Friday, November 29, 2013

If this is true, we're all in trouble

Rebecca Schuman, author of a recent article in Slate about possible wholesale cuts of entire departments/programs at Minnesota State University Moorhead (and author of the blog Pan Kisses Kafka), has received a copy of an email sent to a faculty list by the Faculty Association.  The email contains the following paragraphs:

I remind you that academic freedom is a limited protection, and applies only to your research and classroom teaching, and, in the case of the latter, to discussion of materials relevant to the course subject. 
Otherwise, faculty can be (and have been) punished for written and oral communication that is disruptive or uncivil.

This strikes me as a new, crucial frontier for defining academic freedom. We still need protection for saying possibly-unpopular (but subject-relevant and professionally supportable)  things in the classroom and in our research, but, in the present climate, we also really, really need the freedom to discuss and, when appropriate, criticize institutional structures (present and proposed) and their effects on our work.  I'm glad to see Jonathan Rees raising this issue on the AAUP's Academe Blog (where I first saw the letter), and I very much hope the AAUP will pay due attention not only to the threat posed to tenure by department cuts, but also to a kind of academic freedom that needs to be protected for the sake of all faculty, tenure-track or not. 


  1. One of these days, an administrator is going to get what he deserves.

  2. The Academic Freedom statement in my Faculty Handbook is similarly limited:

    Academic freedom is the right of faculty members to teach and conduct research based on their disciplinary knowledge and expertise. This freedom exists even when faculty members hold a minority view within their discipline and when others find these views objectionable.(A word has been changed here and there.)

    The freedom to criticize the institution itself, its policies and administrators, is not included. I expect most such statements to be similar. The task of defending academic freedom in the broader sense falls to faculty senates (usually toothless, ineffectual, easily co-opted bodies) and the AAUP. The AAUP's primary instrument for this is their "shame list", and to be effective it shouldn't be so cumbersome for groups of faculty at an institution to trigger an investigation by the national organization, and the threshold for censure may need to be lowered.

    Also, the "shame list" should have teeth: it should lead to the institution being effectively shunned by the academic community, to make it impossible for them to hire anyone good. The mere threat ought to make provosts lose their sleep. For that to happen, people would have to stop applying for jobs at any institution that's been placed on the list over the past (say) ten years, or rumored to be under investigation. What percentage of new PhDs even know the AAUP and their censure list exist?

    1. "What percentage of new PhDs even know the AAUP and their censure list exist?"

      Not enough....a real problem with American academia is that it resembles Corporate America with it's ridiculous amount of management. That decay began in the 1980s and we now see it bearing fruit. Self-management should be the rule, with little or no administration.

  3. I can't believe this is still relevant after almost 50 years

  4. What's interesting is that opponents of tenure frequently make the claim that tenure protections are already included within First Amendment rights (or equivalent free speech protections in other democratic countries). These same opponents quietly forget free speech protections when criticism is directed at one of them (or one of their sacred cows).