AAR Statement on Academic Freedom
One of the primary purposes of the AAR is to serve the professional interests of its members. In a time of rapid change in higher education, when current threats to the academic freedom of AAR members include the erosion of shared faculty governance, the rise in contingent labor, the pattern of discrimination toward some scholars, and efforts to restrict speech on matters of public concern, the AAR reaffirms its commitment to academic freedom. This document outlines the AAR’s understanding of academic freedom in the three traditional areas of professional and scholarly duties: teaching and research, as well as service to our home institutions and the larger publics we serve. In addition, this document summarizes the AAR’s procedures for advocating for members whose academic freedom may have been violated.
The AAR has long been committed to the fundamental principles of academic freedom articulated by the American Association of University Professors in its “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”1 Indeed, our mission statement affirms that "within a context of free inquiry and critical examination, the Academy welcomes all disciplined reflection on religion—both from within and outside of communities of belief and practice." The work of “ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values” demands that we safeguard the conditions that allow for the free exchange of ideas, and it entails responsibilities as well as rights. Both are governed by the canons of academic freedom.
Responsible instruction, in any educational context, involves critical inquiry: questioning assumptions, some of them long taken for granted; attending to multiple points of view, some of them disturbing; and engaging with the methods and findings of other scholars, some of them drastically different than our own.
Teaching and learning of this sort sometimes proves unsettling to students, especially those who may be unaccustomed to reflection on their own religious practices and beliefs or unfamiliar with critical analysis of their own traditions and communities. In the classroom, instructors should model and encourage free inquiry, critical analysis, and the respectful acknowledgment of diverse points of view. Where it is appropriate to the institutional setting, the instructor’s recognition of diversity might include acknowledgement of students’ moral, spiritual, or religious commitments. In turn, administrators should create an environment in which both instructors and students feel able to openly express their views, including those that might be unpopular. Institutional leaders must affirm principles of academic freedom if and when such views are challenged, since they bear “a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it."2
Researchers have the right to follow lines of inquiry where they lead. Criticism should not impede scholarship, and our shared commitment to free inquiry means that scholars must be free from intimidation and free to form conclusions on the basis of shared scholarly norms, as understood by qualified peers.3 Further, AAR members should be cautious in condemning unwanted speech or writing on the grounds that it violates standards of “civility,” since sometimes that argument might allow unfair treatment and endanger free inquiry.
However, responsible research—inquiring, speaking, and writing about religion in scholarly forums or in the public arena—also entails certain responsibilities, and especially the responsibility to recognize that our discoveries may have implications for the self‐understanding and well being of students, colleagues, and members of the public. Scholars, administrators, and governing boards have an obligation to promote the conditions for intellectual exchange in all forms of communication, from conferences to publications. When scholars communicate those views in social media that an institution would not recognize as relevant for hiring and promotion, those statements are “extramural” expressions of personal views that should be protected by the legally sanctioned right of free speech.4
Many AAR members are expected to provide service to their institutions in the form of committee work, recruitment and admissions, public engagement, and other activities. The canons of academic freedom apply to such service. As in the classroom and the convention center, scholars of religion must be able to express their views openly and without coercion as they provide service to their institutions and the wider community. While it is appropriate to note a scholar’s unwillingness to perform the usual modes of institutional service, that service cannot be demeaned or disqualified when the scholar expresses unpopular views in the performance of those duties. As the AAUP has proposed, appeals to “collegiality” as a standard for faculty evaluation are inappropriate, although refusal to participate in faculty governance or institutional service, or a pattern of disrespectful communication that fails to safeguard the conditions of free exchange, might also be unacceptable.5
AAR Advocacy of Academic Freedom
The AAR is committed to free inquiry and will advocate for our members whose academic freedom may have been violated. The AAR cannot adjudicate disputes, but if there is an alleged violation of academic freedom in research, teaching, or service, the AAR’s “Policy on Public Statements” indicates that the Board of Directors will consider requests from members to issue a statement on a case if the relevant procedures are followed, including by establishing that the request falls within the purview of the AAR’s concern to promote the study of religion and serve the professional interests of members.6 If those conditions are met, the AAR will strive to act with dispatch, since a scholar’s employment and reputation might be at stake in cases of alleged breaches of academic freedom. As our policy states, when the President or Executive Director receives a request to address an alleged breach of academic freedom, he or she will immediately forward the request to the AAR Executive Committee, which will serve as the organization’s Academic Freedom Committee. That body will make a decision about the appropriate course of action within twenty-one business days. If the Executive Committee or the full Board takes action on an academic freedom matter, that action will be announced on the AAR website within two business days.
1AAUP, “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” available at http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure.
2Quotation from “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” issued by the University of Chicago, available at http://freeexpression.uchicago.edu/page/report-committee-freedom-expression.
3The same rights of non-interference and the same standards of assessment apply to peer-reviewed digital scholarship that an institution is willing to count as evidence of qualification for hiring, promotion, and tenure.
4On extramural speech and academic freedom, see AAUP, “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications,” revised and expanded text adopted in 2013, available at http://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-electronic-communications-2014.
5AAUP, “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation,” approved 1999, available at http://www.aaup.org/report/collegiality-criterion-faculty-evaluation. See also Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, “From the President: Civility,” available at http://www.aaup.org/article/president-civility#.VZWQ-IsfyA0.
6American Academy of Religion, “Policy on Public Statements,” approved 2015, available at https://www.aarweb.org/about/policy-on-public-statements.
(Board resolution, November 2006; Amended by the AAR Board of Directors, February 2016)