Accreditation and Academic Freedom

The AAUP and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation have just issued an advisory statement on “Accreditation and Academic Freedom,” and I find it a very disappointing document.

One indication of the statement’s disregard for academic freedom is this claim: “the phrase ‘academic freedom’ has become subject to promiscuous usage as, on occasion, institutions and faculty have sought to shelter actions or utterances under that rubric without regard to its meaning.”

While one can find a few instances where colleges invoke the nonsensical “institutional academic freedom” (including this document, sadly) to justify infringing academic freedom, the main problem with academic freedom is the lack of usage, not “promiscuous usage.” The use of such a term implies that a major problem in academia is too much talk about academic freedom, when it’s the absence of academic freedom that is the real crisis.

Worst of all, there’s absolutely nothing in this document about the importance of accreditation agencies paying attention to academic freedom in their own process. The statement warns about “inappropriate influence from external centers of power – public and private” without any self-awareness that accreditation is one of those external centers of power that can endanger academic freedom. Accreditation agencies need to be very careful not to impose narrow-minded standards about curricula and other choices that rightly should be made by faculty at individual colleges, and too many of them fall short in this regard. Accreditation at virtually all colleges above minimal quality should take the form of an open discussion for improvement, not the imposition of national standards using threats.

While the statement is valuable for making the rather obvious (but often ignored) declaration that academic freedom should be examined during the accreditation process, it falls short in being unable to define academic freedom properly, and failing to alert accreditation agencies to the need to protect academic freedom in their own actions.

3 thoughts on “Accreditation and Academic Freedom

    • I’m not sure I understand (or agree with) this analogy. The issue with “voter fraud” was that Republicans cynically manipulated a very minor problem in order to try to discourage voting, thereby helping their party. The danger of accreditation is that well-intentioned outsiders seeking to improve national standards of academic quality can sometimes overstep their bounds. Colleges shouldn’t be threatened with a loss of accreditation for choosing a different approach (even on the issue of academic freedom). They should be criticized and asked to defend what they do, but I believe that accreditation should be the opportunity for a conversation and a debate, rather than a system of imposing standards.

  1. It is especially disconcerting to find that “institutional academic freedom” would appear as an unqualified concept or claim in any formal policy document authored under the auspices of the AAUP. If AAUP continues to manifest a disappointing dearth of scholars and/or legal staff/advisors with the requisite fluency in the controversial court cases which have posed some of the greatest dangers to the established case history of academic freedom, then AAUP leaders would serve us members and the profession far better by being silent rather than unwittingly lending their voices to potential and/or actual erosions of tenure, academic freedom and governance.

    A sobering irony, indeed, for gone are the nuanced analyses characteristic even of past documents still retrievable at the AAUP Website (cf. precisely on this matter of “institutional” vs. individual academic freedom). AAUP leaders appear instead to be rushing to collaborate with administrators in this as well as in the abandonment of the fiscal exigency standard for retrenchment being projected for a new report. One can only hope that the spirit of Dewey and Lovejoy will ultimately slow this sad regression before it permanently damages the AAUP legacy and the basic tenets of the profession — as the AAUP centennial approaches.

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