Tenure and Academic Freedom: Perspectives from Secular and Religious Institutions – By Kenneth Garcia

Kenneth Garcia on academic freedom in tenure in both secular and religious institutions

Academic freedom is a principal foundation of modern university life and tenure is the key means of ensuring that freedom—a freedom vital for the advancement of knowledge and the free flow of ideas.v The American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP), 1915 “General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” states that academic freedom is the freedom of scholars to teach, to conduct research, and to present the results thereof. “The scholar must be absolutely free,” it says, “not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion.” Without tenure, scholars may lose their jobs for publishing ideas unfavorable to powerful interests. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those interests were primarily political, ecclesiastical, and economic. The free flow of knowledge tends to undermine the status quo, or at least make those invested in the status quo uncomfortable.

In spite of the work of the AAUP, and other organizations, to protect academic freedom and tenure, corruptions can, over time, seep into the practice of it. That which constitutes “accepted opinion,” — based on certain philosophical and ideological assumptions, whether explicit or implicit — changes over time, for good or ill. What was once deemed contrary to accepted opinion may become the new conventional wisdom. Then we may have the situation where adherents of a new status quo attempt to silence or censor dissidents from their own orthodoxies. The practice of academic freedom and tenure, while still lauded in theory, shrinks, and may actually prohibit the full pursuit of truth and knowledge in a good many cases — not all, but many. To illustrate this point, I will focus my discussion to academic attitudes toward religion and theology.

Standards for gaining tenure are established within the framework of specific academic disciplines (biology, sociology, history, physics, and so forth), and for the most part, that is appropriate. Scholars must keep abreast of current trends in their academic fields if they are to further advance that knowledge and pass it on to students. Yet the meaning of academic freedom was once more capacious than it is today, understood as the freedom to pursue knowledge beyond one’s field of studies to the philosophical or even theological context of that knowledge. The German research universities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the home of modern notions of academic freedom, insisted that scholars connect knowledge in individual fields of study to the whole of knowledge. In America, the 1915 AAUP “Report” recognized the need for research in understanding of the spiritual life, of “ultimate realities and values” (through philosophy and religion). “In the spiritual life,” it states, “and in the interpretation of the general meaning and ends of human existence and its relation to the universe, we are still far from a comprehension of the final truths, and from a universal agreement . . . In all of these domains of knowledge, the first condition of progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results. However, beginning in the late 19th century, Jon Roberts and James Turner have shown (link to: The Sacred and Secular University) that the right to explore the unity of knowledge slowly eroded in America as the demands of specialized research came to the fore. By the 1930s and 1940s, leading figures in the AAUP and the academy began, perhaps unawares, to promote ideals of academic freedom somewhat contrary in some respects to their 1915 “General Report.” The right to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, shrunk to a freedom from interference by outside authorities, while the freedom to transcend disciplinary boundaries — especially the pursuit of connections between one’s specialized field and theological insight — gradually waned. While this displayed a desirable sense of intellectual modesty and humility, it had the effect of hindering a scholar’s desire to grapple, in a scholarly way, with transcendent meaning. To do so could very well cut short an academic career by jeopardizing one’s chances for gaining tenure or further promotion. Many young scholars today are painfully aware of these unwritten taboos that curtail their freedom.

The AAUP’s 1940 “Statement of Principle on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” which is still in effect today, dropped the 1915 “Report” reference to pursuing research no matter where it may lead or to what extent it may come into conflict with accepted opinion. I suspect it did so inadvertently, but the omission is conspicuous, nonetheless. Moreover, the 1915 reference to “the spiritual life” is nowhere mentioned in the 1940 “Statement.” Over time, the purview of freedom gets whittled down to “one’s field of competence,” and tenure decisions are made primarily by established gatekeepers in that field.\

The “free” pursuit of knowledge today, within many universities, has become secularized, confined to the realm of the finite, and in many cases, religion has been relegated to the margins of academic life and proscribed from the curriculum. Discussion of transcendent meaning informed by religious traditions has been proscribed in any but theology or religious studies departments, most of them at religiously-affiliated institutions. Yet even within the latter institutions, many scholars (though not all) outside of theology or religious studies frown upon their colleagues who draw on theological insights to inform their scholarship. Scholars with tenure can, of course, roam afar, but at the risk of incurring the opprobrium of their peers and not being promoted to full professorships.

