written by William Collins, Vanderbilt University

The AAUP’s “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with 1970 Interpretative Comments” provides a clear statement of the belief that universities exist to advance the common good and that the “common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression.”  It has been endorsed by more than 150 academic organizations, including the American Economic Association and the American Historical Association.

The Statement comes in two main parts.  First and foremost, the Statement emphasizes that university and college instructors are entitled to freedom in conducting research and publishing results, in discussions of their subject matter in class, and in speaking and writing as citizens without institutional censorship or discipline.  Second, the Statement asserts that after a probationary period, professors should have “permanent and continuous tenure.”  Tenure is described as “a means to certain ends,” buttressing the exercise of academic freedom and providing a “sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.”

Professors often take the assurance of academic freedom for granted.  We should not.  First, administrators, legislators, donors, or politicians may sometimes believe that they know better than professors what should be the focus of faculty research and that they are in some way entitled to direct or censor research.  The Statement asserts that professors should be allowed to pursue research and publish findings freely, conditional on the adequate performance of other duties.  Second, and similar to the above, influential people may sometimes attempt to dictate what and how professors teach.  The Statement clearly puts the professor in charge of the classroom and states that any restrictions due to an institution’s religious or other affiliation should be stated in writing prior to the appointment.  Third, university professors can influence policy and society through their research and teaching and through their direct engagement in public discourse.  Because the truth or even informed debate is often inconvenient for those in powerful positions, academic freedom is commonly at risk of being undermined and subordinated.

While labor market mobility of faculty might mitigate the effect of a single institution’s failure to support its faculty’s academic freedom, mobility is costly at the individual level and the mechanism would not effectively offset a wide application of the state’s power.  In essence, the Statement helps define the parameters of a university professor’s normal rights and responsibilities with respect to discovery, debate, and teaching.  Academic freedom is a principle that should be affirmed and re-affirmed frequently as something integral and essential to universities and, indeed, to the functioning of a healthy society.

Tnure, which is dealt with in the second part of the Statement, helps to support the academic freedom of professors by ruling out the possibility of losing one’s job due to the exercise of academic freedom.  Of course, it also brings security and stability for those who successfully move from probationary status into tenured status.  This part of the Statement consists of five elements: 1) that the specific terms of appointments should be written down and agreed upon at the start; 2) that the probationary period should not exceed seven years for full-time instructors (with various conditions) and that at least one-year notice should be given to instructors who will not be retained; 3) that during their probationary period professors should have the same academic freedom as others; 4) that termination for cause should be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution; and 5) termination due to financial exigency should be “demonstrably bona fide.”

Reasonable people may disagree over whether exactly seven years is appropriate for the probationary period, but this part of the Statement is intended to preclude open-ended probationary (or “at will”) employment of professors.  In addition, questions related to part-time faculty and non-tenure-track faculty complicate the interpretation of this part of the statement.  The AAUP’s “Report of the Special Committee on Academic Personnel Ineligible for Tenure” (1966, AAUP Bulletin) addresses these issues at length in light of the 1940 Statement and clarifies that the principles are meant to apply to anyone who teaches full-time.  The Statement’s key point is that tenure is a cornerstone to academic freedom, as defined earlier, and to the maintenance of a professional corps of university professors.  At a time when universities are under extreme pressure to cut costs, we should be cognizant that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty are an inviting target for replacement.  Many of us may view this as short sighted and contrary to long-term interests of universities and their students, yet the appeal as a cost-cutting mechanism is clear, and some administrators and legislators might not have the long-term in mind when making budget decisions.

The Economic History Association should endorse the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  The Statement highlights essential elements of a productive and stable system of universities, one that has benefited the EHA and its members.  The support of organizations like the EHA is important because it lends external credence to the principles discussed above and helps to ensure their survival.