Some thoughts on academic freedom

Dominique G. Homberger
Professor of Biological Science
A. Ravi P. Rau,
Professor of
Physics and Astronomy

both at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

Quotations from
"Preserve The Roles Of Tenure, Teaching, And Research"
The Scientist, Vol:12(10), p. 8, May 11, 1998

"Indefinite tenure is not a lifetime guarantee for an individual but rather a distinguishing characteristic of certain positions in some institutions -- including, but not exclusively, universities. U.S. Supreme Court justices, judges in federal courts, and certain senior civil servants also have tenure, and it is not difficult to see why society has bestowed tenure on these positions. The purpose is to protect people holding these positions from possible retaliation for their ideas or decisions, should these turn out to be unpopular."

"Tenure in the academic world in principle is no different. The historical memory and the continuity of our culture and civilization rest on knowledge. Today, knowledge, its critical analysis, its creation, and its transmission have come to rest overwhelmingly in our universities. It is the importance of this function that has led to, and justifies, the institution of tenure for professorial faculty. Tenure is an integral part of university culture, specifically its spirit of free inquiry to follow ideas where they may lead, even if this be out of favor with or anathema to society and governments of the time.

The spirit of free inquiry is a habit of the mind, a way of approaching all questions to get closer to truth and understanding, whether convenient or not. Tenure is needed to nurture this habit and to sustain a campus culture that values such inquiry, not just tolerates it. You cannot be free when you have to fear for your job, whether from political and other pressures from outside the academy or from differing styles and ideological pressures from within academic units themselves. A habit of critical inquiry that is free of concerns for personal safety is particularly necessary in a profession that analyzes received knowledge critically and generates new ideas--both of these activities, by their very nature, may upset the status quo.

There are many examples of ideas, inventions, and basic research that at one time were seen as esoteric, academic, and devoid of any relevance to society but later became absolutely central to society and to our lives. History also provides countless examples of ideas that at first were part of unorthodox thinking prevailing eventually over established opinions. Predictions being fallible, society or academic units themselves must not censor creative and critical inquiry. Every professorial faculty member needs to be free to pursue a particular line of research even if it does not follow the current bandwagon."

"If we were to let politically appointed regents, supervisors, and board chairpersons decide what is meaningful and what should be permitted, free inquiry and scholarship would incur lasting damage. The only criterion for judging a particular line of research is whether it is original and well done, even if only a subset within the profession finds the line of inquiry interesting or meaningful."