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What is Academic Freedom?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 October 2016
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Academic freedom is the notion that students and faculty in educational settings should be free to research and express ideas and theories without fear of repression, termination of employment, or other negative repercussions, regardless of the controversy surrounding a certain idea or theory. Academic freedom is intended to protect researchers, students, and so on from negative repercussions due to controversial research, political exploration, or any other type of research that may cause that person to be targeted.

The idea of academic freedom has restrictions, however. Many universities and colleges in the United States require their faculty members to avoid engaging in controversial topics that are not related to the coursework. When speaking outside of the institution, faculty members must be careful to make it clear they do not speak for their institutions and are speaking only for themselves. Professors and other faculty members must also be sure not to teach the subject at hand from an ideological standpoint, and must instead ensure that a certain amount of objectivity is present in his or her teaching to maintain academic freedom for his or her students.

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Academic freedom became a major issue in education as a result of the politicization of hot button issues. In some countries, educators and researchers have been imprisoned or worse for their research or statements contrary to the official government reports. Since educational establishments have a certain amount of control over the flow of ideas and information, such establishments are often targets for repression or retaliation. Hence, the establishment of academic freedom is necessary to ensure objective research and reports.

In the United States, the theory of evolution has been an issue that has tested the limits of academic freedom. This theory, which states that humans evolved from other organisms, has been hotly contested from anti-evolution critics who claim that humans developed from some sort of intelligent design or higher power. The science community, and ostensibly science departments at colleges and universities, teach the theory of evolution, and are protected under acts of academic freedom, but critics argue their own academic freedom is at risk because of their beliefs in intelligent design. The debate has led to court cases, and the issue continues to raise concerns from both parties.

The Supreme Court of the United States determined that colleges and universities have the right to determine what may be taught and how it may be taught, who may teach, and who may be admitted to learn. This, however, is a broad definition, which can lead to disputes as to what exactly is covered by the notion of academic freedom.

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