Journal of Nursing Education

Editorial Free

Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility

Amy J. Barton, PhD, RN, FAAN, ANEF

In mid-December, scientists, public health officials, and concerned members of the public expressed outrage at the reported ban of specific words to be used in budget requests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] (Sun & Eilperin, 2017). Those words include vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. A subsequent statement from the United States Department of Health and Human Services described the report as a “mischaracterization,” and officials at the Food and Drug Administration indicated that no ban existed (Cohen, 2017). A petition sponsored by the March for Science and endorsed by the American Academy of Nursing states, “scientific consensus is reached based on the best available evidence and cannot be countered by arbitrary whims or partisanship.”

For those of us privileged to work within the academy, censorship is an assault on the principles of academic freedom. Academic freedom in the United States was codified in the 1915 Declaration of Principles and endorsed at the second annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The tenets of academic freedom (AAUP, 1970, p. 14) are:

  • Teachers that are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties, but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  • Teachers that are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.
  • College and university teachers that are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations…. Hence they should, at all times, be accurate. They should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Academic freedom is designed to support the advancement of knowledge through inquiry, as well as to support student development of critical thinking. It's about having the latitude to pursue knowledge generation within a discipline and to foster pursuit of knowledge by students.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (2006) identifies several misconceptions about academic freedom. First, academic freedom does not mean that faculty or students are able to say anything they want. It is important to express disagreement respectfully, within an environment of civility. Second, students do not have the right to opt out of course content that may be counter to their beliefs or to disturb the educational experience of others. Course content should be driven by a community of scholars within the discipline. Third, all competing perspectives do not need to be included or regarded as valid, especially when not based on evidence. Fourth, it is unrealistic to provide students with the opportunity to study all controversies within a course or program. It is the responsibility of faculty to select course content.

Guidance about academic freedom is available from national organizations such as those cited in this editorial. The National League for Nursing identifies the importance of academic freedom in Ethical Principles for Nursing Education (2012). In addition, it's important that faculty members understand their rights and responsibilities within their university. Look at your contract or letter of offer—what protections does it offer? What policies exist at the university level that describe your rights and responsibilities concerning academic freedom?

A cautionary note is important. Many scholars are familiar with the work of academic librarian Jeffrey Beall and his work in identifying predatory publishers. The work was within his discipline of library science and his quest was to maintain the integrity of scholarly publishing. However, he discontinued the work due to “intense pressure from my employer, the university of Colorado-Denver, and fearing for my job” (Beall, 2017, p. 273). Interestingly, a recent report notes that a United States district court filed an injunction against OMICS (an open access publishing group) after a complaint by the federal trade commission alleging deceitful business practices. In addition, National Institute of Health has issued guidance to its researchers about publishing their work in credible journals (Anderson, 2017).

Returning to the banned words, how could we possibly teach students without using any of those words? Our discipline is based on the art and science of nursing. We pride ourselves in the provision of evidence-based practice. We care for individuals across the lifespan, including the fetus and progressing over time to the older adult. We understand the importance of social determinants in the achievement of health goals and further recognize those who are most in need and who are some of the most vulnerable. We embrace the diversity of the patients we serve, including their race, color, religion, gender, transgender, gender expression, age, national origin disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status. Further, we pride ourselves in the provision of culturally competent care to each of these patient groups. Finally, we believe health care to be a basic human right, not an entitlement.

What can you do to support academic freedom and educational responsibility? Franke (2011) suggested the following:

  • Be informed about the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom and share it with others outside of the academy.
  • Be open to new ideas.
  • Resist censorship and book banning efforts.
  • Express your opinions.
  • Support others who are working to protect academic freedom.

Science, not silence.

Amy J. Barton, PhD, RN, FAAN, ANEF

Associate Editor



The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.


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