Endorsed by the College of Arts and Sciences faculty April 7, 2021.
Academic Freedom protects the ability of teachers and learners to explore and to share the results of their inquiries with one another. It is a right held collectively by all teachers by virue of their profession, in which the work of individual teachers is subject to academic peer review. Intellectual exploration is key to the discovery and innovation that lie at the heart of higher education. The Bylaws of the Board of Regents describe the commitment of the University of Nebraska to the central principle of academic freedom for students, faculty, and the communities we serve:
The University serves the people of Nebraska and the common good through learning, teaching, extension work, research, scholarship, and public service. Fulfillment of these functions requires the preservation of intellectual freedoms of teaching, expression, research, and debate. The right to search for truth, to support a position the searcher believes is the truth, and to disagree with others whose intellect reaches a different conclusion is the fiber of America's greatness. It is, likewise, the strength of a great University, and its preservation is vital. Members of the professional staff are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects. (Section 4.2)
Freedom to teach and freedom to learn are inseparable facets of academic freedom. The responsibility to secure and to respect general conditions conducive to the freedom to learn is shared by all members of the academic community, including ensuring a fair hearing for divergent viewpoints. Equally central to the academic endeavor is the weighing of such viewpoints. In contrast to first amendment speech rights, which assume a legal equality of all speech, academic freedom presumes the necessity of assessing such speech and assigning greater or lesser value to different intellectual positions, based on standards in the field.
In their professional role, teachers1 should encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. Teachers should demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides. In particular, teachers must respect the rights of students to hold beliefs differing from their own. Teachers must avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students, and encourage a collegial environment in classroom discussions.
It is, however, neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student for a teacher or a peer to closely scrutinize an idea or viewpoint the student has implied, proposed or advanced. Participants in a classroom discussion should not limit or avoid ideas that are germane to a subject under consideration because a student with particular beliefs or values might take offense. Some might assume that students have a right not to have their beliefs—even deeply held beliefs—challenged but this assumption contradicts a central purpose of higher education: to challenge students to examine and think hard about their own perspectives, whatever those might be.
In their role as learners, students are encouraged to express opinions, challenge ideas, take reasoned exception to data or views offered in any course of study, and reserve judgment about matters of opinion. However, students are responsible for learning the content of any course of study for which they are enrolled, and will be assessed on how well they demonstrate the content and methods of the course. Students must also respect the rights of teachers to hold beliefs and present positions differing from their own, and avoid any harassment or discriminatory treatment of teachers.
Should controversial subjects be discussed in the classroom?
As stated in the Board of Regents Policy on Free Expression and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 1940 Statement of Principles, teachers "are entitled to freely discuss topics in the classroom"; however, they "should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter [that] has no relation to their subject." This statement is not intended to discourage the teaching of what may be deemed "controversial." Indeed, controversy is often at the heart of the free academic inquiry that the tenets of academic freedom are designed to foster. This statement seeks to underscore the need for teachers to focus on discussion of material germane to the subject of the class. Occasional discussion of material not directly relevant to the course is to be expected. However, it is the teacher's duty to keep time spent on irrelevant material, whether introduced by students or the teacher, to a level that does not distract from the central pedagogical goals of the class.
Should classes be required to present material in a balanced way?
When people insist that teachers need to present their subject material in a "balanced" way, they often mean that a teacher should impartially engage all potentially relevant points of view. The ideal of balance makes sense, however, only in light of a teacher's obligation to present all aspects of a subject matter that professional standards would require to be presented. Balance is determined by the teacher in light of the relevant disciplinary knowledge and professional standards.
What is Teaching vs. Indoctrination?
It is teaching and not indoctrination when, as a result of research and study, teachers assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. Only if a teacher advances such propositions in ways that do not allow students to challenge their validity or advance alternative understandings, is the teacher engaging in indoctrination and failing to encourage the free pursuit of learning. The assertion of a proposition or a viewpoint, however controversial, should be a path to engagement in argumentation and discussion—an engagement that lies at the core of academic freedom. Such engagement is essential if students are to acquire the practice and skills of critical independence. The essence of higher education does not lie in the passive transmission of knowledge but in the inculcation of a mature independence of mind.
Some teachers may prefer to dissect dispassionately every question presented, engaging in an impartial examination of them all. Some may prefer to expound a preferred theory. One style may resonate better with some students than with others. A good teacher will strive to promote student learning regardless of the style they choose and adopt and modify it when appropriate to achieve this goal. The fundamental point is that freedom in the classroom applies as much to controversial opinions as to dispassionate surveys. So long as opinion and interpretation are not advanced and insisted upon as dogmatic truth, and all such expressions ultimately serve the pedagogical mission of the class, the style of presentation is at the discretion of the teacher, subject to peer review.
- American Association of University Professors, 1940 Statement of Principles and 1970 Interpretive Comment.
- American Association of University Professors, Statement on Professional Ethics (2009).
- American Association of University Professors, Freedom in the Classroom (2007).
- American Association of University Professors, Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students (1967).
- Bylaws of the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
- Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska Policy Commitment to Free Expression; Guide for Facilities Use; and Education (January 12, 2018).
- UNL Faculty Senate, Professional Ethics Statement (2016).
1 The term "teachers" is understood to include anyone acting in an instructional capacity at UNL, classroom or otherwise, regardless of rank or title.