Adding to the Armamentarium of Academic Freedom

Robert Kreiser, a former staffer of the American Association of University Professors Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, spoke at an Illinois Conference annual meeting. I expressed an opinion that one of the AAUP’s most eloquent and powerful statements on academic freedom appeared in one of its lesser known Redbook documents: Academic Freedom in the Medical School. He agreed and indicated that Lawrence Poston, who previously served on Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and was a senior associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, crafted the document fifteen years ago. Aside from its brevity, a virtue sometimes overlooked in subsequent policy statements, it represents a powerful affirmation of academic freedom. I was initially frustrated in what appeared to be a de facto limitation in applying its stirring rhetoric to other, more common academic freedom cases. Upon recently revisiting Academic Freedom in the Medical School, I believe that significant elements of the document are intended for a broader audience and are applicable to the majority of teachers and researchers not on medical-school faculties.

Its first paragraph states:

The term “academic freedom” refers to the freedom of college and university faculty to teach, to conduct research and publish the results, and to fulfill responsibilities as officers of an educational institution. Academic freedom is a core value in the American community of higher learning. Its protection is a crucial responsibility of university faculties, administrations, and governing boards. While academic freedom clearly safeguards the work of professors and their institutions, its primary purpose is to advance the general welfare. {My emphasis}

The pronouncement that governing boards and administrators have a “crucial responsibility” in protecting academic freedom is provocative. It is not only the professoriate that are guardians of academic freedom, but also those who manage a post-secondary institution. When the AAUP claims that a university or college has violated generally accepted norms of academic freedom and due process, it proceeds to enumerate alleged violations of its principles and reports. Elevating academic freedom protection to a demonstrable obligation and requirement for administrators, adds power and emphasis to the demand that no one, regardless of position and elite status, may disrupt the academic freedom that is essential for the common good and ongoing revisionism.

Illinois has been a major center of the academic freedom struggle but regardless of location, Academic Freedom in the Medical School should be included within the armamentarium of citing and demanding adherence to the AAUP documents and reports. Dr. Steven Salaita was egregiously terminated with a summary dismissal and virtual suspension from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise and Christopher G. Kennedy, chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, shirked their responsibilities to protect his academic freedom. The AAUP censured Northeastern Illinois University when President Sharon Hahs ignored her responsibility to protect the academic freedom of John Boyle in the Department of Linguistics. Another Chicago-based post-secondary institution, National Louis University, was recently censured in part because its administration neglected its duties and instead imposed a “climate for academic freedom… [that] is precarious at best.”

While the statement seems too willing to concede common tests and readings across multiple medical school course sections offered by different instructors, there remains a poignant reaffirmation of academic freedom as the sine qua non for effective teaching and the search for the truth:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

Most professors occupying non-medical school academic appointments should familiarize themselves with the sweep of this document that affirms one’s right to teach without intrusive, external pressure. The statement presents with great clarity the full range of academic freedom as it pertains to teaching as the professoriate faces numerous threats from assessment, authoritarian administrators, common standards and professional schools’ obeisance to accreditation agencies. Accreditation and self-study police on campus use the fear of a negative review to feed the stultifying conformity of group think, and represent a clear and present danger to academic freedom. Yes, academic standards are important and accreditation can enhance academic quality if conducted with restraint and a respect for diversity of thought and pedagogy. Indeed faculty should not be employed from institutions that are not accredited and are even banned from becoming AAUP active members. In its constitution: Article II -Membership, active members in the Association must be employed “at a college, university, or professional school of similar grade accredited in the United States or Canada…” {My emphasis}

Other examples abound: Professors alone should determine the reading lists and select other materials for their courses, not a chair or dean who requires a cap on textbook expense. Sensitivity to course material cost is essential, but administrators and chairs must not censor a professor who uses materials that exceed an arbitrary baseline. Professors alone must assign grades to students and not deans or chairs who acquiesce to a student or helicopter parent complaint demanding a higher grade, criticising the viewpoint of an instructor and resisting charges of plagiarism or other forms of academic misconduct. Professors alone must construct the assignments, establish rubrics of grading and evaluation.

On-campus unit administrators that monitor students with disabilities might be well-intentioned, but may attenuate academic freedom. I was ordered once on an accommodation form for a hearing-challenged student to repeat orally any question or statement from any student during class. I was told to simultaneously read out loud what I was writing on the whiteboard in case the student could not read my handwriting. I was ordered not to turn my back to the class because it might muffle the sound of my voice. While I refused to comply with these requirements which even the student affirmed were potentially embarrassing, one always risks the opprobrium of being insensitive to students with disabilities (always the hook that is used to occupy a classroom with unacceptable, intrusive accommodations). I support, care and am eager to assist students with disabilities: my point is the “crucial responsibility” of administrators to defend academic freedom is ignored when the quality of instruction for other students is compromised with unreasonable, accommodation requests for a single student.

As academic freedom remains under siege on every front, its stirring defense in Academic Freedom in the Medical School should be used to sustain and protect it.

2 thoughts on “Adding to the Armamentarium of Academic Freedom

  1. The accommodations requested for the deaf student:
    “… to repeat orally any question or statement from any student during class.
    … not to turn my back to the class because it might muffle the sound of my voice.”
    seem quite reasonable. The one time I had a deaf student in a class, the same requests were made of me (the student relied on lip reading). They were not particularly difficult to do, though I did need to be reminded once or twice when I got carried away with the content and forgot.

    Of course, accommodations for students with disabilities are always a matter for negotiation—the university is required by ADA to provide all reasonable accommodations for disabilities, but precisely what those accommodations are is not always spelled out. On our campus, the Disability Resource Center provides suggestions to the faculty, and offers mediated negotiation if the faculty member feels that the requested accommodation is not reasonable (students have to complete the work, so just waiving a requirement is not a reasonable accommodation).

    • You make many fine points. The student could converse with me without much difficulty and I wondered if the requests may have been excessive. Yes we do have departmental liaisons with that office and I will write concerns on the accommodation form before signing. I believe faculty who may not be tenured, however, are more reluctant to negotiate or to assert themselves in defense of other students’ learning that may be compromised.You are correct that students “have to complete the work,” and at times I have felt that was not always understood. There needs to be a balance struck in mandating accommodating a disabled student and respecting the academic freedom of the professor. I try to do the best I can to effectuate both outcomes.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.