Academic Freedom and the Federal Idea
10 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2013
Date Written: August 23, 2013
The openness of institutions of higher learning to everyone without discrimination has given rise to significant challenges to the traditional ways of academic life. Unexamined practices regarding the hiring and promotion of faculty or the endorsement of certain scholarly voices over others are being appropriately contested. It is with the worthwhile objective of attending to such challenges that post-secondary institutions have adopted respectful workplace policies – rules that ensure that no one is required to feel unwelcome in educational environments of higher learning. These hard-to-pin-down policies are in serious tension with the practices we associate with academic freedom, simply put, the freedom to teach and to write as one pleases. Some say the conflict is irresoluble. Rather than resolving the conflict, this paper proposes another way of framing it. A version of federalism is offered up that recognizes pluralism and autonomy as a means of facilitating diversity. Non-territorial versions of federalism, prevalent in the English-speaking world in the early twentieth century, promoted self-government within the multiple places in which persons lived their political and social lives. Universities, according to this account, are self-governing associations of persons in the pursuit of practices of thinking. This is an approach to group rights that accommodates – indeed, encourages – change within associations as a consequence of robust and rational debate. It is an approach that has the benefit of both addressing the challenge of change while building on a political form familiar to many around the world. It may generate a viable, if imperfect, way out this impasse.
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