The sharp decline in the number of tenure-track academic jobs is among current challenges to academic freedom, says author and civil liberties lawyer Marjorie Heins.
Heins delivered the University Senate’s 23rd Annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom on Wednesday in the Law School’s Honigman Auditorium.
She is the author of “Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge.” It chronicles the history, law and personal stories behind the struggle to recognize academic freedom as “a special concern of the First Amendment.”
Heins talked of how she began to focus on academic freedom when she worked as a First Amendment lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990s.
“In the last case I worked on, the ACLU represented six professors who objected to a Virginia law barring them from accessing anything ‘sexually explicit’ on their office computers. It seemed like a slam-dunk academic-freedom case,” she said.
But while the ACLU originally prevailed, Virginia appealed, and a conservative majority of judges on the federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled the professors did not have First Amendment protection for their job-related research and teaching.
Heins is founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project. It provides research and advocacy on free speech, copyright, and media democracy issues.
She explained the importance of academic freedom by citing Justice Felix Frankfurter, who called teachers “the priests of our democracy” whose job was to promote open-mindedness and critical inquiry that make for responsible citizens.
The lecture is named for three U-M faculty members — Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson — who in 1954 were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. All invoked constitutional rights and refused to answer questions about their political associations. All three were suspended from the university. Markert subsequently was reinstated, and Davis and Nickerson were dismissed.
While the anti-communist climate of the 1950s provided striking examples of the restriction of academic freedom, Heins offered current examples of that freedom being challenged.
“Today, tenure is dramatically shrinking, tenure-track jobs are getting as rare as fish on bicycles, and contingent faculty make up 75 percent of undergraduate teaching ranks,” Heins said. She added that a journalist wrote that an army of adjuncts is now “the hamburger flippers of the academic world.”
Heins said that when the American Association of University Professors first articulated the three-part definition of academic freedom in 1915, it linked the concept inextricably to tenure, “without which, its founders thought, professors would not have the job security needed for them to speak freely without fear of reprisal,” she said.
Heins said academic freedom is not an elitist right that belongs only to pointy-headed intellectuals, but in fact is essential to democracy. She said that Justice William Brennan wrote in one ruling that academic freedom is “of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.”
Sponsoring the lecture were the Academic Freedom Lecture Fund, American Association of University Professors University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Chapter and Michigan Conference; and at U-M: the Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Office of the Vice President for Global Communications, Law School, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, Institute for the Humanities, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and an anonymous donor.