From the Secretary: The Relevance of Academic Freedom

Frederick M. Lawrence photo

This autumn, the U.S. Supreme Court returned to the topic of race-conscious university admissions practices, reviewing the policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since the Court’s decision in the Bakke case in 1978, Harvard and UNC, like all American universities, public and private, can legally consider an applicant’s racial background among a wide range of other factors, so long as race is not the sole determining factor. In the current cases before the Court, Phi Beta Kappa joined the American Council of Education—among other respected educational associations and institutions—in an amicus curiae brief supporting universities’ ability to implement admissions policies that best advance their mission. Two of our core values are implicated in these cases. 

Phi Beta Kappa recognizes academic excellence, a mission that is wholly consistent with admitting diverse and inclusive entering classes. Indeed, our claim to be honoring the most accomplished liberal arts and sciences students in the country requires that the graduating classes that produce our newest members include students from a wide range of backgrounds. Interestingly, this requirement is broadly understood by the public. In the same recent Washington Post–Schar School survey in which 63% of respondents favored the elimination of race-conscious admissions in higher education, 64% favored “programs designed to increase the racial diversity of students on college campuses.” The inclusive excellence embraced by ΦBK is widely shared; it is the means of achieving this diversity that leads to disputes. College admissions is a complex and multi-valent process, designed and implemented by academic experts. Which brings us to the second value implicated by the Harvard and UNC admissions cases. 

The way in which a college or university goes about admitting its class is fundamental to academic freedom. For nearly half a century, the Supreme Court has embraced the “Four Essential Freedoms of the University” articulated by Justice Felix Frankfurter (ΦBK, Harvard College). It is for the university to determine for itself on academic grounds: (i) who may teach, (ii) what may be taught, (iii) how it shall be taught, and (iv) who may be admitted to study. Frankfurter’s formulation was adopted by the Court in Bakke and reaffirmed in each of the Court’s subsequent decisions upholding the right of a university to engage in race-conscious admissions.  

The relevance of academic freedom to our moment is compelling. This long-recognized right reflects the challenges posed today by governing boards or legislators seeking to reject or remove faculty, restrict the curriculum through “divisive concepts” legislation, and preclude faculty from engagement with current issues, including testifying against positions advanced by the state’s political leadership. And the right of the university to determine who attends the institution situates the continuing debate over affirmative action as one of academic freedom. 

It is critically important that the Court in the current admissions cases reaffirm its long-standing commitment to academic freedom, a right that is indispensable for our very democracy. Various universities will pursue different means of comprising their student body and defining inclusion for their campus. We at Phi Beta Kappa will continue to advocate for the robust academic freedom that permits them to do so. I am deeply grateful for the support of our members as we engage in this work.

Frederick M. Lawrence
Secretary and CEO