Academic Freedom at ASU: A Report Card


The term “academic freedom” is much bandied about in academia and is a term we’ve ASUReportCardbeen hearing frequently on the ASU campus in conjunction with the “Danny Ledonne Affair”. Few of us, though, take the time to stop and truly consider what is meant by the term. Is academic freedom a concept restricted solely to the classroom? Is it restricted solely to faculty? Is it merely a matter of freedom of speech and access to information, as President McClure suggested in her remarks to AS&F senators on November 23, 2015?

“And when we talk about freedom of speech, I can assure you that just because someone right now is banned from this campus, it certainly has not stopped freedom of speech. There’s still information, open records, any of those requests, we by law have and will answer.”

Is this really all that academic freedom is about?

Gerhard Casper, former president of Stanford University and a recognized champion of intellectual freedom, pithily defines academic freedom as “the freedom to engage in fearless inquiry and to speak your mind robustly and without inhibition.” Stop a moment and consider how this definition applies or does not apply to Adams State. Do you, in your daily endeavors at Adams State, feel free to “engage in fearless inquiry” and to “speak your mind robustly and without inhibition”?

Gerhard Casper also articulated a fuller, more substantial definition of academic freedom in his famous “Winds of Freedom” inaugural address on October 2, 1992. This speech can be viewed in its entirety online, or read in his book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University (2014). Casper identifies nine critical components of academic freedom (starting at 17:10 mark in the video). These nine components serve as a rubric, a report card of sorts, for assessing any university’s performance with respect to academic freedom.

I submit that Adams State University is failing with respect to all nine aspects of academic freedom: four due to a failure to embrace and five due to active administrative oppression. The nine Winds of Freedom, in order, with a brief assessment of Adams State’s performance for each, are:

  1. A university’s freedom must be first of all the freedom that we take mostly for granted…the pursuit of knowledge free from constraints as to sources and fields.

Grade: Failure to embrace. I have heard multiple faculty members rue the lack of valuation, support, and celebration of their research pursuits. The teacher-scholar model exists because the active quest for new knowledge makes us better teachers. Scholarly engagement keeps us continuously honed in our evolving disciplines and better able to convey the joy of pursuing knowledge to our students. We are repeatedly told (admonished?) to keep our focus on the students. But it is only by focusing on our own intellectual development that we can offer the very best of ourselves to our students and most effectively guide and encourage their own pursuit of knowledge.

ASU administrators may tolerate faculty research, but they certainly do not embrace it. Why? Perhaps it is because, as recently noted by CSU-Pueblo professor Jonathan Rees, “books and articles don’t do anything for a university’s bottom line.”

  1. Second, a university must be free to challenge established orthodoxy… A university is the ally of change, and change is the ally of the university. The main task of the university is to question and to challenge fundamental assumptions and practices…

Grade: Failure due to active administrative oppression. Adams State University has been running in place for decades, always on the cusp of financial ruin. We all recognize the need to change, but the cronies in Richardson Hall view all challenges to established orthodoxy as direct challenges to their fiefdom. Those who dare to bring forth fresh ideas are squashed, and those who dare to question the system that squashes those fresh ideas are quickly labeled as “negative” and “trouble makers”.

  1. Third, a university’s freedoms must be the freedom to challenge new orthodoxy. Just as traditions should not be embraced merely because they are traditions, the newest intellectual fashions should not rule just because they are new.”

Grade: Failure due to active administrative oppression. The continuous creep of corporatism into higher education is a newer orthodoxy that concerns many of us at ASU. Administrative creep has spilled over into academic matters that are the rightful domain of faculty, and the fiscal bottom line – not academic integrity – dominates decision-making. Few are brave enough to challenge this new orthodoxy, and we clearly do so at our own peril.

  1. Fourth, a university’s freedom must be the freedom of its members, faculty, and students to think and speak for themselves. A university must not have dominant ways of thinking. [We must be] ‘intolerant of intolerance’. No university can thrive unless each member is accepted as an autonomous individual and can speak and will be listened to without regard to labels and stereotypes.

Grade: Failure due to active administrative oppression. Dissent at Adams State is actively frowned upon. Richardson Hall’s thinking is the dominant way of thinking, and the only one that is tolerated. Many (most?) view Richardson Hall as an occupying army. Rather than considering administrators as fellow members of the same organization, we view the campus through an “us vs. them” lens. Where does the responsibility for this sorry state lie? Is the suppression of dissent a major reason why Adams State isn’t thriving?

  1. Fifth, a university’s freedom must be the freedom to speak plainly, without concealment and to the point – that is, without endless hedgings and escape clauses.

Grade: Failure due to active administrative oppression. The vast majority of Adams State faculty, staff, and students hold their views closely and do not speak up. Those who do are apt to be called out and shamed in public forums (e.g., the emergency Faculty Senate meeting on November 18, 2015). The culture of fear is so pervasive that those who do speak up are likely to be shunned by their own equally discontented peers in order to protect themselves. In doing so, though, we are all complicit in tamping down academic freedom. One does not have to agree with a colleague to support their right to express themselves “plainly, without concealment, and to the point.”

  1. Sixth, a university’s freedom should include the freedom to take pleasure in the life of the mind.

Grade: Failure to embrace. Conduct a web search for news articles on Adams State – how many articles focus on intellectual endeavors vs. the latest game scores? Adams State’s culture places its highest valuation on athletics and disbursement of easy grades, not on the open exploration of ideas and willingness to fail. This can be readily acknowledged as a national problem not unique to Adams State, but that does not give us permission to accept it with resignation. The purpose of an education is to stretch our brains – that marvelous organ – to stretch our individual and collective creativity to its fullest potential, to let curiosity lead us where it may, and to engage in occasional sheer wonderment for its own sake.

  1. Seventh, the winds of freedom blow across national and cultural boundaries, it does not stop at them…We need to understand, appreciate, and value differences, while realizing that without a common thread holding us together we shall be lost.”

Grade: Failure to truly embrace. Adams State pays substantial lip service to diversity and tolerance of differences. Yet look around you. How much diversity do you actually see? How welcome do our faculty, staff, and students of diversity actually feel at Adams State? How many have come to Adams State but left (or been forced to leave)? Recent campus surveys confirm we are not performing well in this area, and the blame falls squarely on administration. Embracing of diversity is a campus cultural value, and while we all play a role in jointly crafting that culture, it is administration that fosters or hinders the milieu that makes it possible. We can do much, much better when it comes to embracing diversity.

Further, Gerhard Casper stresses that tolerance of differences extends well beyond just EEOC protected classes. He notes, “We seem to have arrived at a situation where we still recognize diverse views about religion as a basis for institutional autonomy, but not diverse secular views about what matters in education. That strikes me not only as dangerous but as diminishing the marketplace of ideas.”

Does anyone think of Adams State as a “marketplace of ideas”?

  1. Eighth, the wind of freedom cannot blow in a closed & stuffy ivory tower. Members of a university community must not shy away from the social & political issues of their time… Public service is their freedom, indeed their obligation. It is not, however, necessarily the university’s freedom. A university’s freedom & obligation are to provide a forum for the most searching & candid discussion of public issues.

Grade: Failure due to active administrative oppression. Again, those who engage in social and political issues, particularly those that pertain to Adams State, do so at their own peril. Adams State University does not exercise its “obligation to provide a forum” for candid discussion of issues; rather, administration crushes such discussion by leveraging a perceived power differential, silencing any dissenting opinions via the ever-present fear for one’s continued employment.

Academic freedom is not just a catchphrase – it is a bedrock principle of higher education that we must all value and uphold through our own individual actions. If upholding academic freedom requires standing up to an oppressive administration, it is our obligation to do so. Yet the current climate renders us understandably afraid to face this obligation.

  1. Finally, teaching, learning and research benefit not from stagnant air but from fresh winds blowing. There can be no fresh wind blowing without highest quality research. Mediocrity leads to nothing other than more mediocrity. Commitment to original investigation of the first rank, and the investments in education and training that go with it.”

Grade: Failure due to active administrative oppression. See grade #1.

Even in 1992, Gerhard Casper recognized encroaching challenges to academic freedom. In his inaugural address, he stated:

I am deeply troubled by current efforts – however well-intentioned – to place new limits on freedom of expression at this and other campuses. Such limits are not only incompatible with the mission and meaning of a university; they also send exactly the wrong message from academia to society as a whole.

At that service, President Casper recalled some of Professor Gerald Gunther’s most powerful words:

University campuses should exhibit greater, not less freedom of expression that prevails in society at large.

President McClure has repeatedly asserted that Danny Ledonne’s – and, by extension, our – academic freedom has not been impacted because he can still exercise freedom of speech and has access to information, but academic freedom is not nearly so simplistic a concept. Academic freedom can only flourish within a larger culture of inquiry and tolerance that is actively cultivated and safeguarded. It requires the steadfast protection that can only be imparted by leaders who truly understand and fully embrace the deeper frameworks that undergird higher education.

We may all disagree about how well Adams State is faring with respect to academic freedom. I welcome those with contrary views to generate their own report card for Adams State. I for one give us a failing grade.


Casper, G. (2014). The winds of freedom: addressing challenges to the university. New Haven: Yale University Press.