Bonneau: The importance of academic freedom


Academic freedom is the lifeblood of a university. As the American Association of University Professors states, “Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth.” Indeed, one of the reasons many of us chose a career in academia is because of the freedom to pursue lines of inquiry of interest to us and to do so free from constraint from others. Of course, publishing our research does require some conformity with disciplinary best practices in research design and execution, but this is different than being told we are prohibited from researching a topic or that our research must come to some preordained conclusion.

This has recently become an issue on our campus regarding the newly created Center for Governance and Markets, funded by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. The successful grant application by three of our colleagues, and the University’s vetting of the grant (in the same way it ensures all grants comply with the University’s policies), adds Pitt to a long list of colleges and universities that have received research grants from the Charles Koch Foundation. This issue has caused much tension among faculty and students, especially in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs where the center is going to be housed.

I am not writing to defend some of the actions of the Charles Koch Foundation (though I hasten to add that they are funding some excellent and much-needed work on criminal justice reform). And in the interests of disclosure and transparency, I will note that I have presented my research at some workshops that were funded (at least in part) by the Koch Foundation. I do not think some of their past actions are defensible. My position on this is clear: Donors should not have any control over curriculum, hiring or firing decisions. Full stop.

Yet, I am not prepared to say that just because some universities allowed undue influence among donors this means that Pitt is going to do the same. Indeed, I think that is highly unlikely for three reasons. First, concerns that have been raised by faculty and students about this center means that active monitoring is already taking place. Second, the incidents at George Mason and Florida State universities serve as a warning to other places about the consequences of allowing donors to control curriculum and personnel decisions. Third, the Charles Koch Foundation, in response to previous concerns, has changed its funding practices. Indeed, the very fact that this grant is publicly available for all to see is a departure from our general practice.

Finally, I want to call our attention to the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics. Professors have an obligation to “seek and to state the truth as they see it” and “practice intellectual honesty.” I have no doubts that our colleagues will continue to live up to this obligation. The ethics statement also has something for the rest of us: “Professors do not discriminate against or harass colleagues. They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates, even when it leads to findings and conclusions that differ from their own.” I have always found my colleagues at Pitt to do exactly this, and I hope this continues.

Chris W. Bonneau is a professor of Political Science and president of the University Senate.