Defining Academic Freedom

For a variety of reasons academic freedom has become a significant topic at my school. I’m certainly a defender of free speech rights, academic freedom, and the like, but I’ve increasingly encountered situations where on the grounds of “academic freedom” faculty make objections to university processes that don’t have anything to do with the term (at least as I understand it). For example, I’ve had objections to things like following our common—and still flexible—first-year writing syllabus, as well as concerns about having to do (and being evaluated on) course assessment. How can I help faculty understand that academic freedom has a specific meaning and limits without looking like the uncaring oppressor?—Professor Freedom

Dear Professor Freedom:

Academic freedom is a very specific set of rights and responsibilities, but you’re right that it’s often invoked to cover a much broader set of concerns. The clearest expressions of what constitutes academic freedom come from the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure; the MLA also has a Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities whom you could consult. In brief, academic freedom gives faculty the right to teach freely within their areas of expertise, pursue their research without pressure or penalty from their departments or administration, and speak freely outside the walls of the institution.

While most faculty don’t like assessment, I think opposing it for reasons of academic freedom is a stretch. Assessment is an administrative task that has nothing to do with the faculty’s control over curricula and syllabi. Ideally, assessment takes the measure of how well various pedagogical methods achieve what a course says it wants to achieve. It doesn’t comment on content or even pedagogy broadly speaking, to the extent that if students are learning what you think they should be learning, then it doesn’t really matter how you’re getting them there (and if they’re not, it’s worth knowing that and thinking about how to help them). Assessment is not about judging individual faculty members or students, but about working out what’s working and what isn’t; that’s hardly a violation of academic freedom.

The common syllabus is a bit stickier, but not completely, assuming that the syllabus has been put together by faculty with expertise in the field, and there’s room for variation. Composition programs are usually organized around a set of clearly-articulated learning goals, and syllabi are constructed with those goals in mind, so this isn’t a top-down process. In some ways, the shared syllabus is like a textbook — while we often select other materials to supplement or substitute for various elements, on the whole we don’t see the textbook’s selection and organization of information as an abrogation of our academic freedom to teach whatever we want.

If your college has an academic freedom committee, I’d encourage you to invite the chair or a committee member to speak to your department about the ins and outs of what academic freedom means. That way, you’re not the villain enforcing unfair rules. You should prep the person to let them know what the flashpoints in your department are, but also give them free rein to lay down the law in terms of what does and doesn’t qualify as academic freedom. Alternatively, you could distribute materials that cover the parameters of academic freedom and then lead a discussion within the department on how that applies to your situation.

One last point: being authoritative isn’t the same as being an uncaring oppressor. There’s nothing oppressive in letting faculty know that their assumptions of what constitutes academic freedom are far in excess of what its principles actually are. They might not like it, but that doesn’t make you the bad guy.

The Chair

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