In both secular and religiously-affiliated universities, young scholars who wish to pursue truth beyond disciplinary and even interdisciplinary domains and engage theological perspectives are not likely to obtain tenure. Many young scholars know all too well that they must remain within a certain limited academic frame of reference and be cautious about drifting into interdisciplinary realms, let alone theology. In this way, tenure becomes, in the eyes of critics of academe, the preserve of scholars who share the same disciplinary orthodoxies, while qualified scholars with differing and even opposing views are rejected. Tenure may even guarantee a lifetime professorship to those who have become intolerant of other scholars who disagree — with well-founded and reasoned arguments — with their own ideological orthodoxies, i.e., new conventional wisdoms. When this phenomenon becomes widespread throughout America’s universities, there may be backlash from various sectors of society.

The scenario I have here presented is much too simple and skeletal, of course, but I nonetheless maintain that there is room for sincere self-reflection on the part of academics and a need to discuss how the concept of academic freedom, and the practice of tenure, might be improved and become more inclusive. I will go even further and suggest that academic freedom and tenure may today be better protected in certain religiously-affiliated colleges and universities than in secular ones. Not in all cases, but in many.

In making this bold claim I do not ignore the troubled history of how religious authorities stifled academic freedom in the past, and how some still do so today. The academy’s general distrust of things religious had good justification. But much has changed during the past fifty years, in both religiously-affiliated and secular universities. To build a foundation for this seemingly outrageous claim, let me focus on universities in one religious tradition — Roman Catholic — to illustrate why I think it is so.

Academic freedom and tenure may today be better protected in certain religiously-affiliated colleges and universities than in secular ones.

The Second Vatican Council (1961-64) acknowledged the legitimate autonomy of the sciences and their “just liberty” in using their own proper methods, while deploring the habits of mind that deny the rightful independence of science. In the 1967 “Land O’Lakes Statement,” presidents of Catholic universities worldwide claimed that “the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” The Second Vatican Council did, however, caution against the agnosticism fostered by many of the sciences when their methods of investigation are “wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth.” Further, the Council recognized that “by virtue of their methods these sciences cannot penetrate to the intimate notion of things.” Because of the limitations inherent in the sciences, there is a need to “harmonize the proliferation of particular branches of study with the necessity of forming a synthesis of them, and of preserving among men the faculties of contemplation and observation which lead to wisdom.” The search for integration must involve a continuous dialogue between theology and other academic disciplines. The Land O’Lakes Statement pointed out that there is a deeper philosophical and theological dimension to knowledge in all fields of study. The authors of the statement write:

In a Catholic university all recognized university areas of study are frankly and fully accepted and their internal autonomy affirmed and guaranteed. There must be no theological or philosophical imperialism; all scientific and disciplinary methods, and methodologies, must be given due honor and respect. However, there will necessarily result from the interdisciplinary discussions an awareness that there is a philosophical and theological dimension to most intellectual subjects when they are pursued far enough. (emphasis added)

In this statement we can recognize the idea of a dynamism — a movement that begins with inquiry and leads to dialogue concerning ultimate questions. Over the past 50 years, Catholic universities, on the whole, have become remarkably open to modern thought. Nonbelievers and believers of other faiths have been welcomed into Catholic universities. Scholars who are critical and even hostile to Catholicism reside comfortably, with tenure, in Catholic universities. This open embrace of diverse perspectives and engagement of other viewpoints is no longer an issue for the modern Catholic university. Postmodernism, scientific naturalism, agnosticism, atheism, and a host of other philosophical and ideological perspectives have a home in the Catholic university. A question for today is: Do secular universities reciprocate by accommodating scholars with theistic perspectives who wish to draw on those perspectives in their scholarship? For the most part, the answer is “No,” unless they have separately endowed divinity schools. In general, separately endowed divinity schools tend to reside at the margins of academic life and do not form an integral part of the core curriculum, in spite of the fact that religious beliefs remain a vital element of modern life.

