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 Tuesday, March 22, 2005 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


From Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano: In the spirit of continuing campus discourse on current topics, I thought you would be interested in the following message from Barbara Bintliff, chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly and the Nicholas Rosenbaum Professor of Law, on "Academic Freedom 101."

Academic Freedom 101

Barbara Bintliff
Chair, Boulder Faculty Assembly
Nicholas Rosenbaum Professor of Law

"The University of Colorado was created and is maintained to afford men and women a liberal education in the several branches of literature, arts, sciences, and the professions. These aims can be achieved only in that atmosphere of free inquiry and discussion, which has become a tradition of universities and is called "academic freedom." "(Laws of the Regents, article 5.D.1 (A))

Academic freedom is a topic that's been on everybody's mind these days, although most of us would be hard pressed to define it. For some, academic freedom is a form of "super free speech" that insulates a professor from any interference or responsibility for his or her actions. For others, academic freedom is narrowly restricted to classroom discussions. It seems that there are as many interpretations of what "academic freedom" means as there are those who are discussing it. My hope is that one outcome of the current debate will be a campus-wide discussion of the extent of academic freedom, both of its protections and its responsibilities. We should seize this opportunity to arrive at a common understanding of this important academic principle.

""[A]cademic freedom" is defined as the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and teach truth as the faculty member sees it, subject to no control or authority save the control and authority of the rational methods by which truth is established. . . . Within the bounds of this definition, academic freedom requires that members of the faculty must have complete freedom to study, to learn, to do research, and to communicate the results of these pursuits to others." (Laws of the Regents, article 5.D.1(B), (C))

CU's definition of academic freedom is similar to that of most other colleges and universities, both public and private. Faculty members must have a safe environment for intellectual growth, for gaining understanding, and for the refinement of ideas. Academic freedom recognizes that knowledge is acquired and advanced through a testing process. How do we know the answers to our questions unless we ask? How can we create new knowledge and understand its dimensions unless we challenge accepted teachings and debate and discuss results? Faculty must be able to muse aloud, to question, to push disciplinary boundaries. Academic freedom offers protection to the faculty member whose work may be challenging to the status quo or highly specialized and little understood. It allows a professor to learn from his or her mistakes, and move forward.

Implicit within the definition of academic freedom is the notion that a professor has freedom to "inquire, discover, publish and teach truth" within his or her field of expertise. In practical terms this means that, barring a direct application to scholarship or classroom teaching, a professor of modern dance should not be researching organic gardening on work time and a professor of physics shouldn't be opining about jurisprudential topics in class. Academic freedom applies to the professor's work in his or her field of study, an important limitation on this fundamental right of the faculty.

Academic freedom must be exercised wisely, for it is a right with clear attendant responsibilities. These are recognized in the Laws of the Regents as follows:

"Faculty members have the responsibility to maintain competence, exert themselves to the limit of their intellectual capacities in scholarship, research, writing, and speaking; and to act on and off the campus with integrity and in accordance with the highest standards of their profession. . . They should remember that the public may judge their profession and institution by their utterances. Hence faculty members should be accurate at all times, should exercise appropriate restraint and show respect for the opinions of others, and when speaking or writing as private citizens should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution." (Laws of the Regents, article 5.D.2 (A), (D))

Some of the responsibilities that accompany academic freedom relate directly to our work as professors while others are part of our employment agreement with the University. Added to these responsibilities are requirements that faculty refrain from conduct that disrupts university functions; injures persons or damages property on the campus; impedes freedom of movement of anyone on the campus; interferes with the public or private rights of citizens; or threatens or endangers the health or safety of any person. (Laws of the Regents, article 5.C.1)

Academic freedom should not be an abstract notion. It is vital to our mission of creating and disseminating knowledge, and we should have a common understanding of these rights and responsibilities. We fulfill our obligation to keep academic freedom strong through responsible stewardship of its privileges.


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