The four articles below originally appeared in the newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (number 69, January 2015).  The SAFS website is at


Two ways of thinking about academic freedom

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

Academic freedom protects researchers so that they might discover the truth and tell it to the world. It protects teachers so that they might find and use effective ways of instructing their students. And it protects professors critical of goings on at their universities so that they might help their universities to remain sound institutions of higher learning.

The discovery of truth, the dissemination of knowledge, and the care of the university are the central elements in what appears currently to be the most widespread understanding of academic freedom. According to this understanding, because we value truth, knowledge, and the university’s mission to promote both, we should value academic freedom.

For my part, though, I prefer a different understanding of the nature and value of academic freedom, one that begins from a particular conception of the nature and value of the university itself. Although, on this other understanding, academic freedom continues to protect truth, knowledge, and the care of the university, none of the three is the root value that academic freedom serves.

The understanding I favour conceives of the university as a community in which individuals enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, full intellectual autonomy. They enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, intellectual autonomy for themselves, but they are also committed to ensuring that the other members of the community can enjoy it along with them. The purpose of academic freedom, then, is to promote and maintain a community in which people enjoy full intellectual autonomy.

We enjoy intellectual autonomy when we believe what we believe and value what we value for our own considered reasons. We are less than fully autonomous intellectually when our reasons for believing and valuing are opaque to us or are merely the causes of our mental states. The reasons why we believe or value as we do are merely causes when they consist in the pressures of punishment or reward. Suppose, for instance, that we believe that species evolve by means of natural selection. If we believe that they do because we don’t wish to appear ignorant or stupid, or because we crave acceptance by our peers, then we believe they do in indifference to whether in fact they do; we don’t actually care to understand the origin of species; we care, rather, not to appear ignorant or stupid. To believe something in indifference to its truth is to lack intellectual autonomy.

Academic freedom prevents those who think or value differently from us from shutting us up or denying us resources. Academic freedom, then, functions to limit the pressures on our believing and valuing minds, save the pressures of evidence and argument. Since evidence and argument bear on the truth of belief and the soundness of values, those who value intellectual autonomy are keen to collect evidence and to follow the arguments. But they wish to allow only evidence and argument to influence their cognitive and affective minds.

A university, one might hope, is a place at which people who value intellectual autonomy congregate so that they may pursue enquiry and study together. They wish to pursue enquiry and study together first of all because it’s pleasant and stimulating to enquire into the world alongside others, especially others who share one’s love of intellectual autonomy. But people congregate in universities also because they appreciate the benefits of constructive criticism. They recognize that by expressing one’s thoughts to others, one comes to understand those thoughts better, both their weaknesses and their strengths. They desire to believe truly and to value soundly, and see criticism as useful in attaining what they desire.

A university in which academic freedom is valued as essential for intellectual autonomy will be a freer place, certainly, than a university in which academic freedom is valued solely for its role in discovering truth, disseminating knowledge, and caring for the university. This is because while academic freedom is essential to intellectual autonomy, it is merely useful to discovery, dissemination, and care. Indeed, as many have argued, the interests of discovery, dissemination, and care can sometimes best be furthered by limiting the freedom of members of the university community. Fruitless research, they note, does not help in the discovery of truth, while error and falsehood impede the dissemination of knowledge. Bad teaching wastes students’ time and money. As for the care of the university, when professors say stupid things or reveal to the world the woes besetting their institutions, they do more harm than good to their universities.

Those who would limit the freedom of members of the university community in the interests of truth, knowledge, and the university think there is a sound principle by which they can draw limits around freedom without violating it. Academics, they say, are experts and professionals; the principle is that as experts and professionals, academics may properly be held accountable to the expert and professional standards relevant to their endeavours. They propose that the state of each discipline implies norms that one cannot violate without ceasing to be an expert in that discipline. A biologist committed to intelligent design, then, has given up real biology and, thereby, the academic freedom university biologists enjoy to pursue truth and to disseminate knowledge. Likewise, a teacher who violates in his classroom what his peers recognize as best practices should face sanctions if he doesn’t reform his ways. An engineering professor who says publicly that few women study engineering because women are not as good as men in math is not speaking as an engineer but as an unaccredited cognitive psychologist; because she is not speaking about engineering, she may be directed by her dean to speak only the explanation approved by the faculty of engineering or keep quiet.

