Scholarly research, teaching and learning are essential public goods. However, public financing—the largest source of support—has been on a downward roller-coaster for decades. The Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic have raised the stakes for institutions of higher and K-12 education, museums, and historical societies to find other sources of funding. If not properly regulated, new funding streams from individual philanthropists, private foundations, field-specific grants and public-private partnerships may pose a threat to academic freedom.
Outside funder influence is of particular concern to historians for two reasons. On the one hand, history is of limited interest to donors and funders looking for financial returns on their investments in teaching and research. This can marginalize history (and other humanities and social sciences) in the panoply of scholarly inquiry and knowledge. On the other hand, history is of significant interest to donors and funders looking for political returns on their investments in teaching and research. This can shift institutional priorities and support toward historical fields that align with the funder’s personal or ideological interests.
Academic freedom is threatened or violated when scholars are not able to freely engage in discipline-related teaching, learning, research, publication, and service. Outside funders may affect these core practices by directly or indirectly influencing:
- Personnel—through hiring, promotion, and/or creation of subject-specific positions;
- Programs—through creation or reorientation of subject-specific programs, curricula and/or course content;
- Facilities—through sponsored or institutional support for subject-specific research agendas, research centers and/or public services.
Robust Shared Governance is the only way to ensure that outside funding supports rather than degrades academic freedom. Shared governance is essential to maintaining a rigorous commitment to history that incorporates different experiences, perspectives, questions, and analyses. Protecting academic freedom from outside funder influence must necessarily include:
- Shared governance in decisions about which outside funding sources will be pursued;
- Shared governance in decisions about which outside funding sources will be accepted;
- Shared governance in the development of donor agreements;
- Institutional commitment to academic freedom protections in all donor agreements;
- Institutional transparency in all donor agreements.