The single biggest threat to academic freedom today is the decline of full-time, tenured faculty positions at colleges and universities, says the historian who will deliver the U-M Faculty Senate’s annual academic freedom lecture this week.

Henry Reichman

Henry F. Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, will speak at the 29th Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom at 4 p.m. Oct. 30 in Hutchins Hall, Room 100.

His talk is titled, “Do Adjuncts have Academic Freedom? or Why Tenure Matters.” The event is free and open to the public.

Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, said that around the country colleges and universities are providing tenure protections to an ever-shrinking segment of faculty. Only about a quarter of people who teach in higher education today are included in the tenure system, a much smaller percentage than a few decades ago.

Reichman said research has shown that an overreliance on short-term or part-time adjunct faculty negatively impacts student retention, graduation and learning. It has also weakened tenured faculty’s voice in shared governance, he said.

Reichman noted that his lecture honors three U-M professors who, more than six decades ago, were punished for refusing to testify about their political beliefs before a congressional committee. 

“That should remind us that there has never been a golden age of academic freedom,” Reichman said. “It’s important to recognize that it’s always been contested and vulnerable.

“That said, I think the current environment is as threatening and dangerous to academic freedoms (as) the 1950s.”

The lecture is named after U-M faculty members H. Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson. They were called in 1954 to testify before a panel of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. All three invoked their constitutional rights and refused to answer questions about their political associations.

The men were suspended from the university. Davis and Nickerson were fired. Markert was retained but censured, and left the university soon afterward.

Several years later, there was a push to get the Board of Regents to apologize for what happened. They did not, so U-M’s Senate Assembly passed a resolution in 1990 that deeply regretted “the failure of the University Community to protect the values of intellectual freedom” in 1954, and established the annual lecture in honor of the three men.

Reichman said that along with a decline in tenured positions, other factors posing a threat to academic freedom include interference and pressure from government, the increased power of donors to impact curriculum without the approval of faculty, and online harassment.

Michael Atzmon, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, and of materials science and engineering, said some of those external threats seem to be increasing. Atzmon is a co-chair of the lecture committee.

“Scholarship can only thrive when scholars are free to pursue their research without inappropriate interference,” he said.

Joy Beatty, who chairs the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, Senate Assembly and Faculty Senate, said while academic freedom is not always at the forefront of people’s minds, it is important to be cognizant of it and to protect it.

She said some people misunderstand the scope and responsibilities of tenure and think it is only about lifetime job protection and good benefits.

“Tenure also involves our professional obligations to our students, our disciplines, and the broader academy,” she said.

Reichman has been the chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure since 2012. He also chairs the AAUP Foundation and previously served as AAUP’s first vice president. His book, “The Future of Academic Freedom,” was published in April by Johns Hopkins University Press.

A historian who focuses on Russia and the Soviet Union, Reichman has taught at California State University, East Bay, for 25 years. He served three terms as chair of its academic senate, on the executive committee of the CSU system academic senate, and for nine years on his faculty union bargaining team.

Reichman edited the American Library Association’s bimonthly Newsletter on Academic Freedom from 1982 to 2015. He co-edits and writes regularly for AAUP’s Academe Blog.

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