Faculty and students are generally regarded as having some degree of academic freedom (tenured faculty sometimes having more than non-tenured).

Non-faculty staff seem to be a different matter. Specific institutions might have policies addressing this, but I'm asking more from a general / philosophical standpoint: is there any basis upon which a non-faculty staff member at a university might expect -- or demand -- academic freedom? Or should non-faculty staff basically assume they do not have academic freedom?

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    What kind of academics are non-faculty staff doing, anyway? I've seen faculty defined as the academic staff of an institution, which would leave non-faculty as non-academic. Since these people by definition aren't performing academic activities, their freedom to do so seems irrelevant. – Nuclear Wang Feb 7 '18 at 18:25
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    Are you asking about postdocs and PhD students? Or are you asking about the administrators, the janitorial staff, the maintenance staff, the security staff, the library staff, the IT staff...? It's rather obvious that for the second category, academic freedom doesn't exist (and doesn't make sense – they're not doing any research, teaching, or studying). – user9646 Feb 7 '18 at 19:37
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    Let's consider library staff: academic output might be of tertiery importance for such a role -- and, at many institutions, there might be no official expectation as such. Nonetheless, I wouldn't assume they simply never engage in research/teaching/studying. – lispHK01 Feb 7 '18 at 20:52
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    "Academic freedom" is a very broad and subjective concept, and I don't know what would be a clear distinction between "having" or "not having" it. Can you be more specific? – Nate Eldredge Feb 7 '18 at 21:25
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    @NateEldredge - clearly that is correct. The question was leading the witness to reconsider the 'no official expectation' of academic freedom for librarians. To further the point (to the OP), at least in various parts of the US, librarians have (sadly) been the face of fighting the banning of books. If anything, librarians are quite aware of what academic freedom means and exercise it regularly. – Jon Custer Feb 8 '18 at 17:54

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has a set of Recommended Institutional Regulations concerning Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has the following to say about academic freedom for staff:

  1. Other Academic Staff

a. In no case will a member of the academic staff who is not otherwise protected by the preceding regulations that relate to dismissal proceedings be dismissed without having been provided with a statement of reasons and an opportunity to be heard before a duly constituted committee.21 (A dismissal is a termination before the end of the period of appointment.)

b. With respect to the nonreappointment of a member of such academic staff who establishes a prima facie case to the satisfaction of a duly constituted committee that considerations that violate academic freedom, or of governing poli­cies against improper discrimination as stated in Regulation 10, significantly contributed to the nonreappointment, the academic staff member will be given a statement of reasons by those responsible for the nonreappointment and an opportunity to be heard by the committee.


21 Each institution should define with particularity who are members of the academic staff.

Essentially: those staff that an institution chooses to define as "academic staff" should be able to bring grievance against a "duly constituted committee" if they believe they have been terminated (or not reappointed) in retaliation for speech or actions that should be protected under the umbrella of academic freedom.

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Your usage of the nonstandard term “non-faculty staff”, along with certain other assumptions that seem to be implicit in your question, suggest that you have some misguided notions about what various groups of people employed at a university do. To take your example of librarians, they are part of what is generally referred to as “staff”. They do an important job and can be highly educated and skilled, but they generally do not engage in academic research or teaching as far as I’m aware, and thus the concept of academic freedom does not apply to them. Note that this is a different statement than saying that they do not enjoy academic freedom; rather, the question of whether they enjoy it or not doesn’t even make sense. The same would be true for other groups of staff members who play a supporting role in the life of a university but do not teach or do research.

I should add that none of what I write above should be regarded as in any way disrespectful towards librarians or any other group of university staff. In fact, as a professor in STEM, and more specifically pure math (which seems to be as uncontroversial and apolitical as a research area can get), I also feel that the question of academic freedom is essentially irrelevant for me, and almost as meaningless for me as it is for librarians. Although in a technical sense I can be said to “enjoy academic freedom”, and although it may be fun to fantasize about one day going in to teach my calculus class and spending the lecture time discussing controversial political topics instead of math, knowing that if anybody gets upset I can invoke my supposedly sacred academic freedom, in practice this so-called freedom is a purely theoretical notion; it has never come up in any practical context, and almost certainly never will.

