Students & Parents | Freedom of Expression

What Will COVID-19 Mean For Academic Freedom?

FORBES   |  April 21, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff
Studying with video online lesson at home
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Colleges and universities across the nation have closed their campuses and moved toward online education in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid transition to remote learning has posed numerous, and well-documented, pedagogical hurdles: Developing quality online courses takes careful planning, yet faculty have had to design curricula in a matter of days; students have had to return home where many face insufficient access to technology and resources; and academic integrity has been threatened by increased avenues for cheating. But a perhaps underappreciated minefield of e-learning is what it could mean for free speech.

In the digital age, there is a permanent record of virtually everything. Damning emails, social media posts, and pictures could all come back to haunt users either in a matter of days or years down the road. This is a reality that young people today have generally accepted and learned to live with, often taking vigilant care of their online presence and reputation or paying horrendous costs for letting down their guard. Those who fail, face the greatest social punishment of all—being “cancelled.” Until recently, classroom discussions have been kept sacred, immune from the perils of the ever-looming permanent record. In many ways, the privacy and intimacy of classroom conversations, existing only in the present and remaining unencumbered by a digital transcript, have become exceptions to the norm. While there exist many mechanisms to restrict and control speech at the traditional university, until recently, a digital record was not one of them.

Many college campuses today operate Orwellian “bias response teams,” whereby students can report peers or professors to the college administration for “offensive” statements, loosely defined. These bias responses typically mimic student disciplinary procedures and often include administrators responsible for enforcing codes of conduct as well as campus police officers; those that lack the authority formally to punish students and faculty for their speech nonetheless subject “offenders” to a process that is, itself, minatory and reputation-damaging—a grueling experience reasonable people generally work to avoid. Onlookers and proponents of free expression have rightly criticized the potential of such bureaucracies to limit the scope and honesty of academic discourse. But with a digital record of classroom discussions, bias response teams could be all the more pervasive. 

Now that nearly all college courses have gone online, in which format they can be recorded in full, political opportunists, Left and Right, can exploit this permanent, decontextualized record against their opponents. The Charles Koch Foundation, an influential leader in the conservative and libertarian education movement, was quick to perceive the danger. Charlie Ruger, vice president of philanthropy at the Charles Koch Foundation, stated, “Inciting harassment against scholars isn’t just wrong at a time when many are seeking out new ways to engage their students during a crisis, it’s always wrong. Targeting, intimidating, and otherwise attempting to silence academics chills the open exchange of ideas and, in turn, chokes off progress.”

With entire campuses moving online, a digital record of class discussions, and a bureaucracy already in place to punish individuals for their views, the potential negative impact on free and open dialogue, and, in turn, student learning, emotional well-being, maturation, and cognitive gain is immense.

John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering, law, and public policy at the University of California–Los Angeles, said it best in a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Why I Won’t Let My Classes Be Recorded.” (The article was written pre-coronavirus outbreak, responding to institutional requests to record class discussions for educational purposes.) Professor Villasenor stated, “Today’s students live in a world in which an increasing fraction of their lives is digitally surveilled. Their locations are tracked by their smartphones, their online activities are logged by app providers, their text messages are stored in their phones and in the phones of others, and their comings and goings are tracked by key cards and by cameras in building entrances and hallways. A highly interactive classroom should be a space beyond the reach of the digital panopticon. It should not be a space where every student utterance is archived on a college-run server, regardless of how supposedly secure that server might be.”

Yale University’s 1974 C. Vann Woodward Report stated that the university is the place to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” With a digital record of class discussions available for ready exploitation, that valiant goal will fall much farther out of reach. There are countless hurdles that colleges will have to address during the coronavirus pandemic and afterwards if online education increasingly becomes the new norm. One of those hurdles must be the protection of academic freedom.

Brave college leadership needs to update free speech policies to reflect the digital nature of education in the age of pandemic. Cornell University, for example, has strong policies concerning academic freedom in its online education guidelines. One can only hope that these principles become the norm. Students and faculty alike need concrete, credible guarantees that the classroom does not become like Twitter, where a statement can go viral, ruin one’s career, and exist on the permanent record. This shouldn’t be too hard to sell, since those whose enable such surveillance might well become its victims.


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