Academic Freedom and Institutional Power

Academic Freedom, Institutional Power, and Conflicts in the Classroom

Recent debates on trigger warnings, difficult material, call-outs, and other challenging classroom dynamics have linked these issues to questions of academic freedom (Curtis 2021). Academic freedom, a scholarly principle introduced in the modern university system in the mid-20th century, protects faculty and students pursuing research and inquiry on topics that may challenge dominant paradigms or political interests (e.g., protecting people from being fired without cause, imprisoned, etc.)

When arguments over academic freedom position students and faculty as opponents in debates over new discourses and norms in education, it is helpful to consider how institutional power is at play and whether repression is being exercised. You can use the following questions to help identify if you are facing a threat to your academic freedom, are being called to account for potential harm you have caused, or are caught up in a conflict you are unprepared for. How you respond might be more effectively determined by reflecting on what is happening rather than your first reaction to a charged or difficult interaction.


Questions to ask

Who holds institutional power in this situation?
What is the nature of the demand?
What is the likely consequence of these demands?

Who holds institutional power in this situation?

Are there contexts where the parties involved hold different positions simultaneously?

For example, a part-time faculty member may also be a student; a full-time professor may be disabled and experience institutional ableism while simultaneously being protected by tenure; a student who is a vocal activist was targeted by the university for disciplinary proceedings; an alumni of the university with ties to a powerful lobby organization.

Identifying who holds power and in what capacity can illustrate whether a situation is simply uncomfortable or actually threatens your academic freedom.

What is the nature of the demand?

Are there requests for you to adjust your teaching or demands for you to be fired? Is this a call for accountability and responsibility for your actions, or is it part of a wider political campaign to silence and intimidate faculty

Recognizing the nature of the demand can help you identify whether this is an attack on your academic freedom (as in the case of political campaigns to silence and intimidate faculty or calls for removal without cause) or a demand for accountability and a request for you to adapt and change your approach as a consequence of harm you’ve done (whether intentional or not.)

What is the likely consequence of these demands?

Are you at risk of losing your job? Has your research funding been revoked or not awarded without explanation? Or are you being asked to change your teaching or receive professional development training in response to complaints?

The consequence may be impacted by who holds power (e.g. a campaign to have you fired led by students may represent a smaller threat to your academic freedom compared to major lobbyists who are connected to the Board of Governors or university President and Provost).

If the consequence is a request for you to reflect on your own work and adapt accordingly, then it is likely not a violation of your academic freedom. If the consequence is that your job is threatened or you are reprimanded for your research, then it’s more likely your academic freedom is at stake. This is a good time to contact your union or seek legal counsel.

Being criticized, having people disagree with you, facing consequences for violating the rights of others, or being told that you’ve harmed someone is not a form of censure or a violation of academic freedom. Being fired, having a job offer revoked, or facing disciplinary measures for conducting your research and teaching because the government or university administration are seeking to suppress your work for political reasons is a violation of your academic freedom.

Differentiating between these two scenarios will help you choose what course of action to follow in cases where a call-out is more than just a form of disagreement or conflict in the classroom.


Resources

Navigating Difficult Discussion and Topics
Call-Out/Call-In
Apology
Trigger Warnings

Access to this chapter’s Zotero

Navigating Difficult Discussion and Topics

Atom Fire Arts Cooperative. 2020. How to Share Space: Creating Community in Classrooms and Beyond. Building Accountable Communities Project (Project NIA).
Curtis, Christopher. 2021. “The Other Side of ‘Cancel Culture’: Students Open Up About Racial Abuse on Campus.” Ricochet. February 17.
Page, Christina. 2021. Inclusive Pedagogies. Surrey, BC: Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center. Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics with Students [PDF].
Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center. 2019. Let’s Talk: Facilitating Critical Conversations with Students [PDF].
Thom, Kai Cheng. 2021. So You’re Ready to Choose Love: Trauma-informed Conflict Transformation for Social Justice and Spiritual Growth: A Loving Justice Workbook.
Thom, Kai Cheng. 2021. Trauma and Group Conflict. Arise Embodiment (blog). July 7, 2021.

Call-Out/Call-In

Ahmad, Asam. 2015. A Note on Call-out Culture. Briarpatch. March 2.
Ahmad, Asam. 2017. When Calling Out Makes Sense. Briarpatch. August 29.
Ross, Loretta. 2019. I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic. The New York Times. August 17.
Trần, Ngọc Loan. 2013. “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.” BDG Blog. December 18.

Apology

Atom Fire Arts Cooperative. 2020. How to Share Space: Creating Community in Classrooms and Beyond. Building Accountable Communities Project (Project NIA). [See page 12 for a discussion on apology.]
Lerner, Harriett & Brown, Brene. 2020. I’m Sorry: How to Apologize & Why it Matters. Unlocking Us.
Mingus, Mia. 2019. The Four Parts of Accountability & How to Give A Genuine Apology. Leaving Evidence Blog. December 18.

Trigger Warnings

Bedera, Nicole. 2021. “Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal.” Teaching Sociology.
Boysen, Guy A. 2017. “Evidence-Based Answers to Questions about Trigger Warnings for Clinically-Based Distress: A Review for Teachers.” Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology 3 (2): 163–77.
Carter, Angela M. 2015. “Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Trigger Warnings Debate.” Disability Studies Quarterly 35 (2).
Britzman, Deborah. 1998. Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Bryce, India, Nicola Horwood, Kate Cantrell, and Jessica Gildersleeve. 2022. “Pulling the Trigger: A Systematic Literature Review of Trigger Warnings as a Strategy for Reducing Traumatization in Higher Education.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 24 (4): 2882–94.
Carter, Angela M. 2015. “Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Trigger Warnings Debate.” Disability Studies Quarterly 35 (2).
Dyer, Hannah, Natalie Kouri-Towe and Michelle Miller. 2024. “Reflections on the ‘Trigger Warning’ Debate: Divergent Strategies for Warnings in the Classroom.” Reading the Room: Lessons on Pedagogy and Curriculum from the Gender and Sexuality Studies Classroom, edited by Natalie Kouri-Towe. Montreal: Concordia University Press.
Kouri-Towe, Natalie. 2023. “Affective Pedagogies, and Pedagogies of Affect. Gender, Solidarity, and the Classroom in the Trigger Warning Debates.” In The Routledge Companion to Gender and Affect. New York: Routledge.
Saketopoulou, Avgi. 2023. Sexuality Beyond Consent: Risk, Race, Traumatophilia. New York: New York University Press.

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