Does In-Person Instruction Violate Academic Freedom?

In the twilight of the second year of the COVID pandemic, hysteria continues to run amok. While many folks have gotten on with their lives thanks to vaccines or natural immunities, many others continue to live in fear and demand ever more protections and state interventions.

My favorite excuse yet for the “new normal” comes from some 125 members of the United Campus Workers of Arizona. The union members, in response to a memo sent by University of Arizona (UA) Provost Liesl Folks, claim that a return to in-person teaching violates “academic freedom.”

Now, I’ve used a fair number of excuses to get out of class in my day, but this is like claiming that a professor requiring students to attend class is in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Appeals to academic freedom are often made in serious circumstances, such as cases involving free speech. The National Association of Scholars maintains a list of 207 instances thus far in which professors, administrators, and students have come under scrutiny for their speech. Many of these individuals have had their careers unjustly derailed by a single action.

Take, for example, the case of Jason Kilborn at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. In a question on a civil procedure exam involving a hypothetical workplace discrimination case, Professor Kilborn included abbreviations for the words “n____” and “b____” in a case description, which he specified as being pejoratives for African Americans and women, respectively. The terms were not printed in full and were identified only by their first letters, “n” and “b.” Nonetheless, Professor Kilborn has been prohibited from teaching until he participates in individualized training on classroom conversations that address racism.

[Related: “The Emory Law Journal Abandons Scholarship for Wokeism”]

Such cases are becoming ever more common. And yet, a handful of instructors are abusing the one resource that professors have for challenging censorious university administrators.

The UA instructors claim that “[a]ny attempt to prevent instructors […] from using pedagogical techniques and technologies that are standard tools of the COVID pandemic era and pre-COVID teaching […] is an infringement on our academic freedom.” The pretense of such an argument stems from a 2009 Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure document that establishes a faculty right to academic freedom, including protection “from any and all arbitrary interferences with their ability to carry out their missions in research, creative activities, teaching, service and outreach.”

This brings us to the question: Is mandatory in-person instruction a violation of academic freedom?

The short answer is “no.” In no way is requiring in-person classes a violation of the academic freedom contract between the university and its faculty.

The 1915 Declaration of Principles, the founding document of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), establishes academic freedom as “the liberty of [a] scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions.”

[Related: “The War Against Academic Freedom”]

UA’s own document on Academic Freedom and Tenure follows up on the 1915 Declaration:

Academic freedom enables faculty members to foster in their students a mature independence of mind, and this purpose cannot be achieved unless students and faculty are free within the laboratory, classroom, and elsewhere to express the widest range of viewpoints in accord with standards of scholarly inquiry.

The document further explains that

[a]n essential component of academic freedom is the right of faculty members to be free from any adverse action resulting in whole or in part from the exercise of freedom of speech, belief, or conscience in any venue, to the maximum extent consistent with the fulfillment of clearly defined teaching, creative activity, research, service or clinical obligations.

It’s obvious from this document that academic freedom exists to protect faculty from censorship, not COVID. So, in this case, the freedom afforded to the petitioning instructors allows them the right to criticize their institution’s handling of COVID, but it does not void their obligation to teach students in person.  

Academic freedom is not license to teach however one wants. It is a freedom for scholars to publish, write, and say what they must, provided that their works are the “fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry.” Using academic freedom as a “get out of work” card bastardizes the concept.

Provost Folks should rebuff her colleagues and encourage them to provide the education UA students expect.

Image: marco fileccia, Public Domain


  • Chance Layton

    Chance Layton is an Editor at Minding the Campus. He is also the Director of Communications at the National Association of Scholars.

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16 thoughts on “Does In-Person Instruction Violate Academic Freedom?

  1. You almost lost me on the Kilborn case. A randomly spun-out letter n and a b begets? Some kind of hysterical response due to implied darkness that no doubt, in no way comes close to the miasma and sheer thickening goo that must inhabit such minds to make a measure of anything worth causing even a blink of concern over such as this?
    Which is like being told that any various and average random person possessing a modicum of self-respect, self-preservation, self-awareness, good humor, critical habits, analytical overviews, and anything else resembling kitchen brand intelligence – should now cave in to the bare bones and the rock bottom-dwelling soft and boneless mushy groveling helplessness of fragility that keels over at the drop of a letter.

    Any shrewd person knows that this is just a muckraking good time to be exercised by mean-spirited little shrews against anyone at all for the mere reason that they don’t like them. They don’t have to explain why, or offer any rationality whatsoever.
    Never was a more lovely “Get out of Social Accountability” card offered up for fun and profit.

  2. Musicans have artistic freedom too, but a musican who doesn’t show up for the concert and instead “phones it in” is gonna get sued.

    Ticketholders are going to demand refunds and state AG Offices are going to get involved with words like “fraud” being mentioned. And it won’t matter that the quality of digital audio performed in a studio is far greater than a live performance in a stadium.

