there are more limitations on academic freedom within the K-12th setting than exist in the collegiate classroom. For example, public K-12 educators cannot use their classroom to promote political or personal views, insist students adopt a certain viewpoint, or provide opinions on controversial matters (Gordon). While this is not an exhaustive list of limitations, clearly there are tighter parameters for teachers operating within a publicly funded school system.

Within the collegiate environment, while much public opinion might believe professors (especially those tenured) can say and do whatever they wish, this is simply not the case. Hansson goes so far as claiming the professoriate has more restrictions than the public when it comes to freedom of speech: “It seems difficult to avoid the perhaps somewhat surprising conclusion that what an academic researcher can blamelessly say or write in her own area of expertise is typically more restricted than for member of the general public” (342). By making this assertion, Hansson alludes to the academic peer review process, along with the academic ethics which accompany the professor’s role. The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration, while encouraging professors to not “hide his [or her] own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage,” acknowledges “that academic teachers are under a peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression” (161, 163). Indeed, the Declaration closes by stating it is “not the absolute freedom of utterance of the individual scholar, but the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion, and of teaching, of the academic profession, that is asserted by this declaration of principles” (164). Thus, the academy is held to a higher standard of utterance than the non-academic. Paradoxically, set within the conception of academic freedom is the pillar of restriction and academic morality. Robert Raynolds, writing on academic freedom in 1957, concedes “[t]he stark freedom to teach is appalling… I groaned in my heart for some easy way out, for an escape from this almost absolute freedom to teach” (76). Raynolds suggests total freedom is not true freedom as we are shocked into a state of paralysis, whereby we cannot function due to the number of choices presented to us. Thus, ensuring the professoriate does not lose sight of their purpose (that being the pursuit of truth), academic freedom necessarily has restrictions built into its fabric.

Along with academic and speech limitations, there also arises issues of legality. Mark Davies, writing from a lawyer’s perspective, explores some of these legalistic issues in relation to academic freedom. Davies’ article examines the recent decrease in legal protections for professors in the United Kingdom, demonstrating a lack in intellectual property policies for the English professoriate. In other words, Davies discovered many institutions of higher education are keeping lesson plans, research, or other intellectual outputs produced by professors for the institutions’ own gain, and not affording the proper intellectual rights to the academics. Davies found that of the 81 UK universities studied (representing about 70% of England’s universities), 80% granted no ownership in teaching material scholars made while employed and 55% granted academics “no license to utilize materials after changing employer” (992, 996).

Davies argues academic freedom will be stifled if legal practices such as these continue, as they will limit, remove, or control aspects of researchers’ studies and output. If output is stifled, so too (theoretically speaking) is truth. By and large, the professoriate fight for academic freedom and condones it when such liberty is suppressed. But what are other critical receptions to academic freedom? Can academic freedom be afforded to others outside of academia and if so, how, and why?

There are those who believe academic freedom is a gatekeeping method, keeping non-academic folks on the outside, engaging with the public only when superior intellect is deemed necessary for the populous’ wellbeing. Sven Hansson refutes this stance, writing “[s]uch a claim of exclusiveness cannot plausibly be made, for the simple reason that there are also truth-seekers outside academia…Therefore, freedom of inquiry and expression has to be a universal right, rather than a privilege for scholars” (341). While not diminishing the role professors play in society, Hansson argues the professoriate is not the singular source and point for truth. Indeed, according to Hansson, non-Ph.Ds. outside the ivory tower contribute to the body of knowledge towards truth and their contributions should not be shunned due to lack of credentials.

There is also the corporate critique in defense of academic freedom made by those such as Davies, who claim the entrepreneurial force of the institutions deafens academic liberties, posing a risk to the pursuit of truth in favor of increased profits. The University of Bath’s academic freedom policy thusly states, “academic freedom [is established], not for the comfort of academic staff, but for the health of the university. When academic freedom has been suppressed the spirit of the university has suffered” (qtd. in Davies 994).
There are mixed receptions to academic freedom, with compelling arguments on both sides of the aisle. Again, my intention is not to promote a specific viewpoint on the topic of academic freedom, but rather to introduce the reader to the plethora of thoughts and elements associated with academic liberty.

This article, while exploring the concepts, origins, limitations, legalities, and receptions to academic freedom, has only briefly touched on the university’s most coveted and yet controversial pillar. It is my hope the reader has gained some insight into the complexities associated with academic freedom and has come to understand the concept as it was originally meant to be expressed. It is now for the reader to explore his or her personal views. Does academic freedom restrict or limit the professor? How does such a principle impact the students and community at large? Questions such as these must be explored thoroughly by the individual, academic and non-academic alike. Individuals tend to assume the ivory tower sits alone, situated apart from the general population. Thus, ideas, research, and philosophies might be well and good within the institution but have no practical application in our daily lives. I suggest quite the opposite; while I can appreciate the somewhat idealistic and radical conceptions arising from the academy, such ideas not only take root in the university system but proceed forth from its gates. Again, academic freedom seeks knowledge in the quest for truth. Such an endeavor would be fruitless if the knowledge were not shared to the community at large. Whether an individual adamantly supports, opposes, or partially supports aspects of academic freedom, it would behoove the reader to realize such academic liberties impact us each and every day.



1. Acknowledging the study was conducted about twenty years ago, Donna R. Euben’s “Academic Freedom of Individual Professors and Higher Education Institutions: The Current Legal Landscape” still gives a thorough overview of the relationship between academic liberties and the law, while also supplying relevant cases.

2. While I have cited the AAUP (an American academic organization) and its declaration and statement on academic freedom, it should be noted that universities and professors in the United Kingdom also ascribes to such a conception of academic liberty.

3. For example, Henry Reichman’s Understanding Academic Freedom (2021) presents not only an introduction but also defense of academic freedom, whereas William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale (1951) illustrates a critique of such academic liberties and questions the role of trustees in education policy formation. The approximately sixty-year gap between the pieces demonstrates not only the complexities but diverse discourses continually surrounding the subject.



Appendix A of Academic Freedom and Tenure: A Handbook of the American Association of University Professors, Edited by Louis Joughin, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin. 1967. pp.155-176.

Davies, Mark. “Academic Freedom - a Lawyer’s Perspective.” Higher Education, vol. 70, no. 6, 2015, pp. 987–1002,

Downs, Donald A. "Academic Freedom: What It Is, What It Isn't, and How to Tell the Difference." John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (NJ1) (2009).

Euben, Donna R. "Academic Freedom of Individual Professors and Higher Education Institutions: The Current Legal Landscape." (2002).

Gordon, Vivian Hopp. "Academic Freedom." Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration, edited by Fenwick W. English, vol. 1, SAGE Reference, 2006, pp. 1-2. Gale eBooks, Accessed 1 Oct. 2022.

Hansson, Sven Ove. “Academic and Nonā€academic Freedom of Speech.” Theoria (Lund, Sweden), vol. 85, no. 5, 2019, pp. 339–43,

Metzger, W.P. (1978) “Academic Freedom and Scientific Freedom.” Daedalus (Cambridge, Mass.), vol. 107, no. 2, 1978, pp. 93–114.

Raynolds, Robert. “A Footnote on Academic Freedom.” Modern Age (Chicago), vol. 2, no. 1, 1957, p. 76.

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