File under Academic Freedom

Inside Higher Education reports on a conference last week at the New School on Academic Freedom and the University.

“It is by no means clear how much the academic community has learned from the McCarthy years,” said Ellen W. Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University who, like O’Neil, spoke Thursday during a conference focused on “Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times,” held at The New School, in New York City.

Citing some examples, Schrecker mentioned the University of Nebraska’s recent cancellation of a speaking appearance by William Ayers, the education professor whose history with the Weather Underground has played a prominent role in the presidential campaign; the high-profile dismissal of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado; and the tenure denial of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University. “Universities are still accommodating themselves to the demands of politicians and other outsiders to eliminate embarrassing faculty members,” Schrecker said.

“In the name of financial exigency and market competitiveness, administrators have been subverting the autonomy of the faculty. Worse yet, faculties are disappearing,” she continued. “Two-thirds, that’s two-thirds of today’s teaching, is being done by what’s known as contingent faculty members. These people, no matter how skilled or qualified they may be, cannot provide the same kind of education as a traditional faculty.”

Schrecker is certainly correct about this.  I read this sentence a couple of times because the first time it smacked of elitism, but what I think (hope) Schrecker meant is that full time faculty members are a permanent part of the fabric of the campus while contingent faculty are very often not because, well, they have no offices and have other campuses to commute to so they can come in just above the poverty line at the end of the year. There was quite a bit of discussion about this passage in the comment section.  Now, I’m not trying to strictly link “presence on campus” with “better education,” for obviously many PT facutly are excellent teachers.  At least from my experience as FT TT compared to my years as a lowly adjunct Schrecker has a point.  I have far more intereaction with students (and other faculty), respect from other people in the department (which they will surely lose once they get to know me better) and the administration (er…such as it is),  and I wield some degree of influence with regards to shaping policies, curriculum etc.  Now, here’s a strange comment below the article:

Will someone, anyone, provide me with an OPERATIONAL definition of academic freedom? I suspect there exists little agreement concerning faculty rights and responsibilities under this intangible conceptualization of “freedom.” Further, the persistent ambiguity associated with this concept has, in my opinion, contributed to a misinterpretation of the rights conferred to faculty. I also suggest the term “right” overshadows corresponding responsibilities. The latter is problem inherent in this society and among educators and administrators.

So, should faculty have the RIGHT to free inquiry? Of course, and without such freedoms knowledge would remain stagnant. However, in the process of exercising that right, faculty have the responsibility to provide a balanced and well-informed discussion – including alternative explanations of the information discussed – even if those alternative explanations are inconsistent with his or her perspectives.

For example, Ellen W. Schrecker stated, “’Two-thirds, that’s two-thirds of today’s teaching, is being done by what’s known as contingent faculty members. These people, no matter how skilled or qualified they may be, cannot provide the same kind of education as a traditional faculty.’” Well, now I have Professors Schrecker’s personal worldview concerning contingent faculty. However, I would now like the Professor to exercise the responsibilities implicitly associated with her freedom of speech: Provide empirical evidence to support her observation – evidence that extends beyond personal observation – rather, clear and credible evidence resulting from sustained systematic empirical inquiry.

No correlations – no imputed relationships between abstract variables – but, real experimental or even quasi-experimental comparisons between classes taught by a tenured and/or full-time college professors vs. contingent faculty and student outcomes.

Should the concept of academic freedom extend to the practice of teaching – even if a faculty member utilizes practices that are inconsistent with the needs of students, the workplace, and principles of effective practice? Absolutely not! If faculty members wish to exercise their rights to autonomy under the pretext of academic freedom, they have the contingent responsibility to become principled and effective educators. I have witnessed faculty members misuse academic freedom to avoid introducing technology into the classroom, thwart efforts to build effective online learning systems within their respective disciplines, and as a basis for diminishing the quality of learning experiences and assessments.

First off, I’m sorry, but this is excellent.  I’ve never heard anyone ever call for a quasi-experimental comparison and then turn around and provide what I can only assume is quasi-experimental comparisions, but wait a minute, wouldn’t that be the same as personal observation?  I’m confused.  But the most wrongheaeded part of this comment is asking whether or not academic freedom extends to teaching.  The condensceding commentator falls victim to the very thing that he/she accused Schrecker of doing.  What then, are practices consistent with the needs of the students, the workplace, and principles of effective practice I wonder?  As soon as we as teachers allow the demands of our students and the workplace to dictate content we’ve allowed our authority to be reduced to that of piece-meal workers assembling whatever “they” (admin/students/govt etc) have cobbled together as their outstanding vision of all possible knowledge cohering of course to (bizarre) operational definitions they themselves have designed and are  proud to display as the common chassis that all the Chevys will run on in this class of vehicles.  That is to say, we will become sweat shop workers that happend to teach and we’ll continue to function, but only with the intellectual authority of 3rd grade science teachers, just at a different level, as we’d try to tell ourselves.  We’ll have the 13th-17th graders, but we’ll otherwise be no different. Not good.

In the scheme of things, it’s up to us FT TT faculty to combat this scenerio.  Read the full article here

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