Academic freedom frequently arises in conversations about the rights of faculty, staff, administration, and students at colleges and universities. However, many people are unaware of the nuances of academic freedom as a policy and culture. As political decisiveness grows, legislation to restrict speech within universities has popped up across the United States. High-profile news stories of professors being fired have spread, many are still unsure how to address the topic in official and unofficial spaces because academic freedom is both an issue of policy and culture.
At St. Olaf, academic freedom has repeatedly been a topic of conversation. Discussion of balancing academic freedom with diversity, equity, and inclusion arose after several incidents of non-Black faculty members using the N-word. Controversies and media coverage about academic freedom often divorce the concept from attempts to ground the idea in academic disciplines and policies. As such, St. Olaf is working to clarify the College’s stance on academic freedom to ensure that all faculty, staff, administrators, and students share an understanding of the parameters, meanings, and necessity of academic freedom.
Administration and academic freedom
The College’s official policies on academic freedom align with national standards for higher education, emphasizing the importance of respecting academic expertise. “Academic Freedom is a pillar of American higher education. It pertains specifically to matters related to the professor’s area of scholarly or artistic expertise,” said Provost Marci Sortor in an email to The Olaf Messenger. “It ensures that professors can pursue research and teach courses without the threat of losing a job or tenure simply because they are addressing potentially controversial matters. As the college’s provost, I see one of my duties as to support and further the work that the faculty pursues. That includes lifting up Academic Freedom.” Administration steps into the conversation directly for proposed policy changes or disciplinary action.
“Making sure that the college’s position on Academic Freedom is absolutely clear will help us all engage in the kind of reasoned, informed, and ethical discussion that is at the heart of a St. Olaf education, especially when we grapple with difficult issues,” said Provost Marci Sortor in an email to The Olaf Messenger. Sortor cites rising tensions around the nation as a reason to revise the college’s policy and acknowledges that the existing policy has served the college well for many years. “We have all seen situations in which students, family members, and outside groups and individuals challenge the work that professors do. Colleges and universities can find themselves stuck in the middle of contentious national debates. For this reason, it is time to revisit our statement and ensure we have a common understanding of what constitutes the professor’s prerogative and responsibility. Even if we were to end up leaving the current statement completely unchanged, this exercise of thoughtful examination and discussion would be time well spent.”
Faculty shape Academic Freedom
Faculty have a role in shaping the college’s policy and culture of academic freedom through their work inside and outside the classroom. Faculty committees can advance proposals to change the faculty manual. In spring 2023, the Faculty Governance Committee (FGC) created an Academic Freedom Working Committee to begin a serious discussion on academic freedom in the wake of legislation across the country restricting professors and firing a professor at Hamline University. The FGC appointed six faculty members, a staff member, and a student to the committee based on their interests and a survey describing their research interests and knowledge of the history of and discourse around academic freedom.
The FGC ensured that they included non-tenure track faculty members, faculty members holding the title of associate professor and professor, and that committee members came from different academic disciplines with varying approaches to academic freedom. Committee members included, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Director of Enduring Questions Ibtesam Al Atiyat, Professor of Political Science and Department Chair of Political Science Doug Casson, Frank Gery Associate Professor of Economics and Department Chair of Economics Ashley Hodgson, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Public Affairs Conversation Jason Marsh, Harold Ditmanson Distinguished Professor of Religion Gregory Walter ’96, Associate Professor of Philosophy Brandon Weslter, Director of the Smith Center for Global Engagement Jodi Malmgreen ’92, and Ottessa Olson ʼ24.
The committee met throughout the spring, summer, and fall before accomplishing their task and ending the official work of the committee. They submitted a draft of a Statement of Principles, Frequently Asked Questions document, and suggestions for revisions to the faculty manual to the FGC in November. They also recommended the FGC take up their idea of forming a group with expertise in academic freedom to provide advice and promote a culture of academic freedom.. The FGC will present these documents and proposals to the full faculty once. In an interview with The Olaf Messenger, Casson said of their revisions to the Faculty Manual and Statement of Principles, “We hope that this year, by next semester, we will be able to submit it to the full faculty for a vote. We hope those documents will then be passed to the Board of Regents and approved by the Board.”
Marsh said of the Academic Freedom Working Committee’s goals,“So when we talk about the goals, we have the concrete. Here are the documents. Here are the recommendations. I think, in the broadest sense, what we’re saying is we want to do academic freedom better in some sense. What we mean by that is the understanding of it, too. One reason we chose to have the FAQ is in our experience, even when we talk to really, really smart people, they might not have necessarily read a lot about academic freedom.” He emphasized the role this project has in helping to create a shared knowledge of academic freedom amongst faculty. “If there isn’t knowledge on the ground in the same way amongst everybody, it’s hard to satisfy that goal of doing better.”
As staff members increasingly step into instructional roles, there is not a clear path forward for them. “I would say they were the most vocal group, between students, staff, and faculty. We had more staff attend our meetings when we had open forums,” Hodgson said. Including a staff member on the committee is crucial to beginning the conversation.
Creating a culture of academic freedom
Remembering that academic freedom is put in place to protect faculty members as academics allows students to engage in more productive conversations by understanding their relationship as students to their professor’s academic freedom. Hodgson hopes to clarify to students that academic freedom is different from their freedom of speech as a student. “Just by being in the class, students sort of inherit academic freedom. The professor determines the parameters based on the discipline,” Hodgson said. Creating a culture of academic freedom goes beyond policy. It requires starting conversations within and outside the classroom.
“The digital media atmosphere is such that everything gets, sort of, emotionally charged and polarized, and different groups will spin things, including academic freedom, in what that don’t necessarily align with the historical evolution of that dialogue,” Hodgson said of how this disconnect in knowledge about academic freedom grows. “In a highly partisan and polarized context, it’s hard to think of abstract concepts that exist outside of your political commitments,” Casson said.
Professor of Political Science and Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Christopher Chapp hopes that the Institute of Freedom and Community (IFC) can continue conversations about how to approach difficult conversations outside of the classroom. “We’re trying to create a place where faculty, staff, and students get to become familiar with dealing with controversial issues. It’s easy to become siloed,” Chapp said.
One way that the IFC hopes to facilitate more free dialogue is through the Constructive Dialogue Program, in which someone from the IFC attends a classroom as requested by the professor to instruct students on having constructive conversations about controversial topics. Chapp hopes the program will expand to athletics and other student organizations, as many difficult conversations happen outside the classroom. He hopes these programs help students answer, “When you disagree with your classmates or professor, how can you get the most out of that conversation?”
Changing the culture and creating a great knowledge base about academic freedom will continue after the FGC and full faculty hear the results of the Academic Freedom Working Committee’s efforts. Faculty, administration, staff, and students need to continue conversations about academic freedom to change not just the policy, but the culture around academic freedom at St. Olaf.