In Defense of Academic Freedom

Dean Monk's column for Connections, February 2012

Dean David H. MonkDean's Message

(February 2012)

Last summer, we received two inquiries from supporters of the College about a research brief that was distributed by our Office of Communications. We distribute research briefs periodically to describe important ongoing research being conducted by faculty members in the College. The purpose is to help our roughly 46,000 alumni and friends understand how the College is substantially engaged in cutting-edge research and to encourage dialogue within our extended College community. One of these supporters contacted me directly by telephone; in the other case, the faculty member who conducted the research directly received an e-mail message.

This experience raises a number of interesting issues. Certainly those receiving our research briefs have every right to raise questions and to engage in debate with those who are conducting research. But, as dean, I also understand how a faculty member receiving an inquiry like this might worry that an influential person has become upset and that there might be implications concerning academic freedom.

In this particular circumstance, I assured the faculty member that the College and the University are fully committed to supporting academic freedom. Penn State has a Human Resources policy (HR 64) devoted to defining the meaning and the implications of academic freedom. You can find this policy at http://guru.psu.edu/policies/OHR/hr64.html

As is the case with every freedom, we collectively recognize that academic freedom must be exercised responsibly, and you will find that HR 64 includes language articulating a principle of academic responsibility. For example, the policy is clear that in instructional roles, faculty members are “responsible for the maintenance of appropriate standards of scholarship and teaching ability, and for ensuring that there is no insertion or intrusion of material that has no relation to the subject matter of instruction.”

This is a precious freedom with all of its attendant responsibilities. As faculty members, we all should have the opportunity to explore freely and without fear of retribution, even if our findings are unpopular. Indeed, the freedom goes further since we are expected to ask important questions and to report what our best scholarship reveals to be the truth about the answers. As dean, I see it as one of my core responsibilities to make sure these opportunities are real and that the proper protections are in place.

The message I am hoping to convey here is that significant protections exist for faculty members to engage responsibly in scholarly work, including teaching and the conduct of research. Questions can and should arise and the opportunity to engage in debate should be good and desirable regardless of whether the questions are coming from a fellow scholar, a student, a member of the public, or a member of the College’s extended family of alumni and friends. I hope all faculty members in the College feel well supported by Penn State’s fundamental commitment to the defense of academic freedom.

David H. Monk

Dean