[From the Archives] Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning

Charlotte A. Kunkel and Sheila Radford-Hill‘s “Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning” first appeared in issue 76 (Summer 2011) of the minnesota review. Kunkel is a sociologist who is passionate about teaching.  Her work and teaching center around social justice issues, particularly anti-racism and the intersectionality of race, class and gender.  Most recently her research interests lie in the investigation of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment as they impact the construction of transnational identities.  She teaches at Luther College in Decorah, IA. Radford-Hill is the Executive Director of the Luther College Diversity Center.  She is a faculty associate in the Education Department at Luther and teaches courses in Africana Studies.  She is the author of Further to Fly: Black Women and the Politics of Empowerment (Minnesota, 2000). To read the rest of “Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning” please visit our online archive, available through Duke University Press.


Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning

Academic freedom is a concept whose scope and limits are often debated across different cultural and political contexts. Traditionally, in the US, academic freedom consists of the right of individual professors to teach and conduct research without fear of sanction or loss of employment; it also generally includes their right to speak in public as professionals and as private citizens (AAUP, 1925, 1940, 1970). From an institutional standpoint, academic freedom traditionally involves the right of colleges and universities to determine who can teach, what is taught, and who can be admitted. Both aspects of academic freedom—the individual and the institutional— are grounded in cultural traditions, legal precedents, disciplinary methods, educational policies, and general ethics (Nelson, 2009, Andreescu, 2009). Understanding the principles and practices of academic freedom is essential to a healthy professoriate because on-going debates about academic freedom affect what and how professors teach and ultimately what students learn. In this sense, professors’ views about academic freedom shape the educational experiences of every college student.

This essay is about how academic freedom ought to be practiced in college classrooms; it argues that advocacy, defined as the passionate engagement of ideas leading to a principled stance, is the best way for professors to foster student engagement and promote learning. When it comes to the classroom, academic freedom should safeguard the right of professors to take positions on issues and to encourage their students to do the same.

Culture Wars and the Academy

“Take the problem of higher education and the tenured radicals who have taken over America’s universities. All conservative action groups agree that this is one of the most serious problems facing our country.”   Horowitz Freedom Center, 2007.


For most of the past three decades, academic freedom has been embroiled in America’s culture wars. Neoconservatives have been politically active in the fight to rescue students from what they argue is a liberal bias that pervades college classrooms. For example, the Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative organization founded by David Horowitz, conducted a study that analyzed voting registration records to gauge the political affiliations of faculty at several institutions of higher learning. On the basis of this analysis, the study concluded that American colleges and universities are bastions of liberalism because there are more professors registered as Democrats than as Republicans (Horowitz and Lehrer, 2003).


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