Academic freedom is a crucial component of research and teaching in higher education. It consigns rights and responsibilities for faculty at our colleges and universities. Faculty are afforded the freedom to conduct research without concern of orthodoxy and partisanship and to teach students without undue administrative and governmental constraints. Concomitant to these rights are faculty responsibilities to design and implement educational programs that advance student development, learning, and success in a manner consistent with a university’s mission and values.
When the principles of academic freedom are applied in the context of our university’s mission, faculty rights and responsibilities become apparent in the free pursuit of knowledge within disciplines and in the transformative potential of this knowledge for urban communities when extended across and beyond disciplines. We develop a better understanding of the environment and our place in it through faculty research and discovery. And through faculty teaching and education, health care and service, we apply what is known to problems of the human condition.
Academic freedom protects our faculty’s ability to remain independent and freethinking as well as their capacity to self-govern decisions that affect their and our students’ successes. The wisdom of our faculty in curriculum matters, departmental governance, and peer review, to name a few, should not be undone by administrative or political charges. This freedom is essential to our university’s quest for national prominence.
Faculty rights also come with tremendous responsibility. Our faculty are mindful that the fundamental protections afforded to them must be understood as also preserving the rights of students to learn in educational spaces that prepare them for success in a global community. The effectiveness of faculty as researchers and teachers rests upon their commitment to be wholly responsive to students’ learning interests, styles and their lived experiences.
Indeed, our faculty have an extraordinary responsibility to engage our students in a manner that fosters a positive learning environment in which all students can grow intellectually. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and bring experiences and multiple cognitions to our classrooms. They think about their space and time in this world in unique ways. Our students have a strong sense of purpose and social justice, with interest in being the drivers of change and not necessarily the center or focus of change.
With this in mind, we recognize that our good intentions to educate all our students – oftentimes in the manner in which we were taught – might have disparate or unintended impacts for some of our students. We must be careful to not conflate academic freedom with the preservation of some longstanding traditions – classroom, laboratory or studio practices – that may warrant further examination. What is more, we understand that faculty rights do not protect impermissible bias or discrimination. The exercise of faculty rights should be a catalyst to advance what we know works well with our diverse population of student learners – not a barrier to fulfilling our commitment and responsibilities as educators.
For more than a century, higher education institutions have advanced a shared understanding of the principles of academic freedom for institutions and individual faculty. These principles are intended to work in concert to support the mission of colleges and universities. The success of our students, our communities, and our university depends on the correlative and inseparable nature of faculty rights and responsibilities.
VCU President Michael Rao, Mike Melis, Richard Bunce and Archana Pathak provided comments on this essay.