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  • In some countries (e.g. the US), scientists working in meteorology and climate are certainly happy that academic freedom exists. Or maybe biologists or sociologists in very religious countries. Perhaps for math specifically academic freedom is irrelevant as it doesn't affect anyone's lives, but non-scientists might other "STEM" fields as less "neutral". – user9646 Feb 8 '18 at 12:27
  • @NajibIdrissi agreed and good point. I did not mean to imply that academic freedom is irrelevant for all STEM scientists, since that’s far from the case of course. Edited my answer to sharpen the point. – Dan Romik Feb 8 '18 at 14:33
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    I'm not sure librarians are a good example here, and I would gently ask how familiar you are with what they actually do. At my institution, librarians have tenure-stream faculty status, and are expected to conduct research in library science which they publish/present in journals/conferences in their field. (I looked up a couple librarians at your university; they don't all have CVs posted, but some had substantial publication records.) They also teach courses about how to find scholarly resources, conduct literature searches, etc. – Nate Eldredge Feb 8 '18 at 14:48
  • So here, they are covered by the same academic freedom principles as faculty, and it seems clear to me that this is important and proper. – Nate Eldredge Feb 8 '18 at 14:48
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    Not everybody who works in a library is a librarian. At least at my school, 'Librarian' is a formal academic title, like "Assistant Professor", and they are considered faculty. The librarians direct the work and deal with the big picture, and they are supported by a number of staff positions that are not considered faculty. So for example, the librarians are busy coming up with a policy on support for open source journals, and the staff are shelving books, maintaining the infrastructure, supervising student workers. – Charles E. Grant Feb 8 '18 at 16:45

Non faculty staff are rarely research-focused, grant seeking PIs. If they are adjunct professors, they're hired for the purpose of teaching, thus the question is moot as research isn't a focus. If they are research staff (research professor, post doc, etc), they are hired for the purpose of supporting the advising PI. True academic freedom (to study and pursue whatever topic of interest) is earned through tenure, though non tenured research faculty retain a degree of academic freedom too, as long as their efforts secure funding and/or promote the reputation of the department (if not, tenure would be unlikely).

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  • True academic freedom (to study and pursue whatever topic of interest) is earned through tenure -- Where do tenure-track faculty fit in here? (I am on the tenure track, and I don't get the feeling that my tenured colleagues have any more freedom to research what they want than I do.) – Mad Jack Feb 8 '18 at 2:00
  • @MadJack Very fair question. I guess I'd say TT faculty have 'implied' academic freedom. With a TT clock running, and fresh off the hiring process, I don't see a lot of room to pursue this and that. I guess it's possible but probably less common? – HEITZ Feb 8 '18 at 2:08
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    This answer is specific to some fields. In other fields (e.g. computer science), researchers generally have academic freedom as soon as they are capable of doing independent research. After all, what would be the point of accepting a research position without academic freedom, when you can earn twice as much doing the same job in the industry. – Jouni Sirén Feb 8 '18 at 2:17
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    @MadJack and Jouni: I don’t think academic freedom is a binary thing where you either have it or don’t have it. Rather, it is a utopian ideal to aspire to, of having the absolute freedom to pursue your intellectual interests without any limitations and without fear of repercussions to your career or livelihood. I think it’s fair to say that no one enjoys an absolute level of academic freedom, but that tenured professors generally enjoy it to a greater extent than untenured ones, since the former can afford to take bigger risks in their research and intellectual discourse than the latter. – Dan Romik Feb 8 '18 at 9:10
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    thus the question is moot as research isn't a focus — Downvoted. Academic freedom also applies to teaching. – JeffE Feb 8 '18 at 15:11

I would say that all human beings are entitled to academic freedom, i.e. freedom to think, freedom to learn, freedom to form an opinion, and freedom to express an opinion.

Specifically in university content, academic freedom is sometimes understood as freedom to express an opinion which may displease the management of the University employing the faculty member. It is commonly accepted that if the opinion was properly substantiated by research methodology, the University can not make any repercussions towards that faculty. I strongly believe that it is the same for postdocs, librarians, and other staff, although I can not imagine a practical situation where such conflict may arise.

Of course, specifics depend on legislation and laws / customs / contracts in your University, and the practical situation may differ from this theoretical model.

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    Well as a counter example, I'm a staff programmer. My boss is a tenured professor. My job is to write programs that support my boss's research activities. Academic freedom means that the university can't tell my boss which topics to study and which not to study. On the other hand, as staff, my boss has complete control over the topics I work on, and can fire me if I don't carry out their plan of research. – Charles E. Grant Feb 8 '18 at 16:57
  • @CharlesE.Grant Well, the job description and the role requirements still exist, don't they? Similarly, we all have freedom of speech, but some speeches are off-topic on academia.SE and will not be allowed here. You are hired to do research, and you will not be fired if the results of this research say something your boss does not want to hear. – Dmitry Savostyanov Feb 8 '18 at 18:58

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