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UC academic-freedom policy, crafted during Depression, revisited
Faculty endorse new language on UC’s mission, rights of scholars and students

| 20 August 2003

UC faculty endorsed a new policy on academic freedom at a meeting of the systemwide Academic Assembly held at Berkeley July 30. The revision emphasizes that academic freedom is essential to scholars’ pursuit of knowledge; strengthens instructors’ right to express their opinions in teaching settings; and asserts the exclusive authority of the faculty, as a body, to assess whether instructors operating under the protection of academic freedom are meeting standards of competent scholarship.

'The current academic freedom statement, as written by [UC] President [Robert Gordon] Sproul, is a political bargain stipulating that the university stays out of politics and the state stays out of scholarship ... What provides the basis of academic freedom is not a political bargain but the mission of the university.”'
-Robert Post

Elected faculty representatives from the UC campuses voted 45 to 3 in favor of the revised policy, which was drafted by Berkeley law professor Robert Post and reviewed by numerous campus and systemwide committees. The conceptual statement is accompanied by rules and regulations detailed in the Academic Person-nel Manual and its Academic Code of Conduct.

Following final review, UC President Richard Atkinson is expected to implement the revision before leaving office at the end of September.

UC’s current statement on academic freedom, crafted during the Depression, was designed in part to allay fears of left-wing infiltration in the classroom; another intention was to shield the academy from government interference. “The University of California [will not] condone actions contrary to the laws of the State,” it reads, and “expects the State, in return,” to protect the academic freedom of UC scholars. The early policy endorsed “disinterested” scholarship that “[gives] play to intellect rather than to passion.” To “make converts,” it says, “is alien and hostile” to the university’s mission.

A political bargain
President Atkinson requested a fresh look at the academic-freedom statement — which has remained unchanged since 1944 — as an outgrowth of last year’s controversy over a course description by a pro-Palestinian instructor at Berkeley. The longstanding policy, he said, may not provide “an adequate basis for understanding and defending academic freedom at the University of California in the 21st century” and is not in line with standards adopted by UC’s peer institutions.

During faculty deliberations this summer over the proposed revision, Professor Post outlined significant differences between the two policies.

“The current academic freedom statement, as written by [UC] President [Robert Gordon] Sproul, is a political bargain stipulating that the university stays out of politics and the state stays out of scholarship,” Post said. “The deal-making nature of this statement is politically pragmatic but seriously misrepresents the fundamentals of academic freedom. What provides the basis of academic freedom is not a political bargain but the mission of the university.”

For Gayle Binion, chair of the systemwide Academic Senate and a UC Santa Barbara professor, this is the most important difference between the current and proposed statements. What’s “outmoded” about the former, she says, “is the view that academic freedom is a gift from the legislature — rather than something inherent in the profession.”

‘Disinterested’ vs. ‘interested’ teaching

The lion’s share of press attention, however, and a deluge of e-mail to the Academic Senate, have concerned the addition of language affirming instructors’ rights to express their opinions in the classroom.

'The university seeks to foster in its students a mature independence of mind, and this purpose cannot be achieved unless students are free within the classroom to express the widest range of viewpoints….”'
-Proposed revised policy statement

Explaining the change, Post said: “A common notion among the lay public… is that scholarship and teaching should be value-neutral. According to this notion, a scholar is disinterested, or should not care strongly about what he/she is doing.” In the new statement, “motivations and beliefs are irrelevant. [It] would allow faculty to care deeply about their work or strongly state their opinions as long as that is done in a manner consistent with the goal of instilling in students ‘a mature independence of mind.’”

For example, an atmospheric scientist who held strong views on the greenhouse effect as a result of ongoing research would have the right to share these convictions with students. What would not be acceptable would be allowing those convictions to distort his or her research, or attempting to coerce students to adopt a particular view.

Critics — among them UC faculty and members of the public — claim that the addition of this language would open the door to proselytizing in the classroom, and undermine students’ academic freedom. In an essay on the website “NoIndoctrination.org,” Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Martin Trow says the new policy “no longer demands ‘objectivity’ in the treatment of material in the classroom.” He writes that the revision, instead, “merely legitimates any degree of deviation from it that can be covered by the broad reference to the ‘competence’ of the instructor.”

Another criticism is that students’ academic freedom would be diminished by the new statement. Binion notes, however, that the revision refers explicitly to the academic freedom of students (“The university seeks to foster in its students a mature independence of mind, and this purpose cannot be achieved unless students are free within the classroom to express the widest range of viewpoints…”), while students get no mention in the existing policy.

To review both versions of the policy, see www.ucop.edu/acadadv/acadpers/apm/review.html. The proposal is also available at the Academic Personnel Office (127 California Hall #1502). Comments may also be submitted to that office by e-mail (at Appolicy@ uclink.berkeley.edu), in person, or via campus mail, through Sept. 12.