Academic Freedom Alive and Well at Pepperdine
By Darryl Tippens, Provost
In November 2008 the battle over California’s Proposition 8, which defines marriage as a union solely between one man and one woman, raged on television, on the radio, and in the minds and hearts not only of Californians, but of citizens across the country. A School of Law professor appeared in advertisements for the Yes on 8 campaign, inflaming opponents even as it inspired supporters. The University was praised and blamed with equal gusto.
Meanwhile, a less visible storm brewed at the University, as faculty debated among themselves: Does “academic freedom” apply here? As a nonprofit institution, Pepperdine is legally forbidden to advocate for political candidates and ballot propositions. So, is it permissible for a faculty member to voice his or her opinion in a way that might appear to implicate the University in the position?
Provost Darryl Tippens makes the case that academic freedom exists for such difficult moments as these, though it is also necessary to clarify what academic freedom is and is not.
Academic freedom is a noble concept that enjoys widespread acceptance. The U.S. boasts the most respected system of higher education in the world, and academic freedom is one of the reasons for our international success. Yet the principle is often misunderstood—even in a university setting. It’s not the same thing as “free speech,” for example, which is every American’s civil right to express oneself in the public square. Nor is it a very old idea. Current ideas about academic freedom are less than a hundred years old—first defined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915.
The goal of academic freedom is to create a free and friendly space where ideas, large and small, can be examined, tested, and disseminated. For a university to be a fertile place of learning, open deliberation and debate are essential, without ideas being stifled by the “pall of orthodoxy” (in Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan’s words). Such noble principles have guided Pepperdine over many decades. Disputes about academic freedom are rare, though certain situations can raise eyebrows from time to time, for example, when a faculty member appears to speak for the University. New guidelines to clarify this particularly delicate circumstance are currently under review.
Some people believe that a Christian university is, by definition, trapped in a dilemma as it seeks to maintain particular ethical and religious principles on the one hand and support freedom of inquiry on the other. “Can you have it both ways?,” some wonder. In fact, all universities face variations of this apparent dilemma because all are governed by unstated assumptions, implicit givens, and presuppositions with which someone will disagree. Every university, whether secular or religious, is governed by certain foundational beliefs (some explicit, many tacit). Respect for minorities, human dignity, service to humanity, and democratic processes, for example, are a few of the givens in the academy today.
Some misconstrue the principle, thinking that it amounts to an “anything goes” mentality; yet that has never been the intention. As numerous court cases attest, academic freedom, like all expressions of liberty, is not absolute. There is no inherent “right” to spout obscenity in the classroom, demean students, harass, or plagiarize, for example. Scientists have no “right” to discard the scientific method and replace it with phrenology, astrology, or some other pseudo-science. Ethical standards and established protocols of research provide the necessary conditions of faculty research. In other words, although professors are free to speak and write, they are also constrained by ethical convictions, the rules of scholarship, and the demands of excellence.
Academic freedom “imposes special obligations” upon the scholar—to be accurate and restrained, to “show respect for the opinions of others,” and to “make every effort to indicate that [teachers] are not speaking for the institution” (AAUP Statement). At its core academic freedom entails a reverent commitment to truth, fairness, and service to the common good.
All institutions, not just faith-based ones, must guard against the chilling effects of a rigid ideological orthodoxy of whatever persuasion. Today, beliefs about politics, gender, or sexuality are so established in universities that a cold wind can descend on the research enterprise. Not just faith-based but secular institutions equally face challenges to protect the space for dialogue, discovery, and dissemination.
These days a university like Pepperdine is a particularly good place to practice scholarly inquiry. Pepperdine is transparent about the moral and spiritual framework that enables its enterprise. With great energy our faculty wrestle with the challenge to be both seriously Christian and intellectually honest. Sometimes that’s a challenge; more often, these are harmonious, mutually supportive commitments. A Christian worldview, which assumes the orderliness of creation and the dignity of human beings made in the image of God, provides fertile soil for scholarly endeavors. Our institution proudly continues the tradition of Christian higher education, which for a thousand years has been the engine both of faith formation and intellectual discovery.
While some institutions are reluctant to name the presuppositions that frame their work, Pepperdine freely articulates its organizing framework. In its mission and affirmation statements, the University declares its commitment “to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, believing that “truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.”
Academic freedom will doubtless remain a contested term and practice in the years ahead. Like other great principles, the application to individual cases requires careful discernment. But “academic freedom” remains a vital principle, signifying a rich network of privileges and responsibilities.
When one considers the extraordinary array of research being carried out today at Pepperdine in the sciences, political theory, ethics, psychology, public policy, business ethics, philosophy, law, and many other disciplines—greater than at any time in our University’s history—one sees ample evidence that Pepperdine’s commitment to academic freedom is genuine. Given our non-creedal heritage, ecumenical spirit, commitment to diversity, and tradition of hospitality, creative discovery is alive and well at Pepperdine.