If, though, we value academic freedom as essential to a university community centred on intellectual autonomy, we cannot cite expert or professional standards or norms in responding to the ID biologists, unconventional graders, and offending engineers in our midst. At a university given to promoting intellectual autonomy, all these types and more would be enabled by academic freedom to continue as they wish.

Of course, a university is a sort of business, trading in money, power, and status. It collects money from students, governments, industry, and alumni, and pays professors to pursue research and to teach. It rewards students with degrees and professors with acknowledgements and promotions. How can it do all that properly when wide academic freedom would remove accountability from professors? How in a university marked by wide academic freedom is order and discipline to be maintained?

The answer is: through open critical discussion. If we keep alive at our institutions critical discussion of research, teaching, and the university, we will offer our colleagues all the care and stimulation they need to correct themselves should they go off track. If intelligent design is nonsense, that it is nonsense can be made known to the biology professor. If the unorthodox grading system is flawed, then its flaws can be made known to the professor who uses it. Of course, there’s no guarantee that attitudes and practices will be changed by mere discussion, but among people concerned to understand the world and to teach others to understand the world, there’s reason to believe that often enough they will. (We should at least be suspicious of the idea that requiring a professor to act against her better judgement will make her a better professor.)

I’ve compared and contrasted two accounts of the nature and purpose of academic freedom, and I declared that I prefer the one according to which academic freedom removes the pressures that can prevent us from believing and valuing for our own good reasons. I’ve expressed my contention that in a university organized around intellectual autonomy, critical discussion rather than oversight and control will do all that’s needed to be done to ensure good research and teaching. I’ve said nothing, though, that might answer the question whether our culture is one in which universities dedicated to fostering intellectual autonomy might find public support.


Response to Mercer’s “Two ways”

David White
Department of Philosophy
Dalhousie University

Mark Mercer argues that academic freedom is valuable because it promotes the generation of new knowledge through academic research and assists with spreading knowledge through educating students. Because academic freedom is essential to both the production and dissemination of knowledge, universities have a strong obligation to protect and promote it. So far we are in complete agreement. But Mercer goes further to argue for the intrinsic value of academic freedom and that such value provides universities with a stronger obligation to protect it. On this point, we disagree.

Mercer argues for a conception of the university as one comprised of people who value free inquiry not just for its good effects, but for its own sake. Intellectual autonomy, he argues, has value over and above how it contributes to the production and dissemination of knowledge. There are two problems with this perspective, however. Firstly, I see no reason to think that all or even most academics do value academic freedom for intrinsic reasons. If most or even just many academics only value academic freedom because they value creating and spreading knowledge, then it is hard to see why a university should have an obligation to protect that freedom for reasons of intrinsic value.

Secondly, even if he is right that all academics value freedom because they regard it as having intrinsic value it still provides the university no compelling reason to protect it. There are a lot of things that academics might regard as having intrinsic value. Participating in sports and listening to good music might be two such things. But the fact that members of the university community value those things intrinsically gives the institution no obligation to provide opportunities to participate in sports or to listen to music. It is not the job of the university as an institution to provide academics with things they enjoy. The university has a specific mandate to create knowledge and to educate students and so it is only the instrumental value of academic freedom that gives it an obligation to protect it.

Mercer has one additional worry about only valuing academic freedom for instrumental reasons. He argues that in cases where we might judge that by limiting academic freedom we will actually help the production and spread of knowledge (say, by stopping research or teaching that seems to promote bigotry) viewing academic freedom only instrumentally provides a basis for limiting it in some cases. While I agree that arguments like this are sometimes made, I disagree with the idea that they are ever sound arguments.

