Institutional Autonomy

As I intimated yesterday, the academic freedom statements produced by universities and by groups representing universities (such as AUCC) tend to discuss institutional autonomy as part of the larger picture of academic freedom. Faculty associations and larger associations to which individual faculty associations (such as CAUT) belong typically say nothing about institutional autonomy, or seek to separate academic freedom from institutional autonomy. Here’s a survey of what the organizations we’ve been looking at for the past couple of weeks each say on the matter. You’ll see the pattern I described playing out.


In its 1997 “Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel,” UNESCO says the following:

III. Guiding principles 

5. Advances in higher education, scholarship and research depend largely on infrastructure and resources, both human and material, and on the qualifications and expertise of higher-education teaching personnel as well as on their human, pedagogical and technical qualities, underpinned by academic freedom, professional responsibility, collegiality and institutional autonomy.


V. Institutional rights, duties and responsibilities

A. Institutional autonomy

17. The proper enjoyment of academic freedom and compliance with the duties and responsibilities listed below require the autonomy of institutions of higher education. Autonomy is that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making by institutions of higher education regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities consistent with systems of public accountability, especially in respect of funding provided by the state, and respect for academic freedom and human rights. However, the nature of institutional autonomy may differ according to the type of establishment involved.

18. Autonomy is the institutional form of academic freedom and a necessary precondition to guarantee the proper fulfilment of the functions entrusted to higher-education teaching personnel and institutions.

19. Member States are under an obligation to protect higher education institutions from threats to their autonomy coming from any source.

20. Autonomy should not be used by higher education institutions as a pretext to limit the rights of higher-education teaching personnel provided for in this Recommendation or in other international standards set out in the appendix.

21. Self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership are essential components of meaningful autonomy for institutions of higher education.


In its seminal “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” the AAUP does not discuss institutional autonomy.


The AUCC’s Statement on Academic Freedom has the following to say about institutional autonomy:

Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.


University leadership: It is a major responsibility of university governing bodies and senior officers to protect and promote academic freedom. This includes ensuring that funding and other partnerships do not interfere with autonomy in deciding what is studied and how.


CAUT’s Statement on Academic Freedom says the following:

Academic freedom must not be confused with institutional autonomy.  Post-secondary institutions are autonomous to the extent that they can set policies independent of outside influence. That very autonomy can protect academic freedom from a hostile external environment, but it can also facilitate an internal assault on academic freedom.  Academic freedom is a right of members of the academic staff, not of the institution. The employer shall not abridge academic freedom on any grounds, including claims of institutional autonomy.


None of Waterloo’s policies or agreements discussing academic freedom mentions institutional autonomy.


Tomorrow is a travel day for me; so I’m going to skip posting. We’ll return Monday to look at the final aspect of academic freedom policies, namely what they say about who has academic freedom. Having done that, we’ll finish our chart!

P.S. A couple people have recently remarked to me that this blog is very dry. Damn straight it’s dry. That’s because I take academic freedom very seriously, and I want to get its contours right. As I do, I want to make clear to readers that academic freedom is rich and complex — that it has many aspects, that there are various competing characterizations of it, and that those characterizations — even the best available — often serve the particular purposes of the folks who are doing the characterizing. Since academic freedom is fundamentally a scholarly concept, I am committed to studying it and discussing it in a scholarly way. My self-serving advice is that you ought to regard with caution discussions of academic freedom that are careless about the details, that don’t cite their sources, and that don’t “show their work.” Now more than ever, academic freedom is too important to treat carelessly.