    1. I’m going to say this: over the past 4 generations, faculty have gotten lazy — or at least a lot less productive.

      Back in the 1950s, the semesters were 17 weeks long, with finals after Christmas. Classes met on Saturdays and as late as the ’80s, classes met on holidays.

      Professors once taught “4&4” — they now teach half that, or less.

      And professors spending much of the spring semester skiing shows how many surplus professors there are — at least at the level service is provided.

      Academic Freedom means you shouldn’t be fired for having a “Trump 2024” bumper sticker on your car. But look below at what’s being defended:

      Random assignment of grades is defensible?!?

  3. As a retired public school teacher, it is very obvious the teachers are using this “Academic freedom” as a shameless ploy to get out of work. Plain and simple. Chance Layton is correct that academic freedom has nothing to do with remote learning techniques. It is laughable if it wasn’t so destructive to student’s learning. I would know a much as anyone: I taught both in person and remote. Hundreds of students over 22 years. This is yet another grossly untenable idea dressed up as “violating our rights”. I can tell all of you–many, many of us are getting really angry about this wacky nonsense. Thank God for Minding The Campus.

  4. “Using academic freedom as a “get out of work” card bastardizes the concept.”

    Whatever the desire to do remote teaching, and the merits or lack compared to in-person, it is not and never has been a “get out of work card.”

    This article is a great example of why the National Association of Scholars has close to zero influence in the academy.

    1. Comments such as yours are why about half the country holds higher education in open contempt.

      Joe Sixpack understands that you have to show up for work.

      1. Well, Doc, I’m teaching 150 students this term. Turns out, “in-person.” I’ve also taught the “remote” version. And I know what I’m talking about. And the students know it, too. I won’t try to speak for Joe Sixpack. The first time I did remote, it was the most difficult teaching experience I’ve ever had. And you wanna know something else? I’m in a situation where I don’t need to be teaching. I’m doing it because they asked me to help keep things going for them.

        What are your credentials re “remote teaching”?

      2. If Joe Sixpack hires you to paint his house green, he expects to find it painted green — not three shades of purple, even if it is an old Victorian that looks better that way.

        Students & parents are paying for in-person classes and are rather p*ssed in not getting them.

    2. Remote teaching is all about the “get out of work” card. It makes life as a professor a dream.

      My university was remote teaching only for an entire year and only went back to in-person teaching in the fall quarter. When you are remote teaching, life is good. No commute to campus. (I taught my classes via zoom from my bedroom.) No putting up with disruptive students in class. No attendance at those boring faculty meetings (just mute the video/mic on the zoom app; nobody will notice). Office hours are a breeze on zoom because the questions that can be asked are limited (no whiteboards available). I know professors who wanted to take a 4 day weekend so they pre-recorded their lectures.

      Oh yeah, remote teaching is all about getting out of work.

      1. Sounds like you are a slacker. Do you really think nobody notices?

        And — did you not learn anything about using a doc camera for remote office hours?

      2. Zoom Skool was quite popular with UMass professors who liked to ski — with some openly bragging that it enabled them to spend a couple of months up in Vermont, skiing….

        And this reminds me of the 1960s when the railroads were required to hire firemen to shovel coal into Diesel locomotives, and 3-4 brakemen whose jobs had largely been eliminated decades earlier.

        How’d the PennCentral do???

        All it is going to take is a deregulation of credentialing, much like the deregulation of trucking circa 1980, and the game will be over.

        It may not even take that — there are a million fewer undergrads than 2 years ago, and then there is the demographic cliff of 2026…..

      3. Doc, keep hoping. Meanwhile, I’ll help keep the country running. I just spent an hour helping a student, grabbed a bite. Now gotta get ready for class.

      4. Apparently you are unfamiliar with how office hours work in a STEM field (which I am in). I’m not the one who needs a document camera. That’s because it is not the professor who is at the whiteboard. It is the STUDENT who is at the whiteboard showing what they did on a homework problem, explaining what they don’t understand about some mathematical proof, etc.. They’re the ones who need the document camera, not me. Students typically don’t have document cameras. I’m guessing in your field office hours just involve talking to each other so a zoom meeting is sufficient (document camera optional).

        It sounds like my (accurate) description of life as a professor teaching remote only must have struck a bit close to home….

  5. Update: According to the FAQ page for UCWAZ, the union does not have the right to collective bargaining, and doing so would require a change in state law.

  6. I would first find out whether this neo-IWW is in fact recognized and authorized to bargain. I rather doubt it, and doubt that the interests of cafeteria and facilities employees are identical to those of adjunct faculty, much less tenured. If one needs an example of what some are calling “woke” politics gone amok, read the jejune mission statement of UCWAZ linked off of their home page.

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