Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What is academic freedom in the classroom?

The most recent APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy has a provocative article by Lou Matz wherein he describes his denial of tenure at Xavier University. The basis of Matz' tenure denial was teaching-related: Matz taught material in an Introduction to Philosophy course that, in the judgment of his department colleagues, focused more on contemporary politics than on the core theoretical questions in ethics that his colleagues preferred. Matz then went through a series of appeals, claiming that his academic freedom was violated.

There's a great deal of detail in Matz' article, so I'd encourage everyone simply to read it. But I'd be interested in knowing people's thoughts about the central question here: What is academic freedom with respect to pedagogy? My sense is that academic freedom is conceptualized, first and foremost, in terms of research: what a faculty member may investigate, what methods are appropriate for investigation, how the findings are presented, etc. But what does academic freedom amount to in the classroom? Most discussions of pedagogical freedom seem mostly concerned with a professor's professional neutrality, which is really not about the professor's academic freedom, but students' academic freedom. Does academic freedom extend to instructors' choice of content or subject matter? Does it extend to instructors' pedagogical methods? Is Matz' contention that his academic freedom was violated credible?


  1. I suppose the real question is one of what the institutionally accepted course outline says -- the instructor is contracted to teach the outline. IF the outline is properly written, then a reasonable amount of academic freedom is possible... having just revised all of our department's courses, I know this isn't easy, but it can and should be one.

  2. My initial impression is that Lou Matz is right to complain about the way he was treated, but I'm not so sure that he is right to complain about academic freedom.

    As he describes it, the department did not make clear that, by using On Liberty, and newspaper articles, and by focusing on issues of applied ethics, he was endangering his application for tenure. Only when it was too late did he discover the rules that he was meant to follow. If that is what happened, it is simply unjust.

    But suppose they had been more explicit: 'We think that you are placing too much emphasis on politics, and not enough emphasis on ethical theory. You've watered the content down too much. We expect you to change your approach.' That sounds like a reasonable request from a senior to a junior colleague. By a 'junior' colleague, I mean, of course, 'not yet tenured.'

    I've never taught at an institution with a tenure-track, so perhaps I'm just manifesting my lack of understanding of the whole system. I thought, however, that granting someone tenure is a way of protecting their academic freedom - but this is a status that has to be earned. I'm not saying that academic freedom only begins with tenure, only that there is a line between pedagogical innovation, and watering down course content, and those who have earned tenure are the ones who thereby earned the right to decide where that line should be drawn.

    Speaking as someone who is an outsider to the U.S. system, and who works on its fringes (my career so far has been spent teaching at Latin American campuses of North American universities), my impression is that a lot of emphasis, perhaps too much emphasis, is placed on the sovereignty of the professor over the class. (I am used to receiving grades from committees, not from individual professors). The tenure-process provides an important check: the chance for the department to exercise some meaningful supervision over teaching practices of members. I wouldn't want to see this weakened.

  3. I'm inclined to agree with the general sentiment, I'm not convinced academic freedom extends to teaching content. I think as with Ben that Lou Matz (at least how he describes it) was treated poorly and the intolerance for applied ethics that he describes if accurate is worrying. On the other hand this is a core introductory paper and if the students aren't learning what the other members of the department expect them to learn then papers in second and third year are going to fall flat.

    There is a distinction between teaching ethical theory, applied ethics and social justice. It seems to me that the paper historically was a mix between ethical theory & history of ethical and social thought whereas Matz was teaching it as applied ethics & social justice, so I could understand the change bothering some.

  4. Yes, I think I follow Ben and David in thinking that Matz' most persuasive complaint isn't based on academic freedom. His more central complaint is one of procedural unfairness: that the department's expectations were not clear or were not clearly communicated, were only communicated after the fact, were applied inconsistently, etc. I'd say that in the classroom setting, faculty (including untenured faculty -- they have this freedom too, Ben!) have the right to present controversial material or interpretations, but they do not have the right to not teach in accordance with the course outline (or to teach negligently, with methods that are demonstrably inadequate, etc.).

  5. What exactly is the argument for the claim that academic freedom does not extend to teaching? I took the post to be asking what academic freedom in regards to teaching might be, but the comments seem to imply that it only extends to research. I'd like to hear why this is the best interpretation of academic freedom.

  6. Michael - I wasn't denying that non-tenured faculty have academic freedom, (aware that some of my remarks were open to this interpretation, I explicitly denied this point), and Joseph, I don't think anyone was saying that academic freedom extends only to research. However, the limits of academic freedom with regard to teaching are hard to define, since nobody, I hope, would suppose that a teacher can say anything at all in the classroom, and claim the privilege of academic freedom. The material taught must fall within the boundaries of the course. The grading must ensure that the students meet certain standards. The instructor is free, provided those limits are respected.

    But who lays down the limits? There are, of course, processes for deciding upon official course descriptions to which all faculty must adhere. The difficulty is deciding whether the instructor is within these limits. For example, my Introduction to World Religions Class requires ‘…emphasis on their origins in the ancient world.’ Nobody has decreed exactly what percentage of the class has to be devoted to ancient origins of religions, just that this should be an ‘emphasis’.

    As I understand the system (someone explain if this is wrong), a faculty member on the tenure-track might be told ‘We’ve looked at the way you teach this class, and there isn’t enough emphasis on ancient origins. If you want tenure, show us how you’re going to fix that.’ This isn’t denying academic freedom, it’s laying down the limits within which it operates. But try saying the same to a tenured faculty: unless they clearly breach the course description (e.g. omitting anything about ancient origins), I think it would be much harder to threaten their job. Not only are they allowed to operate freely within the limits, they have the extra privilege of determining what those limits are.

    My understanding of the tenure track system is that it prevents the administrators from exerting pressures on faculty that would undermine the institution – e.g. to teach in accordance with the political preferences of wealthy benefactors. However, it leaves in place the role of senior faculty exerting pressure on junior faculty to maintain certain standards, and work within certain limits that are inherent to the discipline. If an administrator says to a tenured faculty ‘Don’t use so many newspaper articles, they aren’t relevant to the discipline you are teaching’, the tenured faculty member can say ‘It’s my place to say what’s relevant to the discipline, not yours’. But if this is raised by a senior academic during a tenure-review, it’s a different matter. Have I got that wrong?

  7. Ben - Sorry I missed that qualifier on your post. But — and I'll happily admit that I could be wrong about this — academic freedom, as understood by the AAUP and other like organizations, is something enjoyed by all faculty, regardless of tenure or rank. Even lecturers and adjuncts(!) have it. One of the arguments for tenure is that it protects or advances academic freedom, but to my understanding, academic freedom is not earned via advancement but simply by virtue of being a faculty member of whatever status. You're to some degree correct that within a department, the tenured faculty will in almost every instance be the ones who initially determine if an instructor in accordance with a course outline or description, but that requirement applies to the tenured faculty as well. Ultimately, the determination of whether someone is teaching the prescribed course will fall to a Dean, Provost, etc. You're correct that in actual practice, it would be harder to dismiss a tenured faculty member for failing to teach the course as described, but that's because it's harder to dismiss tenured faculty for any reason. And tenured faculty members couldn't use the 'it's my discipline' argument to teach whatever they desired within a given course.


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