Freedom of Speech and Faculty Tenure

–submitted by Bill Haight; photo by Stacy Nemeth

Donald Downs (2)Academic freedom of speech, which dates to the time of Socrates, and faculty tenure, which is about 500 years old, were the subjects of UW-Madison Professor Donald Downs.

A couple of the basic changes in tenure that have occurred recently in Wisconsin include:

  • Faculty dismissal is allowed beyond the original criteria of either “just cause” or critical financial cuts. Now other factors such as “program changes” can be considered which gives broader ability to dismiss, and could be misused, according to Downs.
  • Shared governance of faculty, staff, and students has been demoted to more of an advisory role rather than a co-governance role with the administration.

A practical concern is that weakening of tenure policies at the UW puts the institution at a competitive disadvantage with other universities trying to attract quality faculty.

Tenure protection for faculty is a means to an end, the end being academic freedom, according to Downs.

Academic freedom, is defined by the famous statement adopted by the UW Board of Regents in 1894: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Academic freedom and tenure, it is believed, is essential to the central mission of the University, which is pursuing truth, teaching and pushing the frontiers of knowledge.

A long-standing social contract allows academic freedom to take place with priority over politics, ideology, fashion or other social pressures. This does not allow, however, creation of absolute dogma or indoctrination. Defining what is not within that social contract is not always easy.

In the 1980’s many universities enacted policies against offensive speech by faculty or students. But in practice, these chilled intellectual honesty.

Downs related incidents of extreme speech codes, such as one from an eastern institution that prohibited “inappropriate laughter.” “Is anyone clairvoyant enough to be able to tell when laughter turns ‘inappropriate’?” asked Downs. Another policy urged campus members to report “discomforting” speech. “Isn’t much of learning somewhat discomforting?” asked Downs.

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