Opinion by Eugene G. Sander
In a modern public university such as the University of Arizona, faculty have the freedom, and are even encouraged, to pursue scholarship at the cutting edge of discovery. As a result, this research is not always understood or appreciated by the public.
Academic freedom is a fundamental pillar of a community of scholars. It distinguishes a university from a corporation, where discovery often is driven by a profit motive.
At the University of Arizona, academic freedom is alive and well. Controversial areas of scholarship include work on stem cells, gay and lesbian relationships, peak oil and global climate change, just to name a few.
UA faculty members communicate the implications of their scholarship in scientific, peer-reviewed literature, guest opinions in newspapers, public lectures and other venues. Some issues reported in public forums such as the Arizona Daily Star are contentious enough to elicit public concern.
These concerns notwithstanding, academic freedom gives faculty members the right to publicly express controversial opinions. One role of the university is to provide a forum for ideas and opinions that are not widely shared. We hope these ideas will encourage scholarly debate on different points of view.
Occasionally even members of the academic community who value academic freedom lose sight of its value to society
Last April, in response to a guest commentary by professor Guy McPherson of the School of Natural Resources, "Peak oil paints frightening future for all," I erroneously distanced the university from the McPherson article.
Recently in a faculty, staff and student forum on our campus, a faculty member reminded me that my letter to the editor may have had a chilling effect on academic freedom at our university.
This was not my intent: Academic freedom should be strongly supported by faculty members in senior administrative positions, especially when an author's viewpoint might be controversial or unpopular.
In the future I will be more careful to remember that providing an open forum is part of the university mission, and to promote open discussion of all issues, either popular or contentious.
I hope the community will join me in supporting healthy debates about our common future.