Academic Freedom: Anarchistic Brouhaha or Ordered Liberty?

In his classic essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (2002) argued that freedom can be understood in two forms: negative and positive. Negative freedom is “freedom from interference” (Warburton, 2001, p. 5). Positive freedom is the “freedom to do something” (Warburton, 2001, p. 8). For Berlin (2002), positive freedom answers the question, “By whom am I to be governed?” while negative freedom addresses the question, “How much am I to be governed?” (p. 39). Although Berlin (2002, p. 178) argued that throughout history negative and positive freedom had come to be in “direct conflict with each other,” he nevertheless understood that some might consider the two “concepts at no great logical distance from each other—no more than negative and positive ways of saying much the same thing” (p. 178).

Indeed, some political thinkers (Gray, 1991, p. 7; MacCallum, 1967) have argued that all freedom can be simplified to the formula: X is free from Y to do or be Z. Regardless of the fact that Berlin (2002, p. 36) rejected the single, simplified formula that “all” freedom is both simultaneously negative and positive,[1] it is nevertheless a useful way to synthesize and conceptualize the concepts that encompass the idea of “freedom.” This essay examines, under the lens of this formula, the different schools of thought concerning academic freedom, one of the most important values and an essential characteristic of American higher education (Alexander & Alexander, 2011; American Association of University Professors [AAUP], n.d.; Kaplin & Lee, 2014; O’Neil, 2011; Poch, 1993).

Most scholars enjoy academic freedom in higher education institutions in the United States. One definition of the construct, developed by 23 university presidents at a conference held at Columbia University in 2005, suggested that it is, “the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry, without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead” (Global Colloquium of University Presidents [GCUP], 2005). Additionally, a professional association, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), has issued declarations asserting and defining university faculty members’ academic freedom (American Association of University Professors, 2015).

Although throughout its history the AAUP has sought to define academic freedom canonically, Fish (2014) has identified five separate schools of thought concerning the concept. He has hypothesized that these perspectives fall along a spectrum between two opposing views, “marked by the transfer of emphasis from academic, which names a local and specific habitation of the asserted freedom, to freedom, which does not limit the scope or location of what is being asserted at all” (Fish, 2014, p. 4). At one end of the distribution are analysts who suggest that academic freedom is “peculiar to the academic profession and limited to the performance of its core duties” while at the other end, it is “a general, overriding, and ever-expanding value,” and the university is just one setting in which it is exercised (Fish, 2014, p. 6). As such, the greater the assertion of “academic freedom,” the smaller the limiting force of the adjective academic is likely to be emphasized. Thus, the views Fish identified can be arrayed along a continuum between these two poles or definitions, illustrating the reach of academic freedom. The choices extend from right to left along a spectrum, from the most conservative view of academic freedom to the most radical, from professional service at one end to political action at the other, from an emphasis on the academy to an emphasis on the larger question of freedom (Fish, 2014). Figure 1 illustrates these schools of thought. By examining these five views, I investigate how the spectrum of academic freedom fits within the broader notion of freedom; that is, of where X is free from Y to do or be Z.

Academic freedom as revolution Academic freedom as critique Academic exceptionalism For the common good It’s just a job
Freedom Emphasis Academic
Expanding Purpose Limited
Political Professor’s role Professional
Left Politics of the academy Right
Figure 1. Five schools of Academic Freedom (adapted from Fish, 2014).

At the right pole stands the professional or “It’s just a job” view (Fish, 2014). Purveyors of this argument contend that academic freedom protects only “the distinctive task—the advancement of knowledge”—that professors legitimately perform as paid and trained professionals, and in which they have professional competence, and to which they have been assigned by contract or course catalogue (Fish, 2014, p. 10). Fish (2014), the self-proclaimed sole member of this perspective, has sharply distinguished academic work from the practice of politics. He has argued that an imperative arises from the nature of scholarship, which he has dubbed “academicizing” (Fish 2014, p. 31). This obligation requires discussing classroom topics in an, “academic context where inquiries into its structure, history, significance and value are conducted by means of the traditional methods (textual, archival, statistical, experiment) of humanities, social science, and physical science scholarship” (p. 31). Thus, in this version of academic freedom, a topic of discussion is the “object of analysis rather than the vehicle of an agenda” (Fish, p. 32). In this view, professors are free from interference as they seek to address their job-related functions for the benefit of their students.

