Virtue and the Stewardship
of Academic Freedom

Reflections on ambition, conversation, and community

James W. Wagner, President of the University

Vol. 8 No. 2
October/November 2005

Return to Contents

By A Nose
Jockeying in the Rankings Race

The Current Standings

Whither the NRC Study?

"I am not going to change our methods of calculation just in order to try and achieve a ranking higher than another institution."

"Part of the reason educational reputation is so important is because people—students, faculty, and administrators—derive much of their status from the status of their institution."

Graduate School and College Excellence
Does research reputation influence undergraduate rankings?

Peer Scorings and Rankings of Colleges and Graduate Programs and Research


The “Lecture Track” Reconsidered
Professional identity and aspiration among non-tenure-path faculty

Tales from the Lecture Track: Kristin Wendland, Music

Tales from the Lecture Track: Sheila Tefft, Journalism

Virtue and the Stewardship
of Academic Freedom

Reflections on ambition, conversation, and community


On the wall beside the elevator door on the fourth floor of the Administration Building hangs an inconspicuous plaque. Every time I pass it, I am reminded of one of the bedrock principles on which a university stands—academic freedom.

The plaque is the Alexander Meiklejohn Award, presented by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1963 to Henry L. Bowden ’32C-’34L, who was at the time the chair of Emory’s Board of Trustees. The previous year, Bowden had led the university’s suit against the State of Georgia to overturn a constitutional provision that made it financially ruinous for private universities to integrate. Emory’s argument was that the state had no right to restrict a university’s freedom to choose its students. The state Supreme Court agreed.

Two years later Bowden and President Sanford Atwood stood by the principle of academic freedom again, when they defended Thomas J. J. Altizer, of Emory College and “God Is Dead” fame. Outraged readers of Time magazine, which had featured Altizer’s “radical theology” in a cover story, called for his dismissal. But Atwood and Bowden clearly understood and insisted on the centrality of academic freedom, and Altizer stayed at Emory.

It seems particularly appropriate this fall to reflect on these two examples of dedication to academic freedom, because Bowden and Atwood helped guide the university through a period of rapid and dramatic change—social, cultural, and academic—while never losing sight of what mattered most. As we complete an important phase of strategic planning that will generate an ambitious agenda for further dramatic change over the next decade, we would do well to emulate these two Emory leaders and recall what we at Emory stand on—and what we stand for.

The AAUP ’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure makes for interesting reading. Its very first paragraph reminds us that “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” It is the common good—not individual good or institutional good—for which academic freedom is established and secured: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.” In other words, it is academia—not its faculty members, and not even the particular institutions in which they pursue their vocations—that has been granted the privilege of academic freedom. This privilege carries with it “duties correlative with rights” for both the university and the individual faculty member. Implicit in the social compact undergirding the university and its members is an understanding that the institution accepts a responsibility to preserve and exercise the intellectual enterprise in behalf of all society.

To be sure, both institutions and individuals must be attuned to the possibility of repression, political pressure, and other forms of interference from outside the academy that might impede the freedom to research, publish, and teach. The hallmarks of a healthy scholarly community will always be, among other things, open communication, rigorous debate, and the determined pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Preserving these hallmarks requires attention and effort. So how do we at Emory ensure that preservation?

A community of scholars, no less than any other real community, maintains its strength through the exercise of certain social virtues. What matters as much as a community’s infrastructure is the health of its ethos. A university would be nothing, for example, without courage—the courage to tell the truth about a student’s inadequate work or a colleague’s insufficient merit for tenure, and also the courage to hear this truth. A university requires a sense of justice to measure what is properly due to each of its members, whether that measurement comes in performance evaluations for staff members or budget allocations
for departments.

Maybe most of all a community of scholars needs the virtues of wisdom and temperance—what the ancients thought of as moderation. Where academic freedom is concerned, moderation may be the most important virtue of all. If I have courage enough to proclaim the truth as my sense of justice and wisdom perceive it, and yet I say it so offensively as to close the ears of my audience, I will limit the possibility of dialogue. If the manner of my speaking gets in the way of your hearing what I have to say, I may have exercised my freedom of speech, but I have not been a good steward of my academic freedom. The two freedoms are not identical.

Scholarly communities flourish on a diet of deliberation and nuance. Unfortunately we live in a day that requires special effort to explore and consider nuance. Our culture is one of impatient communication, not measured discourse. Email invites immediate response. Cell phones generate continuous chatter. The prevalence of bumper stickers, sound bites, and “shock-jock” broadcasting creates a sense of urgency to feel heard rather than to hear. In this environment it’s tempting to believe that outrage is necessary to get anyone’s attention.

But what I am trying to suggest is that real academic freedom requires a commitment to more than my right to say whatever I want. It demands a commitment to a conversation much larger than myself and to a context in which I never speak in isolation.

In the past year, the national context of higher education has witnessed a number of very public examples in which persons exercised the right to speak without considering the larger context of their speech, and thus—in my view—failed in their responsibility in behalf of true academic freedom. The controversy surrounding Ward Churchill’s pronouncements about 9/11, for instance, makes clear that it is possible to present an idea in such a way that the idea gets lost in the outrage over the language that conveys it. Similarly, the controversy that followed Lawrence Summers’s comments about women in science indicates that Summers may have failed to consider the contextual fact that the pronouncement of Harvard’s president about anything often attracts more attention than it may be worth.

Academic freedom requires a certain level of trustworthiness that flows in two directions. Members of the faculty must be able to trust that when their academic work becomes the target of personal threat and not just dissent—as happened more recently with our own Professor Paul Courtright and, before that, with Professor Deborah Lipstadt—the university will stand by them, whether trustees or administrators agree with them or not.

At the same time, a level of trustworthiness is demanded of the faculty. Real freedom implies a kind of commitment to dialogue, a kind of respect for one’s interlocutor, a kind of rhetorical self-awareness, and even a kind of virtue not easily earned and not widely practiced.
The Vision Statement that, together, we crafted as a community two years ago talks about “courageous leadership.” My expectation is that Emory will continue to manifest courageous leadership by resisting popular trends and by fostering the two-way trust required of real academic freedom.