Political Correctness - Part 2

Recently, the post-secondary sector has engaged in critical discussions regarding the importance of political correctness in both research and teaching. I personally became interested in this topic after I read “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” a piece authored by Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn which advances the argument that a “framework of [academic] justice” should take precedence over the traditionally heralded notion of academic freedom. This view is echoed by those who support the establishment and reinforcement of politically correct safe spaces on university campuses; these individuals express the concern that academic freedom may be used to perpetuate the unjust marginalization, degradation, and/or oppression of particular populations. While I agree wholeheartedly with these concerns, I would like to address two incorrect assumptions that have engendered common misunderstandings of the function and relevance of academic freedom: (1) the propensity to overlook the responsibility entailed by the concept of academic freedom, and (2) the false dichotomy drawn between achieving political correctness and preserving academic freedom.

The doctrine of academic freedom is often mischaracterized by both sides of this debate as an unbridled freedom to “do whatever we want and say whatever we want and write whatever we want whenever we want.”[1] Although academic freedom is certainly intended to protect those who express unpopular views from negatively affecting their job prospects and academic reputation (much like the goals of the right to free speech),[2] the doctrine is intertwined with a sense of academic responsibility. This entails a willingness to meaningfully engage with opposing viewpoints, and most importantly, avoiding deliberately or inadvertently invalidating the views and experiences of marginalized/oppressed groups. Academic freedom does not simply allow a researcher or professor to trivialize viewpoints that they do not share, as academic responsibility requires them to participate in respectful considerations of all opponents’ viewpoints, both in research and teaching.

Universities are institutions engaged in the “pursuit of knowledge;”[1] this knowledge arises only when it proves its ability to withstand varied criticisms. Thus, both academic freedom and responsibility are needed in the process of knowledge creation. Although academic freedom allows one to explore and/or teach controversial or unpopular views, this freedom is counterbalanced with a corresponding responsibility to take a balanced approach which acknowledges the legitimacy of opposing critical views. It is possible to reject a viewpoint without demeaning those who express it, and this is the responsibility that one holds in exercising their academic freedom.

Those who support political correctness in research and teaching are understandably wary of academic freedom if it protects and allows academics to trivialize and invalidate experiences of injustice, thus committing “psychological violence” against already-marginalized populations.[1] These concerns have frequently been met with hostility, with proponents of academic freedom arguing that PCs now have the ability to “intimidate [academics] into silence,” thus forcing “conformity to institutional ideology” [2] and threatening the “intellectual quality of university research, the curriculum, the professorate, and the student body.”[3] However, these concerns incorrectly assume a false dichotomy between academic freedom and political correctness; they should instead be regarded as mutually supportive components of a healthy academic environment.

The function of academic freedom is not to dogmatically protect traditional, ‘conservative’ views from politically correct reformers. It is to recognize that we all stand to gain from knowledge creation, and that this knowledge is best reached when all parties can freely express their views without fear of repercussion or dismissal. The fundamental aim of academic freedom is to avoid silencing any viewpoints – this includes both traditional views and politically correct views. Therefore, academic freedom plays an important role in the university because it provides a safe and mutually respectful platform for intellectual exchanges and discussions. There is no compromise to be made between academic freedom and political correctness; both are essential to foster a positive research and learning environment in a university setting.

Conclusively, academic freedom is compatible with political correctness so long as those in the post-secondary community acknowledge the responsibility associated with the academic freedom that they enjoy. These two seemingly oppositional stances, formulated properly, can be mutually supportive in the university setting to ensure that professors and students can engage in meaningful and open dialogues across a broad spectrum of topics without compromising knowledge creation or respect.


[1] Stark, Cannie. “Academic Freedom, “Political Correctness”, and Ethics.” Canadian Psychology 38/4 (1997): 232-237.

[2] Furedy, John J. “Academic Freedom Versus the Velvet Totalitarian Culture of Comfort on Current Canadian Campuses: Some Fundamental Terms and Distinctions.” Interchange 28/4 (1997): 331-350.

[3] Ayim, Maryann. “Just How Correct is Political Correctness? A Critique of the Opposition’s Arguments.” Argumentation 12 (1998): 445-480.