Academic Freedom – What Does It Mean to You?

I started reading the book Academic Duty by Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University. He begins by describing Academic Duty as the counterpart to “Academic Freedom” – which traditionally refers to the “insulation of professors and their institutions¬† from political interference”. While I see the importance of this, particularly in the past, this is not how I would have defined academic freedom if given the chance.

So, how would I define it? Well, I would probably first, jokingly (though, not really joking) repeat a line I heard a faculty member tell me once. “Academic freedom is the flexibility to decide which 90 hours a week you work”. And seemingly, I am not alone in having my initial thought be related to the often loose and undefined start and stop point of working. Dr. Kennedy goes on to write that “Indeed, academic freedom connotes loose structure and minimal interference. There are no time clocks and few regulations about the direction of effort or even about the locations at which it is to take place”.

Perhaps this seemingly “easy life” of working when you want and sometimes from where you want is what draws some people in, and makes some students enroll in doctoral programs. Undoubtedly, like in any similar field, some people will take advantage of this and actually work very little. However, I perceive those as being the minority of faculty members. More often than not, academe seems to be full of passionate, intrinsically motivated, “do-ers”. So while we may spend a day working in our pajamas from home (umm…welcome to every Sunday of my life…okay, and a few Tuesdays thrown in for good measure!), we usually are working much more than folks on the outside of the ‘ivory tower’ would think. Beyond that, when I think of life as a faculty member, I am drawn to the quote, “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Expected”. With this freedom, comes a whole lot of responsibility (or “duty” as Dr. Kennedy prefers to call it).¬† But, that is a topic for another blog (or several).

How would you define “academic freedom”? Is this part of what drew you in to higher education to begin with?


About tanyamh

A PhD Student at Virginia Tech. This blog was created as a class requirement for Contemporary Pedagogy - Spring 2013.


  1. This kinda came up when I was discussing tenure with my advisor. To paraphrase, this is how he (also jokingly) put it: “When you make tenure, you gain academic freedom, which means you get to pursue your crazy research ideas without people calling you crazy.”

    After reading your post, I noticed my advisor’s definition and Dr. Kennedy’s definition are actually not that much different.

    But, do we ever have complete academic freedom? Don’t we have to convince various funding agencies to support our research? I think there will always be political interference to some extent.

    1. I agree that there really is not actual freedom from political interference in academia. Dr. Kennedy does go on to speak to this a bit more. It used to be more prominent (e.g. politicians called for faculty who were sympathetic to Communist ideals to be fired, but university administration did not follow this advice and were able to do so because of the “separation” to speak between the ivory tower and the ‘real world’). Now there is a lot more government oversight on universities, so the traditional definition of academic freedom doesn’t really apply!

  2. I would define academic freedom as the ability to pursue my own research ideas and apply my own pedagogical approach while teaching. I sometimes feel that both researchers and educators are constrained by the rules and guidelines which are placed on them by the university system in terms of publications or meeting student learning outcomes. It kills their creativity to explore and pursue innovative ideas in teaching and research.

    1. I like that definition, and would agree that I would define academic freedom by that as well. I generally feel like I do see a good deal of autonomy related to this in academia, though, of course, not complete freedom from oversight!

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