History teaches us well that ideas that were once regarded as obviously false and even pernicious have come to be viewed as true today. The earth does in fact revolve around the sun. Homosexuals are not in fact morally depraved and mentally ill. History teaches us that the ideas it might seem obviously beneficial to suppress today could well turn out to be found to be true tomorrow. Just as in the judicial system we believe it better that ten guilty people go free than one innocent person be convicted, in the pursuit of knowledge it is better that some pernicious ideas be allowed to be defended than to silence some truths we have yet to discover.

If some academics value the academic life for intrinsic reasons, then that is good for them. But it gives the university no reason additional reason to promote academic freedom. The instrumental value that such freedom provides is more than enough justification for a complete defense of full academic freedom without exception.


Comments on Mark Mercer’s “Two ways of thinking about academic freedom”

Marc Ramsay
Philosophy Department
Acadia University

Mark Mercer holds that an instrumental model treats academic freedom as a tool for the “discovery of truth, the dissemination of knowledge, and the care of the university.” In contrast, his intrinsic model “conceives of the university as a community in which individuals enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, full intellectual autonomy.” Mercer sees the instrumental model’s commitment to academic freedom as unduly contingent—because one can argue that knowledge production might be enhanced by some limits on freedom, the instrumental view seems open, at least in principle, to extensive administrative regulation of teaching and research. His intrinsic model, on the other hand, recommends a community in which all members think and work by their own intellectual lights. It does not value freedom for the sake of some other good.

Not surprisingly, this contrast is mirrored in debates about the more general value of freedom of expression. J.S. Mill’s faith that an unregulated marketplace of ideas provides the most efficient means of pursuing truth is questioned even by those sympathetic to his political conclusions about speech. Does absolute free speech for all persons really provide the most effective means of pursuing the truth? Another approach holds that free expression makes a crucial intrinsic contribution to the life of each person—free expression is necessary if we are to live authentic lives. On this model, we are less inclined to ask empirical questions about the “pay off’ of free speech, and it is easier to see why (assuming a commitment to human equality) each person should enjoy the same freedom to express him/herself.

In my view, a problem emerges if we attempt to extend the intrinsic argument for general free expression to academic freedom. Even if we achieve a society in which all persons have the opportunity to attend university, the gold-standard of academic freedom, tenured professorships, will never be widely available. Academic freedom might support so-called fully autonomous lives, but only for a select group of persons. Access to these lives is not determined by lottery; candidates compete for coveted tenure-stream positions. Moreover, even successful candidates do not avoid the pressures of external evaluation—they must prove themselves in order to achieve tenure, promotion, research funding, and professional prestige. I am not denying that professors do (and should) enjoy a particularly satisfying form of freedom, but I doubt that the intrinsic model can account for traditional elements of that freedom’s distribution and regulation.

What seems crucial to academic freedom is that university administrators should, in comparison to other workplace supervisors, wield very limited managerial control. They should not be permitted to supervise our research (certainly not on anything like a daily basis) and their own assessments of our research (its quality and direction) should have very limited, if any, weight. Instead, we should be given large spans of discretionary time to prove ourselves to broader communities of assessment that are supported by, but independent of, our workplace supervisors. Likewise, these communities of assessment are supposed to enjoy a powerful role in determining who is selected for academic positions. But why should this institution of additional freedom for a few be socially maintained and supported through taxation? It seems to me that the justification must be instrumental—we must defend the idea that academic freedom produces and maintains knowledge that would be lost or under-produced in its absence. The fact that academic life is intrinsically rewarding for its participants is not enough.


Justifying Academic Freedom

Andrew David Irvine
Economics, Philosophy, and Political Science
University of British Columbia, Okanagan

Is academic freedom best justified on the basis of the Millian view, the view, due largely to John Stuart Mill, that academic freedom is necessary for the advancement of knowledge? Or is academic freedom best justified on the basis of the Dworkin-Mercer view, the view, due largely to Ronald Dworkin and Mark Mercer, that academic freedom is necessary for the advancement of intellectual autonomy? How we choose to answer these questions turns out to be of more than theoretical interest.

