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Home » Issues » Academic Freedom is the Union’s Fight, and All of Ours

Academic Freedom is the Union’s Fight, and All of Ours

by James Davis, PSC President

This fight is a union fight, too


Universities are entering a period of intensifying struggle over academic freedom and free speech. It is fueled primarily by disagreements over the war between Israel and Hamas, and the role of the US government in that war. The most important responsibilities of an academic labor union such as ours during this period are to promote the values of free speech and academic freedom, which are enshrined in the U.S. constitution in the preamble to the PSC-CUNY collective bargaining agreement, and to ensure that the administration protects the safety of the campus community. The PSC has a long history of supporting academic freedom, which is often most at risk in times of national crisis and strife. No matter one’s political perspective, the best environment for the truth to emerge is for research and open debate to flourish. That commitment is what best serves a democratic society. It also means that members of a campus community may be made uncomfortable and members of the public may challenge the administration. These are features of a university that is fully committed to academic freedom. The struggle over ideas is not always calm, nor can that be a goal in itself. 

The principles of academic freedom were codified in the U.S. more than a century ago through struggles over the professional qualifications of two economics professors at Ivy league universities – one a Stanford University professor who advocated, among other things, ending immigration to the U.S. from certain countries, the other a University of Pennsylvania economist who criticized industrial capitalism. John Dewey, the Columbia University scholar who helped found the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), had been warning administrators for years to stand up to outside pressures on research and teaching, including threats to resources. “The great event in the history of an institution,” Dewey wrote in 1902, “is now likely to be a big gift rather than a new investigation or the development of a strong and vigorous teacher.” Today, when resources for public colleges and universities are increasingly scarce, we must insist that our administrations nevertheless fully protect the practice of academic freedom in teaching and research and the right of all members of the academic community to exercise freedom of expression. 

The discomfort of challenging ideas does not give license to threaten the safety of members of a campus community. Opinions that are expressed passionately or in an uncivil or even offensive tone are protected by the First Amendment, but free speech rights are not limitless, on or off a college campus. We must recognize that the war between Israel and Hamas has increased incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia here in New York City, including at CUNY, that are not protected by academic freedom or free speech. We must also acknowledge that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits agencies that receive federal financial assistance from engaging in discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and that includes CUNY. But it is dangerous to suppose that the defense of academic freedom and free speech is inimical to the fight against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination. In fact the opposite is true; we will only successfully fight such bigotry in our institutions in the context of academic freedom and freedom of expression.

We have reached a dangerous place in American society when the jobs of the presidents of our high-profile universities are threatened by the very legislators who have embraced the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, in which “Jews will not replace us!” was a resounding clarion call, and the January 6, 2022 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which drew on organized, antisemitic, racist white nationalism. There is a real need to combat the terrible scourge of antisemitism, and to challenge ethnic, racial, and religious intolerance in whatever form it takes. That need is not met by curtailing academic freedom and freedom of expression. Our students deserve an environment in which bad arguments and expressions of intolerance or dogmatism are met by rigorous scholarship and teaching, and a vision of inclusivity and empathy, not by threats to defund higher education.

As colleagues, we must continue to find ways to hear the sincerity of the pain that our co-workers and students are experiencing without succumbing to the demagogues that weaponize it to advance their political agenda. That agenda has nothing to do with actual Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, or Muslims, and everything to do with the independence of colleges and universities from the control of politicians, corporations, and donors. This independence has always been precarious and contested, and rarely more needed than now. Universities will not find a moral compass in politicians badgering university administrators. Any comfort one finds in that spectacle comes at a cost, as the Florida higher education system cautions us. The AAUP issued a report this month on the Governor DeSantis administration’s undermining of the norms of university inquiry in the name of vanquishing the so-called “woke” agenda. 

If we encourage the suppression of academic freedom and freedom of expression for any of us, even those with opinions we find detestable, we will soon find them weakened for all of us. When we struggle collectively to increase funding to CUNY, we are not looking to place CUNY beyond the reach of politicians and members of the public – that is neither possible nor desirable – but we are looking to make the university less vulnerable to threats and manipulation by those who do not share these values at the cornerstone of great universities.

In solidarity,

James Davis, President

James Davis is an English Professor at Brooklyn College and the President of The Professional Staff Congress (NYSUT, AFT Local 2334), which represents 30,000 faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York.

Published: December 19, 2023 | Last Modified: December 20, 2023

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