Academic freedom is widely misunderstood. Many teachers think that, with academic freedom, they can pretty much say anything they want to say. That is not true at all. Academic freedom is a specifically limited right of certain persons. To get to the real meaning of academic freedom, we have to return to the original reason for it.
The discussion by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University, published in 1854, serves as a good starting point. “A University, taken in its bare idea,” he said, “has this object and this mission: it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture.” He continued, “It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”
The key word in this passage is truth. Academic freedom exists in order for humanity to discover the truth. Moreover, academic freedom makes sense only within the larger context of a university’s search for truth.
Flash forward to the present. In a modern discussion of it, the University of Oxford declared in March, 2007, that “staff (faculty) have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.” There are two key concepts in this modern formulation: first, faculty members have to stay within the law, and second, they cannot be fired for expressing new ideas.
The world cannot progress unless there is a group of human beings allowed to question conventional knowledge without persecution. This freedom to think and to express what they think is, however, not an absolute right of these human beings, but is limited by what the law says.
What does the law say?
The most universal of all laws about academic freedom is that of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. What does the United Nations say?
Article 13 of the 1976 United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights focuses on the right to education. In its 1999 interpretation of that article, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights distinguishes between individual academic freedom and institutional academic freedom.
The UN Committee’s first provision goes this way: “Members of the academic community, individually or collectively, are free to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge and ideas, through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation or writing. Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction. The enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.”
Since individual academic freedom is a very complex issue, let me devote future entries to this first provision. Today let me discuss only the second provision, which reads: “The enjoyment of academic freedom requires the autonomy of institutions of higher education. Autonomy is that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision-making by institutions of higher education in relation to their academic work, standards, management and related activities. Self-governance, however, must be consistent with systems of public accountability, especially in respect of funding provided by the State. Given the substantial public investments made in higher education, an appropriate balance has to be struck between institutional autonomy and accountability. While there is no single model, institutional arrangements should be fair, just and equitable, and as transparent and participatory as possible.”
The second provision is about institutional academic freedom.
It is institutional academic freedom that is enshrined in our own 1987 Constitution. Section 5 of Article 14 on Education, Science and Technology, Culture and Sports, states clearly and simply, that “academic freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning.”
It is important to note that our Constitution, following the UN covenant, grants academic freedom only to institutions of higher learning (that is, colleges and universities), rather than to all schools, such as elementary or high schools. Since individual academic freedom is a consequence of institutional academic freedom, we can immediately see that elementary and high school teachers and students do not enjoy academic freedom.
What is institutional academic freedom? Our own Supreme Court has defined it: “We have held time and again that the University has the academic freedom to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” (G.R. No. 132860, April 3, 2001, University of the Philippines, et al., vs. Civil Service Commission)
That is what institutional academic freedom is and that is all it is. A university can hire and fire teachers, can formulate and restrict curricula and syllabi, can specify teaching methods, and can accept or expel students – all without any interference from any outside entity, not even government.
Immediately, we see why our Commission on Higher Education (CHED) is regarded by many, if not most university administrators as misled. Although it was conceived to be developmental (that means providing universities with opportunities to be world-class), CHED has often actually been regulatory, something against the Constitution itself.
It is not just a question of leadership, although the current leadership in CHED is undeniably unlawful. The problems of higher education will not be solved by a mere change of government managers. It is a question of CHED doing what it is not supposed to do. CHED is not supposed to infringe on the academic freedom of higher education institutions.
While institutional academic freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, individual academic freedom is not. Individual teachers have academic freedom only to the extent that it is given to them by their institutions.
This is clear even from the guidelines of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Says AAUP: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” Teachers have academic freedom only within their own disciplines.
Adds AAUP: “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.” In other words, since they are looked up to, teachers should not make statements that they cannot back up with evidence, as the word “evidence” is defined in their particular disciplines.
Still from AAUP: “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”
Nearer home, our own Court of Appeals has restricted individual academic freedom even more. Teachers can claim academic freedom only if they follow the regulations of a school. In Far Eastern University vs. National Labor Relations Commission and Feliza Samaniego (CA-G.R. SP No. 83614), the Court of Appeals said, “Teachers are given leeway, under the principle of academic freedom, to conduct their classes according to the manner and form they see fit, provided they conform to school regulation.”
Illustrative of the many descriptions of academic freedom is the one attributed to former UP president Vicente G. Sinco, also a delegate to the 1973 Constitutional Convention. Sinco said that the Constitution “definitely grants the right of academic freedom to the University as an institution as distinguished from the academic freedom of a university professor.” In short, universities can claim absolute academic freedom; individual teachers within a university can claim academic freedom only if they obey the institution.
Certain institutions, such as UP itself, grant practically absolute academic freedom to its teachers. Other institutions, however, particularly private ones, limit the academic freedom of their teachers. Teachers in these institutions cannot choose their textbooks, design their own syllabi different from departmental syllabi, not wear uniforms, not observe teaching or consultation hours, and whatever else the administrators tell them not to do.
From a management point of view, this view of academic freedom makes perfect sense. After all, if a particular teacher does not like to follow the regulations of a school, he or she can always go to another school. This is the same reasoning that is behind the opinion of the Supreme Court about institutional academic freedom. If a student does not like the way a school is run, he or she can always enroll in another school.
The right to education is not denied any student, nor is freedom of speech denied any teacher by this limited view of academic freedom. After all, nobody, student or teacher, has the right to be in any particular institution. There is always some school somewhere (such as UP) which will allow students or teachers more academic freedom than is allowed in other schools. If someone will argue that he or she is not intelligent enough to be either a student or a teacher in UP, then the answer is, tough. In fact, academic freedom is granted only to very few, highly intelligent individuals.
