Thursday, September 22, 2011

Leadership and Academic Freedom

Because leadership is a central mission of the University of Rhode Island, and research universities more generally, we need to examine the question of how to best provide the leadership that is needed. The work of a university’s governing boards or senior officials is frequently seen as an influential mechanism by which universities can influence public policy, governmental priorities, and resource allocation. So, too, the analyses and recommendations of associations of higher education organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the American Council on Education. But these are not the central, nor the most important, ways in which the leadership of our universities is expressed.

University leadership is primarily derived from the work of faculty and students engaged in scholarship and learning. It flows from the generation and dissemination of knowledge, from the critical analysis and dissection of the politics and culture of societies, from conveying the lessons of history, from opening minds to culture, perspectives, and languages other than their own, and from the interpretation of life through the arts. This is how universities principally provide leadership.

The breadth of the work of the faculty and students at a university cannot be completely captured in any finite list, and it changes continuously. Accordingly, at its best, the work of the university provides a persistent source of discoveries and new ideas that can sustain, invigorate, and renew the societies that foster that work.

In order for the university to carry out such work, faculty must have the “complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results” in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. This is a remarkable document with a living force as important today as when it was written.

Two superb books, For the Common Good (by M. W. Finkin and R. C. Frost) and The Constitution Goes to College (by R. A. Smolla) cogently present this case for academic freedom. They correctly note that academic freedom is not grounded on an argument that university faculty constitute a special class deserving freedoms or rights not guaranteed to other Americans. Rather, it is grounded on the fact that the work of faculty serves an essential public purpose. Put simply, academic freedom provides for the common good. Consequently, I believe that academic freedom fundamentally enables universities to provide the leadership that is so essential in the 21st century.

It is difficult for anyone who cares about higher education not to notice that, in many ways, the concept and value of academic freedom is being challenged with increasing intensity. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this, but one, I think, is that we in universities have not adequately shown the connection between academic freedom and the enormous public good universities produce. Instead, we frequently allow academic freedom to be seen as something designed to protect the prerogatives of faculty. In my view, we in higher education need to refute that perception by focusing more sharply on how leadership by universities is crucial to building a brighter future for our nation and the entire world. We must also show that university leadership depends on the protections of academic freedom. Only then can the work of our faculty and students achieve its fullest potential, and only then can the full potential for common good be attained.