Academic freedom is the freedom scholars, researchers, artists, librarians, archivists and students have to go about their work unencumbered by non-academic interference. It protects professors, students, staff and alumni from having to accept any form of ‘party line.’ It gives universities the independence they need to establish academic programs as they see fit. It gives people within universities the right to advance popular and unpopular ideas, free from the threat of discrimination or reprisal, whether from government officials or from their own university administrators. Academic freedom gives people the right to have their work evaluated according to academic, rather than non-academic, criteria. It is what gives academics and academic institutions the independence they need to carry out their work.

Academic freedom is thus an instrumental rather than a non-instrumental good. It exists to help academics do what is expected of them. In this sense, it is more like a civil right than a human right. Human rights, such as the right to life, are often best thought of as intrinsic goods. They are not conditional on any particular goal or purpose. They protect things that are good in and of themselves. Civil rights, in contrast, are the rights we need qua citizen. They are the rights people need for citizens and governments to stand in the proper relationship to one another. In the absence of the institution of government, there would be little need for the right to vote.

This distinction can sometimes become muddled if we fail to notice that some rights have more than one underlying justification. Free speech, for example, turns out to be a human right since it is an intrinsic good, a good in and of itself. It also turns out to be a civil right, since it is essential, practically speaking, for the selection of democratic governments. But in addition, it also turns out to be an academic right, since it is also essential, practically speaking, for the advancement of academic goals and objectives.

It follows that if academic freedom is an instrumental good, we need to become clear about which academic goals and objectives we are hoping to advance. Put another way, we need to become clear about the university’s main mission. We need to know why taxpayers, granting agencies, students and parents all fund universities as they do. Or at least why they should do so.

The advantages of the Millian line – that the main mission of the university is to advance knowledge – are twofold. First, knowledge is largely accepted as an uncontroversial good. Whether in medicine, engineering or the humanities, advances in knowledge are widely understood to be of benefit to all humankind. The second advantage is that knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – is largely understood to be something objective, something that governments and other paymasters can measure and quantify, at least to some modest degree. If so, the only point of controversy will be over how much knowledge we can afford. The only questions of public policy will be about budgets.

In contrast, the advantages of the Dworkin-Mercer line – that the main mission of the university is to encourage intellectual autonomy – may be less familiar to many of us. Increased intellectual autonomy often leads to a greater diversity of ideas. Sometimes this diversity of ideas leads to new intellectual discoveries. But just as often, it is this diversity of viewpoints that seems to lead to entrenched social differences. Reasonable people, after considering complex social or religious issues, often simply end up agreeing to disagree.

Advances in genuine intellectual autonomy are also harder to measure. While the Millian view focuses on measurable increases in knowledge, the Dworkin-Mercer view focuses on the scholar or student as agent. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have believed this leads, in the long run, not only to increased knowledge, but also to better, more fulfilling lives. Democrats from Socrates to Locke have believed that this also leads to more stable, peaceful societies. But who among us is willing to wait for the long run? Quite reasonably, the taxpayer may ask, how are we to know whether we are getting our money’s worth?

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is for these reasons that it has been the Millian view that has captured most often the attention of the scholar and the taxpayer alike. It has also been the Millian view that has motivated the huge shift in resources away from the humanities and towards the sciences over the past century.

Even so, for those of us who want to assert that both goals are worth pursuing, there may be some good that results from tragic events such as the recent shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Such events may motivate us to seek a greater balance between these two aspects of the university’s mission, between the advancing of objective, mostly scientific, knowledge on the one hand, and the kind of individual, intellectual autonomy most often associated with the study of the humanities on the other.

As citizens and governments around the world begin to ask themselves what it is that distinguishes the West from other, less peaceful and less tolerant parts of the world, we should remind ourselves of the importance of those aspects of Western society that are most often associated with the goal of promoting individual intellectual autonomy in our students and in our citizens. These include a universal franchise, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, free markets and, something not unrelated to each of these, academic freedom within the university.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *