The Responsibilities That Attach to Academic Freedom — Part 2

Sometimes, the universe betrays a certain sense of humour. This week on this blog, I’m trying to break down the responsibilities that attach to academic freedom, according to UNESCO, AAUP, AUCC, CAUT and the University of Waterloo. Alas, my other professional responsibilities keep getting in the way. So, Tuesday’s post was truncated, and I missed posting yesterday. And today, I have only a few minutes to chip away at the project. Ah, well. Slow and steady wins the race. Let’s accomplish what we can in the time that we have.

Okay. Tuesday, we looked at the full extent of what UNESCO and AAUP say on the topic via a series of long excerpts. But I didn’t have time to boil the excerpts down. Let’s do that now.


UNESCO’s summary of the responsibilities that attach to academic freedom starts with a mother statement that academic freedom “carries with it special duties and responsibilities.”

In fact, some of these responsibilities turn out to be not so special at all; among the “special responsibilities” UNESCO lists are things like obeying the law — responsibilities that we expect from everyone, not just scholars. However, most of the responsibilities UNESCO lists really do attach in particular to scholars at post-secondary institutions and, on UNESCO’s account, and in particular flow from UNESCO’s position that

Higher-education teaching personnel should seek to achieve the highest possible standards in their professional work, since their status largely depends on themselves and the quality of their achievements.


Here is a round up of the responsibilities that UNESCO associates with these high standards:

  • base research on an honest and search for truth guided by respect for evidence and high standards
  • respect other scholars’ academic freedom
  • follow ethical and professional standards
  • serve society
  • teach effectively, fairly and equitably
  • maintain and disseminate scholarship, whether disciplinary or pedagogical
  • follow the standards of research ethics
  • acknowledge other scholars’ intellectual contributions
  • professionally appraise academic colleagues and students fairly and impartially
  • when expressing views extra-curricularly, avoid misleading the public on the nature of one’s professional expertise

UNESCO also lists a number of obligations required to keep universities running well as sites for free, responsible inquiry. These include such things as participating in collegial governance, and following good practices on such matters as conflict of interest.


Like UNESCO, AAUP offers a mother statement for its characterization of the responsibilities associated with academic freedom. According to AAUP, academic freedom and university teachers’ special position in the community brings “duties correlative with rights.”

Here’s a round-up of those duties:

  • adequate performance of their other academic duties
  • accuracy
  • appropriate restraint
  • showing respect for the opinions of others
  • in extra-curricular communications, making clear that one does not represent the institution
  • fulfilling responsibilities to one’s subject, students, profession, and institution
  • promoting conditions of free inquiry and to furthering public understanding of academic freedom

Okay. That’s it for today. Tomorrow (if my other responsibilities permit it), I’ll move on to what AUCC, CAUT and Waterloo say about responsibilities.


But first..

A brief post-script on extra-curricular expression:

Take a moment and notice the last bullet point in the UNESCO section. We can replace UNESCO’s phrase “speaking or writing outside scholarly channels on matters which are not related to their professional expertise” with the pithier “extra-curricular expression.”

Although I only touched on it in my above summary, much of AAUP’s discussion of the responsibilities associated with academic freedom relate in particular to extra-curricular expression by professors.

Indeed, many of the recent controversies over academic freedom in fact relate to extra-curricular expression and its limits. This is an important and interesting area, but not one I can focus on in what is intended to be a handy summary of the key features of academic freedom. Once we’ve worked our way through all of the main aspects of academic freedom in this series of posts, I’ll put some time into a post or two about some of the interesting questions and puzzles around extra-curricular expression by professors. In the meantime, let me suggest that  what we want is an approach that ensures that our Einsteins can speak publicly on not only physics but also world peace, without inviting the notion that all professors are reliable experts on all topics, like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island.

The Professor and Gilligan at work in their island laboratory.