Mason Needs a Vision of Freedom

Mason Vision Working Groups have posted a “draft Vision document” for George Mason University. I offer my comments below.

To the Mason Vision Working Groups and President Cabrera,

Thank you for your work on the vision documents and for the opportunity to comment.

I am heartened by the section of the Working Document on “Our Motto,” which stresses the connection between freedom and learning. As the section so eloquently states, “freedom and learning are mutually interdependent. One cannot happen without the other. In order to be free—free to be who we are and who we want to become, free to act for positive change—we can never stop learning. In order to learn, we need to be free. As an academic community, we are committed to advancing both.”

I am disappointed, however, that this commitment to freedom is not reflected in the various descriptions of “Our Goal.” Freedom is not listed as one of our core institutional characteristics, as one of our values, or as one of our commitments. And some of the characteristics, values, and commitments that are listed present some tension with freedom. For example, statements about managing “the economic and natural resources entrusted to us” and producing “research of consequence” could be read as a move away from giving students and faculty the freedom to pursue their intellectual interests regardless of obvious practical application. Such a move is being attemped in other states. (See Zac Anderson, “Rick Scott Wants to Shift University Funding Away from Some Degrees,” Herald-Tribune, 10 October 2011)

I hope the working group will consider adding freedom as an institutional characteristic, a value, and a commitment. Several leading research universities have incorporated concepts of freedom into their mission statements; I append some examples below.

Such statements can have real consequences. I am thinking in particular of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s 2011 response to Freedom of Information Act requests for the correspondence of one of its professors. In deciding to exclude “the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it,” Chancellor Biddy Martin specifically referred to an 1894 declaration when stating that “the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.”

Similarly, McMaster University referred to its Statement on Academic Freedom in explaining its recent decision to back a faculty member who is being sued for expressing a scholarly opinion.

A declaration that freedom is a tradition and defining value of George Mason University could help future leaders of Mason make similarly wise decisions.

Sincerely,

Zachary Schrag
Professor of History

Some Models:

The University of Chicago website features a “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” by Professor Geoffrey Stone. It states that “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff “to discuss any problem that presents itself,” free of interference.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison does not mention freedom in its mission statement, but it venerates the 1894 report of the board of regents stating that “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.”

The University of Texas has among its core values “Freedom – To seek the truth and express it.”

Vanderbilt University states that it values “intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry.”

According to its mission statement, “UCLA is committed to academic freedom in its fullest terms: we value open access to information, free and lively debate conducted with mutual respect for individuals, and freedom from intolerance.”

The University of Oregon mission statement commits the university to “the conviction that freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock principle on which university activity is based.”

Finally, McMaster University’s Statement on Academic Freedom pledges notes that “Suppression of academic freedom would prevent the University from carrying out its primary functions. In particular, as an autonomous institution McMaster University will protect its faculty from any efforts, from whatever source, to limit or suppress academic freedom.

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About Zachary Schrag
Zachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University. The views expressed here are my own and may not reflect those of George Mason University.

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