November 1, 2005 | CUNY Matters Columns
Earlier this year, the first annual Global Colloquium of University Presidents was convened, bringing together academic leaders from around the world to explore international public-policy concerns. A distinguished group of 15 presidents signed a statement supporting academic freedom and invited other university presidents to endorse the statement. I have asked that my name be included as a signatory because of my deep belief in the importance of academic freedom around the world and here at The City University of New York.
The principle of academic freedom is so essential to colleges and universities that it could be said to be part of the genetic code of higher education institutions. Indeed, it is a self-evident truth of a university’s constitution. As Thomas Jefferson once said of the University of Virginia, “[H]ere we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
At CUNY, our commitment to academic freedom is well established and firmly held. As a university that prides itself on diversity and access to opportunity, we hold in the highest regard policies and principles that guarantee an open and tolerant academic exchange. That exchange is vigorously protected and defended.
Academic freedom informs the entire academic community. A condition of mutual respect enables the existence of a many-faceted scholarly discourse.
As the chairman of CUNY’s Board of Trustees, Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., has so eloquently explained, “…[T]he university, true to its academic ideals, must treat each member of the community as a unique individual worthy of respect, to be judged solely by his or her actions, intellect, and character. A university does not stereotype its members; it does not permit them to be in categories based on suspicion, ignorance or prejudice; it does not deny to any of its members the full rights of academic and engagement.”
The University encourages informed discussion and expects its faculty members to pursue rigorous thinking and debate without restraint. Such an expectation exists for other members of the University community, as well. As faculty express their views, students and administrators must, as well. The former president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, offered this description: “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue, and a dialogue assumes different points of view.”
Administrators are often confronted with the need to participate in an ongoing debate, responding to strongly expressed opinions. As part of the continuing dialogue, the University supports the right of administrators to take an opposing viewpoint, so long as their stance does not imply punitive action or retribution. The office of a chancellor, president, or other administrator cannot be used to compromise the academic freedom of other members of the University community. Nor can free exchange, so important to the existence of a university, lead to the creation of a hostile environment for students or other participants in the academic community.
Over the years, the term “academic freedom” has been applied to contentious opposition of all kinds. But disagreement alone does not necessarily threaten academic freedom; on the contrary, it is often indicative of an active, and free, exchange of ideas. Of course, the University takes seriously such dissent, as it often coalesces around issues of great concern to the academy, and we must ensure that thoughtful opinions on these issues can flourish.
The term “academic freedom” has also been applied to various procedural demands by faculty unions. Although a basic level of procedural fairness is necessary to protect academic freedom, it does not follow that colleges and universities must implement every demand for increased procedural safeguards, many of which have more to do with job security than to the right of free expression in teaching, research, writing or political activities. I believe such matters of labor relations are best dealt with through the process of collective bargaining.
On previous occasions, I have reinforced the University’s commitment to finding ways for all of us to work together in a productive, harmonious, and mutually supportive manner. Today, as then, I believe that it is our insistence on academic freedom that makes possible our ability to work together toward our most difficult and important task: the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Given the extraordinary talent and dedication of CUNY’s faculty, administrators, staff, and students, I have every confidence in the continued success of our endeavors.