With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Overcoming Setbacks in Academic Freedom at West Point

In 2020, The United States Military Academy at West Point terminated the employment of an assistant professor whose specialty is American women’s writing. In addition to her teaching, this professor helped lead the academy’s program to support talented cadets applying for graduate scholarships such as the Rhodes, Truman, and Marshall scholarships. Under her leadership, the scholarship program was successful, with more cadets winning prestigious scholarships than ever before. She also continued to publish in her discipline.

During the process of her termination, the department head and her supervisor told her—without further elaboration—that they were “going in a different direction.” Moreover, she was told that her teaching “tended toward activism” and was not “objective”— standard criticisms against women and people of color in academia. She was never counseled that a termination was imminent nor told what the “new direction” would be. During her petition for reinstatement, various reasons were added for her dismissal, including inadequate funding and routine end-of-term termination. The perspective of many faculty and students: she was terminated because she was teaching as a feminist scholar.

The Academic Freedom Advisory Committee, consisting of both military and civilian faculty, conducted a hearing and concluded that the faculty member’s termination constituted an academic freedom violation. However, West Point’s board of administrators (all military officers except one) convened and overturned the finding of its own academic freedom committee. Faculty members have been left wondering: do we have academic freedom?

As West Point and the US Army continue to struggle with racial and gender integration and discrimination, it is troubling that the academy would openly dismiss a successful feminist scholar. The faculty system at West Point has failed her and the taxpayers that support this high-profile and expensive institution. In turn, West Point has made a mockery of its own academic freedom policy and lost the trust of many of its faculty.

The West Point faculty model and its policies have been evolving since Congress mandated the inclusion of more civilian faculty members in the 1990s. Prior to then, over 90 percent of faculty members were military officers with a master’s degree who served for three years. The goal of the mandated shift was to have approximately 25 percent of the total faculty as civilians with PhDs to enhance credentials, increase the quality of teaching, and create a diverse civilian and military faculty mix. The goal—based on the needs of a modern army—was to make the Academy more academic and less of a military-training school. With improvements realized over those years, the academic rigor of the institution has increased. From that perspective, the congressional initiative to “civilianize” West Point has been a success and the US Army has benefitted. However, the clash of ideals and teaching methods between the academic and military cultures still exists, sometimes resulting in civilian-military discord and disagreement over values and process. In particular, West Point’s struggle for shared governance and academic freedom has adversely effected the achievement of its goal.

Read entire article at Academe Blog