Last year, the treatment of three academics ignited a public debate about academic freedom.
American academic Steven Salaita hit the headlines in the summer. He had accepted a position as professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois and resigned his existing post, only to find his job offer had been rescinded. Reports claimed Salaita’s appointment was overruled by institutional managers once they became aware of his proclivity for sending anti-Semitic tweets. A recently published internal investigation criticised ‘the use of civility as a standard in making hiring decisions’. Salaita’s case is still under review and the university is attempting to reach a financial settlement with him.
In the UK, Thomas Docherty, a professor of English and comparative literature, and a renowned critic of government higher-education policy, was suspended from his post at Warwick University for nine months over allegations of insubordination towards his head of department. He stood accused of sarcasm and inappropriate sighing in job interviews. Docherty has since been reinstated and, although he’s faced with a hefty legal bill, all charges against him have been dropped.
In Australia, Barry Spurr, professor of poetry and poetics at the University of Sydney, was suspended for sending racist and sexist emails. These emails, sent privately to around a dozen senior academics and officials within the university, but considered newsworthy because of Spurr’s appointment as a consultant to the federal government’s national English curriculum review, were then published in the Australian magazine New Matilda. Students subsequently launched a successful campaign to have Spurr removed from the university. The cases of Spurr, Salaita and Docherty have prompted a debate about the meaning and importance of academic freedom in today’s universities.
This discussion needs to continue in 2015, a year that marks the centenary of the first formal declaration of the principles of academic freedom. On 1 January 1915, several academics gathered at the Chemistry Club in New York for the inaugural meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Those present elected the philosopher and educationalist John Dewey as its president, and established the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This led to the publication later that same year of the Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom. The signatories demanded freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action. The significance of this declaration can be seen in the fact that, a century later, it continues to act as a benchmark in discussions of academic freedom.