Statement on Academic Freedom (2021 Reissue)

Preamble

Given the rise in efforts to hinder the work of humanities scholars broadly, and religion scholars specifically, from tenure denials and revocation to intimidation and violence, we at the AAR reaffirm our 2016 statement on academic freedom and urge those vested in these ideals to remain vigilant in our collective efforts to support and encourage free inquiry, and to actively oppose all threats to the safety of scholars around the world. 

Statement

The AAR has long been committed to the fundamental principles of academic freedom articulated by the American Association of University Professors in its “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”[1] Indeed, our mission statement affirms that "within a context of free inquiry and critical examination, the Academy welcomes all disciplined reflection on religion—both from within and outside of communities of belief and practice." The work of “ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values” demands that we safeguard the conditions that allow for the free exchange of ideas, and it entails responsibilities as well as rights. Both are governed by the canons of academic freedom.

Teaching

Responsible instruction, in any educational context, involves critical inquiry: questioning assumptions, some of them long taken for granted; attending to multiple points of view, some of them disturbing; and engaging with the methods and findings of other scholars, some of them drastically different than our own.

Teaching and learning of this sort sometimes proves unsettling to students, especially those who may be unaccustomed to reflection on their own religious practices and beliefs or unfamiliar with critical analysis of their own traditions and communities. In the classroom, instructors should model and encourage free inquiry, critical analysis, and the respectful acknowledgment of diverse points of view. Where it is appropriate to the institutional setting, the instructor’s recognition of diversity might include acknowledgement of students’ moral, spiritual, or religious commitments. In turn, administrators should create an environment in which both instructors and students feel able to openly express their views, including those that might be unpopular.

Institutional leaders must affirm principles of academic freedom if and when such views are challenged, since they bear “a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it."[2]

Research

Researchers have the right to follow lines of inquiry where they lead. Criticism should not impede scholarship, and our shared commitment to free inquiry means that scholars must be free from intimidation and free to form conclusions on the basis of shared scholarly norms, as understood by qualified peers.[3] Further, AAR members should be cautious in condemning unwanted speech or writing on the grounds that it violates standards of “civility,” since sometimes that argument might allow unfair treatment and endanger free inquiry.

However, responsible research—inquiring, speaking, and writing about religion in scholarly forums or in the public arena—also entails certain responsibilities, and especially the responsibility to recognize that our discoveries may have implications for the self‐understanding and well being of students, colleagues, and members of the public. Scholars, administrators, and governing boards have an obligation to promote the conditions for intellectual exchange in all forms of communication, from conferences to publications. When scholars communicate those views in social media that an institution would not recognize as relevant for hiring and promotion, those statements are “extramural” expressions of personal views that should be protected by the legally sanctioned right of free speech.[4]

Service

Many AAR members are expected to provide service to their institutions in the form of committee work, recruitment and admissions, public engagement, and other activities. The canons of academic freedom apply to such service. As in the classroom and the convention center, scholars of religion must be able to express their views openly and without coercion as they provide service to their institutions and the wider community. While it is appropriate to note a scholar’s unwillingness to perform the usual modes of institutional service, that service cannot be demeaned or disqualified when the scholar expresses unpopular views in the performance of those duties. As the AAUP has proposed, appeals to “collegiality” as a standard for faculty evaluation are inappropriate, although refusal to participate in faculty governance or institutional service, or a pattern of disrespectful communication that fails to safeguard the conditions of free exchange, might also be unacceptable.[5]


[1] AAUP, “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” 

[2] Quotation from “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” issued by the University of Chicago.

[3] The same rights of non-interference and the same standards of assessment apply to peer-reviewed digital scholarship that an institution is willing to count as evidence of qualification for hiring, promotion, and tenure.

[4] On extramural speech and academic freedom, see AAUP, “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications,” revised and expanded text adopted in 2013.

[5] AAUP, “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation,” approved 1999. See also Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, “From the President: Civility.” 

(Board resolution, November 2006; Amended by the AAR Board of Directors, February 2016; Reissued by the Board in 2021)