AAA Reaffirms Commitment to Academic Freedom

Contact Name: Jeff Martin

AAA Reaffirms Commitment to Academic Freedom

The American Anthropological Association has endorsed the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, originally released in 1940, and updated in 1970. At both of these earlier junctures, conflicts in society prompted vigorous debate on and off campus. AAA leadership at the time felt that in this context, it was necessary to affirm that researchers, teachers, and students should be free to challenge prevailing wisdom and accepted “common sense” in the pursuit of knowledge and as advocates in public policy debates.

The AAUP principles, accepted throughout the academy for several decades, remind us that academic freedom is essential for researchers, teachers, and students to advance the purpose of institutions of higher education in service of the common good. In these institutions, tenure provides an important measure of protection for unrestrained teaching, research, and service. This protection helps the academy, and the disciplines it supports, including anthropology, attract and retain qualified persons.

An especially divisive and rancorous period of public discourse is upon us once again, prompting AAA to reaffirm its commitment to the principles of academic freedom and tenure. Since these principles were first articulated eight decades ago, the vocabulary for talking about academic freedom has been elaborated. New legal protections from hate speech and hostile work climates have been instituted, and colleges and universities are newly sensitive to calls for “civility,” “trigger warnings,” and the creation of “safe spaces” on campus. Meanwhile, the digital age affords new forms of and channels for scholarly communication, as well as outright threats of censorship. Colleges and universities have created expectations, and in some cases have mandated that disciplines, including anthropology, clearly state learning outcomes, offer curriculum maps, and enact other forms of accountability that potentially constrain teaching and learning. At the same time, technical innovations are transforming the very notion of the “classroom,” which now encompasses a wide range of sites for teaching and learning.

Academic Freedom: AAA’s Guiding Principles

To promote public understanding and support of academic freedom in colleges and universities, the American Anthropological Association affirms that:

  1. Teachers and students must be free to pursue advances in knowledge based on systematic observation, analysis, interpretation, critique, publication, and commentary.
  2. College and university professors are entitled to complete intellectual freedom in the classroom (and other channels for teaching) in constructing syllabi, assigning readings, delivering lectures, conducting discussions with students and colleagues, giving assignments, and evaluating student performance, while avoiding introducing material that has no relation to course’s subject.
  3. College and university teachers are community members, members of a learned profession, and affiliates of educational institutions. When they express their personal views as individual community members, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline. As the AAUP statement indicates, they occupy a special position in their respective communities, a position that is accompanied by special obligations. As scholars and educational institution affiliates, they should be guaranteed academic freedom while recognizing that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. They should at all times take care to be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others, and make every effort to indicate that their views as scholars do not necessarily represent the institution with which they are affiliated.
  4. Both the protection of academic freedom and the expectations of academic responsibility apply not only to the full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty, but also to all others, such as part-time faculty and teaching assistants, who exercise teaching responsibilities.
  5. Freedom of academic inquiry is a cornerstone of democracy and a necessary element of a free society. Everyone—including elected officials as well as administrators at all levels of higher education—has an obligation to preserve, protect and promote the pursuit of knowledge and the free exchange of ideas.