Faculty members that cry “Academic Freedom” when threatened with dismissal by school authorities for violating school rules should look at the Supreme Court decision in the case of the University of the Philippines and Alfredo de Torres vs. Civil Service Commission (G.R. No. 132860, April 3, 2001).
In that decision, the Court said unequivocally: “We have held time and again that ‘the University has the academic freedom to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.’ Clearly, this freedom encompasses the autonomy to choose who should teach and, concomitant therewith, who should be retained in its rolls of professors and other academic personnel. This Court declared in Ateneo de Manila University v. Capulong: ‘As corporate entities, educational institutions of higher learning are inherently endowed with the right to establish their policies, academic and otherwise, unhampered by external controls or pressure.’”
The school’s administration, then, has the right to hire or fire teachers. Teachers cannot claim academic freedom as a defense against being fired.
In the United States, someone can be fired just by saying, “You’re fired.” Says Ronald B. Standler in “Academic Freedom in the USA”: “Untenured professors are at-will employees. Under the doctrine of at-will employment, an employer can dismiss an employee for any reason, no reason at all, or even a morally repugnant reason.”
Fortunately, because we are a bit more protective of the rights of workers, we need due process to fire a teacher in the Philippines. Nevertheless, after such due process, a teacher can still be fired for not following school regulations, even if these regulations are not academic (such as wearing a uniform, not smoking on campus, or observing office hours).
Our Court of Appeals made this crystal clear: “Academic freedom does not mean that a faculty member cannot be dismissed.” (25 August 2005, CA-G.R. SP No. 83614, Far Eastern University vs. National Labor Relations Commission and Feliza Samaniego.)
If this sounds like a brief for school administrators faced with disciplining unruly faculty members, that is because it is. I am tired of hearing teachers use the term “academic freedom” every time they feel harassed by administrators.
There are, however, certain teachers that can legitimately claim academic freedom when they defy school administrators ordering them to teach in a certain way. Such teachers are not many, but they still constitute a distinct class of intellectuals that have to be exempted from school rules, not just operational procedures, but even academic policies (such as adhering to a prescribed syllabus or textbook, or in the case of a sectarian school, teaching according to the tenets of a particular religion).
These are the intellectuals referred to in Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University.” They are the think tank of the world. They are the reason the idea of academic freedom was born.
Who are, without any doubt, entitled to academic freedom?
Only tenured professors in a university, who have doctorates, who have published in peer-reviewed academic journals, and who follow non-academic school policies.
These are the privileged individual scholars entitled to teach whatever they want in whatever way they want. No school can dictate to them what to teach or how to teach. In a sense, the academic freedom of a school ends where the academic freedom of these scholars begin.
Unfortunately for the human race, there are very few of these scholars. Not everyone teaching even in a prestigious university has the qualifications needed to join this elite group.
Why is tenure required? Because non-tenured professors still have not earned the total respect of their peers in the university. That is why they are non-tenured. The other faculty members or the administrators of a school do not trust them enough yet to give them the assurance that they can stay in the school permanently. They are still under probation. They are still being judged by their peers.
Why are doctorates required? Because only the doctorate is the final, objective proof that a scholar has mastered everything that has to be mastered in a field. A doctoral dissertation includes what is known as a “review of the literature.” This is proof that the scholar has read everything previously written about his area of specialization. The dissertation advances knowledge in the field. By writing a doctoral dissertation, the scholar proves that she or he has done something no one else has done before. She or he has pushed the frontiers of knowledge.
Why is publishing in a peer-reviewed journal required? Because such publication is objective proof that other scholars in the field, especially those in other universities and in other countries, respect the professor. Acceptance by peers is crucial in determining whether one should be allowed to challenge received wisdom. After the dissertation, only publication in a peer-reviewed journal serves as a gauge of originality and validity of thought.
Why is adherence to non-academic school policies required? I personally do not believe that academically free professors should follow school policies, because such policies are made by people that, by definition, are the intellectual inferiors of such professors. But the law is unfortunately on the side of administrators.
Our Court of Appeals thinks so. In Far Eastern University vs. National Labor Relations Commission and Feliza Samaniego, the Court said, “Academic freedom affords a faculty member the right to pursue his studies in his particular specialty. Academic freedom does not mean that a faculty member cannot be dismissed.” (25 August 2005, CA-G.R. SP No. 83614)
American law is even clearer. Here is a typical decision: “Academic freedom is not a license for activity at variance with job related procedures and requirements, nor does it encompass activities which are internally destructive to the proper function of the university or disruptive to the education process.” [Stastny v. Central Washington University, 647 P.2d 496, 504 (Wash.Ct.App. 1982), cert. denied, 460 U.S. 1071 (1983)]
In fact, American law is even more stringent. Here is another decision: “But we do not conceive academic freedom to be a license for uncontrolled expression at variance with established curricular contents and internally destructive of the proper functioning of the institution.” [Clark v. Holmes, 474 F.2d 928, 931 (7thCir. 1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 972 (1973)]
My own opinion is that academic freedom for those individuals satisfying the criteria cannot be restricted by the institution, except for non-academic matters (such as punctuality, attendance, submission of grades on time, wearing of uniforms). Inside the classroom, academically free professors should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it is in the area of their expertise.
Why? Because that is the whole point of academic freedom. There should be individuals allowed to think unthinkable thoughts, teach unteachable things, publish unpublishable ideas. These are the individuals that really are at the cutting edge of knowledge. Without them, the human race is doomed. Without them, we will stagnate, unable to produce ideas that change the world.
(Published in The Philippine Star, 7, 14, 28 February, 6, 13 March 2008)