How the U.S. protects academic freedom

Two people surrounded by scientific equipment, papers and a chalkboard (© Bill Denison/Drew University/Getty Images)
William Campbell, right, a winner of a Nobel Prize in Medicine, works with a Drew University student. (© Bill Denison/Drew University/Getty Images)

Students from around the globe compete to study at American universities, which are among the finest in the world.

How did U.S. institutions achieve this level of excellence? One key is America’s longstanding commitment to academic freedom.

Back in 1940, a time when Nazi aggression threatened freedom in much of the world, the American Association of University Professors declared, “Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth.”

“The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” the AAUP said.

Free minds seeking truth have been responsible for great scientific advances. Americans have won nearly half of all awarded Nobel Prizes in physics, medicine and chemistry, and about three-quarters of all Nobel Prizes in economics. Roughly one-third of these American winners are immigrants affiliated with American universities.

The ability to study, learn, collaborate and publish freely enables great minds to drive innovation that benefits us all.

A challenge to academic freedom?

Academic freedom is a bedrock of the U.S. academic and research enterprise. It is a value shared by academic sectors across the globe, and it needs to be protected. Nations that do not prioritize this shared value are trying to damage academic freedom by threat, theft and intimidation — all to benefit their own military and intelligence sectors.

Universities are not free when governments:

  • Oblige their citizens studying abroad to steal or co-opt sensitive technology or biological materials that can be used for military purposes.
  • Direct researchers to hide their ties to government agencies.
  • Monitor their overseas students’ speech.
  • Donate money in exchange for the ability to restrict research on “politically sensitive” subjects.

So what are Americans doing to protect academic freedom? In recent months:

  • A Harvard University professor was criminally charged for hiding payments from a foreign government.
  • An international student seeking a student visa was indicted for lying about her foreign military ties and intent to spy on the United States.
  • A student researcher was arrested for trying to steal vials of biological research and smuggle them out of the U.S.
  • A Portland State University student petitioned her school to close its Confucius Institute after learning that faculty “censored topics the Chinese government does not like” to avoid upsetting Hanban (an organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education).

Much earlier, in 1989, some Chinese students studying at American universities condemned the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese Communist Party threatened these students with punishment if they were to return home. But Congress passed the Chinese Student Protection Act to safeguard the students from retaliation by allowing them to seek asylum in the U.S.

These actions are some of the ways America stands up for academic freedom.

The U.S. will always welcome researchers and students from other countries on American campuses, and the U.S. government and private institutions participate in many exchange programs. Everyone benefits from a free dialogue of ideas and insights. That’s what academic freedom is about, and it is something that everyone should defend.

Photo of two people walking, Pompeo quote about academic freedom for Chinese students in U.S. (© Jessica Hill/AP Images)