Moving to the left along the continuum, the next school of thought is called, “For the common good.” Adherents of this perspective share many characteristics with the “It’s just a job” proponents, especially the understanding of the academic role as distinctive. However, those embracing this stance justify academic freedom by connecting it to democracy, to the refinement of public opinion and to solving society’s problems. Democracy, this argument goes, can only flourish when citizens possess capacity to make wise decisions (Fish, 2014). This is “democratic competence” or “the cognitive empowerment of persons within public discourse, which in part depends on their [citizens’] access to disciplinary knowledge” (Post, 2012, p. 34). According to this understanding, professors are “the [civic] priests of our democracy” whose “special task” is, “to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens, who in turn make possible enlightened and effective public opinion” (Wieman v. Updegraph, 1952, p. 196). That is, scholars should enjoy academic freedom because democracy can only function effectively if the knowledge they produce is available to the citizenry (Fish, 2014). Thus, this perspective subordinates academe’s professional values to the “higher” values of democracy, justice, freedom and the common good. Professors may pursue scholarly inquiry without interference because doing so will benefit society and serve the commons.

Continuing left along the spectrum of possible justifications for academic freedom, the third view, a logical extension of the second, is the “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school. Proponents of this conceptualization argue that since scholars have an uncommon task—extending knowledge and (often) countering common public opinion—they are themselves distinctive intellectually and morally, and should not be bound by the same laws and regulations that apply to ordinary citizens (Fish, 2014). Since they are exceptional, they should enjoy a type of freedom different than ordinary citizens do—academic freedom. Like those who embrace the “common good” view, proponents of this perspective often cite Justice Felix Frankfurter’s contention that professors serve as the “[civic] priests of our democracy” (Wieman v. Updegraph, 1952, p. 196). Further evidence of this point-of-view may be found in federal court cases where public university professors have argued that even though they are employed by a state, they should not be considered “public employees” in the same way others engaged in civil service are (Fish, 2014). In one such case, several scholars argued that a state law, “even if the Act is valid as to the majority of state employees, … violates the First Amendment academic freedom rights of professors … and thus is invalid as to them” (Urofsky v. Gilmore, 2000, p. 409). One commentator has argued the point differently, but with the same emphasis on academic exceptionalism: “The professoriate … whatever its legal status … should not be thought of in terms of an employment relationship at all” (Finkin, 1988, p. 1339). In this view, scholars are free from most interference to perform tasks to which they alone are uniquely situated: extending knowledge and informing public opinion.

The “Academic freedom as critique” school sits still further left along the spectrum shown in Figure 1. In this fourth understanding of academic freedom, the professor’s responsibility is to offer dissent and critique everything, “to see through the conventional wisdom and expose its contradictions” (Fish, 2014, p. 12). This requires academic freedom because it “protects those whose thinking challenges orthodoxy” (Scott, 1996, p. 163). Even accepted scholarly practices that constitute professional norms are open to scrutiny:

‘As long as voices of dissent are only admissible if they conform to accepted professional norms, then dissent itself is limited so that it cannot take aim at those norms that are already accepted [and] new fields or disciplinary paradigms,’ will not be discovered   (Butler, 2006, p. 114).

In this way, academic freedom not only protects dissent, but also underpins political engagement and social progress. Indeed, some progressives contend this progress is the sole possession of the political left, since conservative thought protects the status quo and is reactionary (Fish, 2014). This understanding blurs the lines between the academic profession and political activism and results in an almost boundless conception of academic freedom (Fish, 2014). In this view, professors are free from almost all interference outside and inside academe to offer dissent and promote social progress through political activism.

Finally, the “Academic freedom as revolution,” or fifth perspective, is located at the extreme left of the continuum illustrated in Figure 1. In this understanding, academic freedom is radical, individual and unlimited, and professors act as iconoclasts (Fish, 2014). This argument allows scholars to advance social justice through education defined as political action, even breaking free from the “constraints” of the “corrupt” university and academy to do so (Fish, 2014, pp. 14-15). Giroux, for example, has contended that such teaching includes fighting for,

An inclusive and radical democracy by recognizing that education in the broadest sense is not just about understanding … but also about providing the conditions for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it (Giroux, 2008, p. 128).

In this view, professors are free from all interference, whatever its source, to promote radical democratic activity, inside and outside the university.

Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor at the University of Ottawa, exemplifies this approach (Fish, 2014). Having recast a course on environmental physics into a seminar on revolutionary activity (Fish, 2014), Rancourt became known for the practice of “academic squatting.” This term has been used to describe instances when a professor radically transforms an assigned course responsibility into a class in political activism (Rancourt, 2007). As Rancourt (2007, p. 108) has argued, “Academic squatting is needed because universities are dictatorships, devoid of real democracy, run by self-appointed executives who serve private capital interests.” Those who embrace this argument see academic freedom as possessing no bounds, except those voluntarily adopted by individual professors (Fish, 2014).

