A statement on Academic Freedom from Wisconsin

The universities that we have today owe a huge amount to their history, and in particular the way that they developed in North America and Europe in the 19th Century. There was a fascinating mixing of ideas across the Atlantic which particularly affected the formative moments of new universities or the reforming moments of existing universities.

One of these great moments was the fusion of ideas of Lehrfrieheit with faculty self-governance which set the tone for a series of battles in the US connected with the transformation of both the new private universities (often with major donors with specific views on aspects of business) or state universities (who had to contend with state politicians with equally robust views).

One such set of events happened at the University of Wisconsin in 1894.  A local politician took against a faculty member, Dr Ely, on account of his radical views.  The university regents (the board of governors) investigated his complaints – finding in favour of Dr Ely.  The regents not only vindicated Ely, but produced what he called a ‘Magna Charta’ for the University.

As Regents of a university with over a hundred instructors supported by nearly two millions of people who hold a vast diversity of views regarding the great questions which at present agitate the human mind, we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary. Such a course would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true. This would cut our curriculum down to very small proportions. We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

One historian of the University wrote ‘This noble statement of principles no subsequent government has had the hardihood to retract’. (Pyre 1920 p292)  Further, the class of 1910 had the final sentence placed onto a bronze tablet and, after some resistance, had it placed in the hall of the University’s main administrative building.

The Plaque attached to the then University Hall

The Plaque attached to the then University Hall

The whole piece is a testament to the vision of the Regents.  In 2015 there is renewed concern that state politicians want to limit the hard-won freedoms.  Of us should take some time to look at the arguments raging in Wisconsin – and remember the spirit of that Magna Charta.

Ref Pyre J, 1920, Wisconsin, New York, Oxford University Press


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