My decision to fight for academic freedom
By Art Hall
For more than 25 years, I have dedicated myself to teaching economics and generating original economic research focused on public policy issues. Like all scholars nationwide, I have operated under the bedrock principle of academic freedom.
Academic freedom is the unfettered ability to research and teach, and a natural extension of rights protected under the First Amendment — without the fear of interference or persecution.
Since 2004, I have had the esteemed privilege of directing the Center for Applied Economics at the KU School of Business. (I also teach economics classes.) The Center’s purpose is to offer economic analysis and economic education relevant for policy makers, community leaders, and other interested citizens. This purpose often involves providing legislative testimony and conducting public policy research on subjects that may be controversial but are nonetheless important.
A student group at KU that disagreed with testimony I delivered on a specific piece of legislation used the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) to request copies of my private e-mail correspondence for the past 10 years. This is a misuse of open-records law, a type of misuse that seems to be spreading nationwide. The policy intent of open-records laws is to aid the transparency of government operations and deliberations, not to suppress debate and free academic inquiry.
The students’ misuse of KORA explains why I recently took legal action against KU; not out of hostility or secrecy, but to take a stand for the principle of academic freedom. While my attorney and I believe that the private records the students asked for are exempt from release under certain provisions of the KORA, KU planned to comply with the students’ request. My legal action will allow a judge to adjudicate the different interpretations of KU’s legal obligations under the KORA.
If my private, personal communications are released, I will not be the only one whose academic freedom is jeopardized. The issue is much larger, and could ultimately jeopardize the academic freedom of any scholar at a public institution of higher education.
My views about academic freedom in this matter are consistent with those advocated by the nation’s premier organization for higher education faculty: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has stated that a crucial component of academic freedom is the ability of faculty to engage with a variety of experts as they pursue their research. With the odd exception of the Kansas chapter (which reportedly provided funding to the student group seeking my private documents), the AAUP has consistently stood by professors and researchers in shielding their private correspondence from over-reaching records requests, acknowledging the threat that this kind of activity poses to academic freedom.
Both the Kansas Board of Regents and the University of Kansas Faculty Council strongly support the principle of academic freedom. In a unanimously passed resolution, the Faculty Council wrote, “academic freedom … is essential to the mission of the University: to educate students and to engage in scholarly inquiry.”
Furthermore, there is an emerging body of legal precedent that allows researchers the latitude they require to correspond broadly with experts with diverse viewpoints without fearing their thoughts will be misconstrued, published and used against them in order to silence them.
The Supreme Court has written that “scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.” In the Sweezy decision, the majority wrote, “merely to summon a witness and compel him, against his will, to disclose the nature of his past expressions and associations is a measure of governmental interference in [academic] matters.”
In this landmark academic freedom case, the Court ultimately ruled that “these are rights which are safeguarded by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.”
For anyone questioning why I would take legal action against KU, let me be clear. I am taking legal action for my students, for the University, for Kansas, and to preserve the integrity of all forms of academic and scholarly research for my peers.
When I decided to take legal action, I knew it would create controversy and suspicion. But my commitment to academic freedom compelled me to do it.
Art Hall directs the Center for Applied Economics at the KU School of Business, where he is also a lecturer in economics.