Whichever view of academic freedom one adopts, the challenge is to balance freedom with order. What Madison argued in Federalist 51 concerning governing society might easily also be applied to the academy:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it control itself (1961, p. 322).

The idea of ordered liberty, “the ability to pursue the good in common with one’s fellows,” (Frohnen, 2006, p. 510) offers one solution to the challenge of balancing freedom and order, both in society and academe. Applying this construct to academic freedom allows those pursuing scholarship freedom, while also maintaining the integrity of their shared enterprise. Surely, this latitude is equivalent at least to the narrowly defined academic freedom available from the “It’s just a job” school of thought, but it is almost certainly more circumscribed than the radical, atomistic conception envisioned by the “Academic freedom as revolution” view. Ultimately academic freedom is rooted in a broader idea of political freedom that allows government to control the governed and, hopefully, itself.

This same freedom allows professors to govern their colleagues and themselves. In other words, freedom and self-restraint go hand-in-hand. Academic freedom as ordered liberty ensures that professors are free from many—and perhaps most, but certainly not all—constraints on their individual ability to pursue scholarly inquiry, without creating a social brouhaha. 


Alexander, K. W., & Alexander, K. (2011). Higher education law: Policy and perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.

American Association of University Professors [AAUP]. (2015). Policy documents and reports, H. Tiede (Ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

American Association of University Professors [AAUP]. (n.d.). Academic freedom. Retrieved from

Berlin, I. (2002). Liberty: Incorporating four essays on liberty. H. Hardy (Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Butler, J. (2006). Academic norms, contemporary challenges: A reply to Robert Post on academic freedom. In B. Doumani, Academic freedom after September 11 (pp. 107-142). New York: Zone Books.

Finkin, M. W. (1988). Intramural speech, academic freedom, and the First Amendment. Texas Law Review, 66, 1323-1349.

Fish, S. E. (2014). Versions of academic freedom: From professionalism to revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Freeston, J. (2009, January 19). Dismissing critical pedagogy: Denis Rancourt vs. University of Ottawa. Retrieved from

Frohnen, B. (2006). Liberty. In B. Frohnen, J. Beer, & J. O. Nelson (Eds.), American conservatism: An encyclopedia (pp. 509-510). Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.

Giroux, H. A. (2008). Against the terror of neoliberalism: Politics beyond the age of greed. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Global Colloquium of University Presidents [GCUP]. (2005). Academic freedom statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents. Retrieved from

Gray, T. (1991). Freedom. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.

Kaplin, W. A., & Lee, B. A. (2014). The law of higher education, student version (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Madison, J. (1961). Federalist Number 51. In C. Rossiter (Ed.), The Federalist Papers (pp. 320-325). New York: New American library. (Originally published 1788).

MacCallum, G. C. Jr. (1967). Negative and Positive Freedom. The Philosophical Review, 76(3), pp. 312-334.

O’Neil, R. M. (2011). Academic freedom: past, present, and future. In P.G. Altbach, P.J. Gumport, & R.O. Berdahl (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges (pp. 88-110). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Poch, R. K. (1993). Academic freedom in American higher education: Rights, responsibilities, and limitations. (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, No. 4). Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.

Post, R. C. (2012). Democracy, expertise, and academic freedom: A First Amendment jurisprudence for the modern state. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rancourt, D. (2007). Academic squatting: A democratic method of curriculum development. Our Schools, Our Selves, 16(3), 105-110.

Scott, J. W. (1996). Academic freedom as an ethical practice. In L. Menand (Ed.), The Future of Academic Freedom (pp. 163-180). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urofsky v. Gilmore, 216 F.3d 401 (4th Cir. 2000).

Top of Form

Warburton, N. (2001). Freedom: An introduction with readings. London: Routledge.

Bottom of Form

Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 (1952 ).


[1] Berlin took exception to the idea that “all” freedom is both negative and positive. Instead, he argued, “A man struggling against his chains or a people against enslavement need not consciously aim at any definite further state. A man need not know how he will use his freedom; he just wants to remove the yoke. So do classes and nations” (2002, p. 36).


Walz high resJerald H. Walz is a PhD candidate in Higher Education at Virginia Tech currently researching academic freedom in colleges & universities.  He has earned a B.A. from Asbury College, a M. A. from the Johns Hopkins University, and two graduate certificates from Virginia Tech.  While serving as the Vice President of Operations at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Jerald taught public policy in Pepperdine University’s Washington, DC program. With his wife, Anita, he enjoys reading, classical music, light gardening, travel, and activities at The River Anglican Church.


This entry was posted in Jerald H. Walz, Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply