Student Academic Freedom: Politicizing the Classroom

Robert M. Hendrickson
Professor of Education and Associate Dean
The Pennsylvania State University

As the 2004 Presidential campaign developed, concerns began to emerge regarding student academic freedom in the classroom. Conservatives alleged that the higher education professoriate continues to be predominately liberal and this liberal bias taints their teaching. They maintain that students feel intimidated to express their political beliefs either in the classroom or on campus for fear they will be punished through the grading system. This focus on liberal bias has propelled student academic freedom into the political agenda of many activists, and has led to new organizations and some state legislatures attempts to rectify the problem. While I am not aware of any litigation being brought surrounding this issue, as the 2006 congressional election campaign heats up there certainly is potential for campus controversy (and possible litigation) over faculty classroom behavior. Even though this issue stems from the academic side of the institution, student affairs administrators need to understand the implications of this issue as they often must deal with student complaints and other forms of activism (e.g., protests, walk-outs, and websites).

The fundamental principle of academic freedom is that the community of scholars must be free to employ scholarly standards, without prior restraint or fear of repercussion, to make decisions about the quality of scholarship and teaching. “The ideal of academic freedom includes the assumption that [people] working on the fringes of established knowledge will often dissent from the truths of the majority, will appear unreasonable, eccentric, or disloyal, or will be unable to explain to others their motives for pursuing a particular line of effort” (Caplow & McGee, 1958, p. 222). Faculty members and students, although they are not directly included under the tenets of academic freedom as set forth by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), should be free from political, ideological, or religious constraints in the pursuit of truth in their academic studies.

Academic freedom as defined in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, holds three basic tenets of academic freedom are:

  1. “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of results subject to adequate performance of their academic duties, …”;
  2. “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should not introduce into their teaching controversial subject matter which has no relationship to their subject.”;
  3. “College and university teachers are citizens, members of the learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

The third tenet also states that faculty members need to be accurate in their statements and identify their faculty title when they are speaking in their field of expertise. When speaking as a citizen on matters outside their field they should not use their faculty title, as that would imply that they are speaking as an expert rather than just as a citizen. The second tenet assumes that teaching will follow the “principle of neutrality” where a diversity of perspectives are present, so the student can make a judgment on the issue and there is no attempt by the faculty member to indoctrinate students. The current classroom controversy has developed debate about the neutrality and non-indoctrination principles. Some conservative activists and legislators have claimed that professors with a liberal bias dominate the college and university faculty (based on some recent surveys, it is true that a majority of faculty claim to be liberal/democrats), and that bias is clearly reflected in the classes they teach and the performance grades they award. The following are a few examples of how the controversy is manifested:

Under the directive of David Horowitz and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, several state legislatures have considered an academic bill of rights. The American Association of University Professors on March 4, 2003, posted an article on their website discussing the movement in Colorado calling for an Academic Bill of Rights entitled: Academic Bill of Rights. Advocates for an Academic Bill of Rights recommended that in order to maintain the AAUP principle of neutrality, higher education institutions need to develop faculty hiring policies “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives”. Since diversity is interpreted by the advocates as an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, the ultimate effect of such a statement would be to politicize faculty appointments in the academy. The AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, after careful analysis, found that one of the fundamental concepts of academic freedom is violated when decisions on who to appoint, and the quality of scholarship and teaching, are not based on professional standards within the discipline assessed by the community of scholars. They concluded that the Academic Bill of Rights “impose administrative and legislative oversight on the professional judgment of faculty, to deprive professors of the authority necessary for teaching,” and prohibit decisions necessary to advance knowledge (p. 3).

On March 2, 2004 the AAUP issued another article concerning advertisements appearing in campus newspapers about an organization, ” Students for Academic Freedom.”. The advertisement solicits students to report professors who try to sway the class to adopt the political stand of the faculty member. The AAUP has a history of discouraging faculty from bringing controversial matters with no relationship to the particular topic area of the course to the classroom. If a problem like this were to arise, the expectation is that the performance reviews would address this problem. However, Students for Academic Freedom attempts to prevent political controversy in the classroom where such political statements are not germane to the topic of the course. More specifically, they are attempting to keep faculty comments about the war in Iraq and George W. Bush out of classrooms where course content has nothing to do with “this war or this presidency.”  The AAUP statement contends that “[c]ontrary to defending academic freedom, the project is inimical to it and, indeed, to the very idea of a liberal education”.

In 2005 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a resolution to establish a committee of legislators to investigate the political bias of professors, as it is manifested in the classroom at public colleges and universities in the state. The committee traveled around the state holding hearings on various campuses to determine the extent of indoctrination of students by faculty in the courses they taught. At the final hearing in June 2006, Dr. Peter Garland stated that, in the past five years, only 14 complaints have been filed from the 107,000 students at 14 state universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education. (Chronicle of Higher Education, Today’s News 6/1/2006). Dr. Blannie Bowen reported that only 13 complaints have emerged over the past 5 years from the 80,000 students of the multi-campus Pennsylvania State University. He noted that the University Faculty Senate has clarified the policy called “Resolution of Student Classroom Problems” to provide students with a process to adjudicate complaints surrounding violations of academic freedom and grading. (Chronicle, Today’s News 6/1/2006). The legislative committee concluded there was minimal classroom controversy and, on the rare occasions that a complaint had been filed, that institution had adequate policies to resolve those concerns.

As the election campaign of 2006 gets into full swing, it would be wise to review the institution’s policies on student classroom controversy (see AAUP Policy on Students Rights and Freedoms) making sure that faculty are able to adequately defend themselves against false accusations, and students are adequately protected from retaliation. If such policies are nonexistent, or inadequate, the academic governance organization of the institution should be encouraged to develop or refine the policy. With a better understanding of the issues surrounding academic freedom rights of students and faculty, student affairs administrators can assist the faculty in the development of policies that provide students with a venue to resolve complaints. Student affairs administrators need to:

  • Be familiar with the institution’s policies on student classroom controversies; and
  • Know the resources for a student to initiate a formal complaint.

Ultimately, the responsibility for developing and maintaining student classroom policies lies with the faculty, with the goal of preventing the politicizing of the institution and its academic programs.


  • Caplow, T., & McGee, R. (1958). The academic marketplace. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.

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