From OPSEU’s guide to academic freedom.

August 27, 2018; Chronicle of Higher Education

The concept of “academic freedom” is not one that is often debated outside the halls of universities, research centers, law schools, or libraries, where the issue may come up in terms of access to materials or writings. Loosely defined, it means that members of the academic community, like faculty, are free to teach, speak, and research as they will without fear of reprisal from the administration or the local community. It seems like a no-brainer to confirm this right, but those who are negotiating the union contract for faculty and librarians at the University of California see it differently.

The union sought to have a provision included in the new contract that would clarify that librarians have academic freedom. According to the union, negotiators for the system rejected this proposal, causing something of an uproar. Librarians and academics across the country have joined in support of UC librarians and their fight for academic freedom. One question in all of this is whether this is a workplace issue, or does it fall under the First Amendment freedoms? Just what are the boundaries of academic freedom, and can they be negotiated in a union contract? The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Claire Doan, a spokeswoman, said UC policies on academic freedom “do not extend to nonfaculty academic personnel, including librarians,” adding that the university’s goal in the negotiations is to reach agreement on issues including competitive pay and health-care and retirement benefits for librarians. She said librarians play a “crucial” role at the university.

“The provision of academic freedom (or a derivative thereof) is a complex issue that has been rooted in faculty rights, professional standards, and obligations—and requires extensive examination and discussion,” Doan wrote in a statement. “Historically, this is also the case at research universities where librarians are not faculty. We will continue negotiating with the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, endeavoring to better understand the union’s stance on academic freedom and other pertinent issues.”

The debate extends beyond the University of California campuses and their libraries. In a lawsuit filed in July 2018, lawyers representing the University of Texas–Austin contended that academic freedom rested with university as opposed to with individual faculty, who were opposing concealed carry on campus and in classrooms. At University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Chancellor Carol L. Folt affirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom, but with caveats about how it should be applied.

The librarians at UC are puzzled by the reactions to what they see as a simple request. Martin J. Brennan, a copyright librarian on the Los Angeles campus and a member of the University Council-AFT negotiating team, indicated that adding the statement should have just been a formality.

A university policy on academic freedom includes guidance specifically for faculty members and students. But it says that the guidance “does nothing to diminish the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by other academic appointees,” which Brennan said librarians had interpreted to mean that other university employees hold the right.

“We thought it would be a no-brainer,” Brennan said. He declined to speculate on whether UC was pushing back on this issue so that librarians would back away from other disputes in the negotiations. “This is not just a bargaining chip of an issue for us. This is a fundamental ethic of our profession.”

University administrators have said they would consider a different policy around intellectual freedom for librarians using something other than the term “academic freedom.” But the situation may have gone beyond a compromise; the issue has been picked up across the country, with a petition signed by librarians and faculty from coast to coast. The union is distributing buttons that say, “Librarians will not be silent” and “Make some noise.” The chair of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on academic freedom and tenure has also backed the UC librarians explicitly, because librarians ensure access to information for faculty and students. Will this be the beginning of limits on what librarians can and cannot access for faculty? These could be major issues in the university world.

Negotiations continue, and the contract at the University of California will eventually be settled. But the issue of academic freedom—who has it, who should have it, and why is it such a tempest in a teapot—will continue long after this university signs off with its union. Free expression is critical in academic settings. Where would you draw the line?—Carole Levine