A scholar’s pursuit of knowledge outside a discipline should never interfere with his or her ability to obtain tenure, as long as he or she demonstrates disciplinary competence. Some scholars within those disciplines want to expand outward toward the whole, toward ways in which philosophical and theological insight can inform the limited purview of their specialized disciplines. They should have the freedom to do so, freedom from fear of secular disciplinary orthodoxies. Such freedom requires tenure or its equivalent.

Many scholars do arrive at the realization that disciplinary cultures and perspectives are too confining. They attempt to expand into the precincts of other disciplines where they may develop new, hybrid forms of community. The young, untenured faculty is well-advised, however, not to roam too far afield before gaining tenure because those extra-disciplinary communities seldom have a say in promotion decisions. Even if they are tenured and determined to forge ahead, they may find themselves ostracized by their peers and isolated, without collegial support and encouragement (sadly, even at religiously-affiliated universities).

The AAUP will commemorate one hundred years of existence during its summer 2015 annual convention. When its conference agenda is made public (not available at the time of this writing), dare we hope to see the inclusion of religious perspectives on academic freedom, or will we see topics that merely reflect today’s reigning conventional wisdoms? If the preliminary conference program, together with recent books focused on the traditional notion of academic freedom — e.g., Finkin and Post, For the Common Good; Louis Menand (ed.), The Future of Academic Freedom (Chicago, 1996); and Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole, Whos Afraid of Academic Freedom (Columbia, 2015) — are any indication, it is not likely that theological perspectives will be represented.

For those interested in considering an alternative view of this topic, they may be interested in a conference that attempts to understand academic freedom more capaciously, in a way that builds on the existing, secular understanding (Finkin and Post explicitly refer to the 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure as embodying secular ideals), but then considers how the concepts of academic freedom and tenure might evolve in the future (full disclosure: this author is helping organize the conference). The conference is being held in late October, 2015 at the University of Notre Dame. Titled “Transcending Orthodoxies: Reexamining Academic Freedom in Religiously-Affiliated Colleges and Universities,” the stated premise of the conference is as follows:

Scholars must be free to pursue connections between knowledge in their disciplines and theological insight. By “theological insight” we do not mean pronouncements by religious authorities, adherence to dogmas, or to literal interpretations of religious texts that must be accepted without critical assessment. Instead, we mean a subtle spiritual awareness that there is a surplus of knowledge and meaning to reality that transcends what can be known through ordinary disciplinary methods of inquiry — that findings in many fields of study hint at connections to a greater whole, and that these connections should be pursued. Moreover, theological insights from religious traditions can inform those connections. Not all scholars experience such spiritual awareness, of course, and not even those who do must pursue the connections between their discipline and theological insight. In fact, most won’t, but everyone—no matter what their academic field—should be FREE to do so, and that freedom should be enshrined in the policies of every religiously affiliated university.

Enshrining those principles of freedom involves modifying institutional criteria for tenure to allow for it. Should institutions — at least religiously-affiliated ones — have differently-constituted boards deciding whether or not a scholar is worthy of tenure: one board for scholars working within the parameters of their field, and another for those wishing to transcend those parameters? Boards for the former would be composed largely of disciplinary experts, as they are now; boards for the latter of both disciplinary experts and those who possess broad and deep perspectives on the unity of knowledge. I am not suggesting a two-tier system, but equal systems drawing on different, equally valid, criteria, in one case disciplinary, in the other both disciplinary and integrative criteria. Creating such a system would engender a great deal of controversy and, therefore, would require a great deal of vision and courage on the part of academic leaders. If scholars are to be truly free to pursue all reasonable lines of thought, however, and if other scholars should tolerate — even when they disagree with — those lines, then modified criteria for tenure should be considered. The principle of academic freedom and the practice of tenure should continue to evolve.


v This essay draws on material from my previous work: “Religion, Sectarianism, and the Pursuit of Truth: Reexamining Academic Freedom in the Twenty-First Century,” The Journal of Academic Freedom (September, 2014, available here http://www.aaup.org/reports-publications/journal-academic-freedom/volume-5-2014/religion-sectarianism-and-pursuit-truth), and Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).