A Message from the Office of the Provost on Academic Freedom

October 25, 2021

In the course of their careers as scholars and teachers, University of Oregon faculty may find that their research and teaching attract public attention, scrutiny, and criticism. The University of Oregon encourages public engagement. The diffusion of knowledge beyond the academy for the benefit of society is a fundamental feature of the university’s mission. Interactions with public audiences sometimes prove contentious, particularly in the modern digital media environment. Unfortunately, faculty at UO and other universities have been threatened, harassed and attacked. Sadly, faculty who are underrepresented in the academy, including scholars of color, women scholars, and/or LGBTQ+ scholars, are disproportionately targeted. If you are facing questions, criticism of your field of study or threats, please consult this guide for support as you confront these challenges.[1] While conceived as a practical “quick guide” for faculty, it is simultaneously an expression of the Office of the Provost’s unswerving dedication to and steadfast support for academic freedom.

The concept of academic freedom has a long, rich history, one intimately linked with concepts of freedom with even longer, more complex histories, including those of expression, speech, and inquiry. Any discussion of academic freedom in the American university must begin with the AAUP’s two seminal statements: Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (1915); and Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (1940).[2] These statements embody an awareness of the fundamental importance of the independence of the university from the pressures imposed by the state and society. As Jonathan Cole, former Provost of Columbia University, explained, the AAUP’s founders sought to “devise and implement new rules of professionalism and to defend faculty members who were dislodged from their jobs because their views offended university administrators, benefactors, and trustees.”[3] The idea of academic freedom is far from static and uncontested. It has evolved alongside society and the university. Yet for all of the disagreements concerning its scope and parameters, academic freedom remains, as historian James Axtell observed, “the bulwark of the faculty’s freedom to teach and research as their disciplinary guilds advise and allow.”[4]

Academic freedom enables a faculty member to research and teach without fear of interference or reprisals from potentially coercive forces, whether extramural or intramural, within established legal and ethical bounds. Literary scholar and historian Louis Menand rightly noted that “it is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.”[5] As Jonathan Cole contended, “truly creative scholarship … can only take place in an atmosphere in which talented people are given latitude to consider contested ideas, to push against orthodoxy, and to explore the unknown.”[6] Academic freedom protects and encourages intellectual risk-taking, “blue skies” research, and innovative teaching, even when those pursuits arouse controversy. The discovery of new knowledge, which is often both of academic significance and societal benefit, and its dissemination must be unfettered.

The University of Oregon recognizes the enduring value of academic freedom. The UO’s policies, which resulted from shared governance processes, are notably robust and capacious. A firm commitment to academic freedom also is enshrined in the CBA. Furthermore, these policies have found an ardent champion in UO’s president, Michael Schill, who has addressed the UO community on the subject of freedom of expression in the context of the university on several occasions, including in his 2016 “Open Mike”. President Schill summarized his views in the following manner:

I believe that freedom of speech is the core value of any university. When faculty members pursue their avocation—teaching students and conducting research—they must be able to say or write what they think without fear of retribution, even if their views are controversial, and even if their research and their views risk causing offense to others. Otherwise, advances in learning will be stunted. This freedom of speech includes the freedom to share political views, academic theories, good ideas, and even bad ones, too. It includes speech that offends others. Without academic freedom we could scarcely call the UO a university.

The Office of the Provost will continue to defend the faculty’s freedom to research, write and publish. Academic freedom is nothing less than the foundation of our common enterprise as teachers and scholars at this great public research university.    

Patrick C. Phillips Provost and Senior Vice President | Professor of Biology

Janet Woodruff-Borden Executive Vice Provost for Academic Affairs | Professor of Psychology

Gabe Paquette Vice Provost for Academic Affairs | Professor of History

[1] This UO academic freedom guide draws inspiration and borrows heavily from outstanding resources developed by PAC-12 peer institutions, including the University of Colorado and the University of Utah.

[2] The AAUP offers an invaluable, comprehensive collection of resources related to academic freedom.

[3] Jonathan Cole, The Great American University (PublicAffairs, 2009), p. 51.

[4] James Axtell, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton University Press, 2016), pp. 368-69.

[5] Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 158.

[6] Jonathan Cole, Toward a More Perfect University (PublicAffairs, 2016), p. 217.