Murray Miles

Paper read at the Symposium "The Future of Liberal Learning: Freedom of Speech and Justice on Campus". Published in the Brock University Faculty Association Newsletter BUFA Forum, December and March issues.

To begin this session, I’d like to broach a number of conceptual matters pertaining to academic freedom.  I’ll confine myself to principles, leaving it to other presentations and the subsequent discussion to apply them to cases.  In section 1, I’ll set out the elements of the core concept of academic freedom as embodied in most existing and proposed policy statements on the subject.  In section 2 I’ll examine briefly four of the more controversial areas of academic freedom.  The process of evaluation, I’ll argue in section 3, raises a number of genuine but neglected academic freedom issues.  In the final section, I’ll consider very briefly who else, besides faculty and students, may require protection if the academic freedom of faculty and students is to be adequately safeguarded.

1.  The Core Concept of Academic Freedom.  The precise extension of the concept of academic freedom is the subject of controversy, but, at least among those who value it, there is general agreement upon a ‘core’ which includes three fundamental freedoms:  faculty members enjoy the freedoms of (1) teaching, (2) conducting research, and (3) publishing, all without deference to prescribed doctrine and without interference or censorship by their institution or others.  These freedoms are acknowledged in the anonymously produced “Statement on academic freedom and academic responsibility” which was discussed (but not adopted) at the AUCC Board meeting on academic freedom in October 1995.  The statement on academic freedom in the CAUT Handbook (Ottawa, 1979, p. 46) asserts that academic freedom entitles members of the academic community “regardless of prescribed doctrine, to freedom in carrying out research and in publishing the results thereof, freedom of teaching and of discussion, freedom to criticize the university and the faculty association, and freedom from institutional censorship.”  Most memoranda of agreement and employment contracts at Canadian universities are based on the CAUT statement and so make explicit mention of the three core freedoms.

2.  Some Disputed Questions.  These freedoms are, in the words of the “Background Paper” produced by the OCUA Task Force on Resource Allocation (March, 1995), the “central elements of the definition of academic freedom” (p. 4).  As one moves away from them, “one enters progressively into territory around which less consensus is possible” (ibid.).  In this section, I’ll consider four such areas:  (a) extra-mural speech, particularly on subjects outside one’s area of scholarly expertise; (b) speech that may be deemed foolish or irresponsible; (c) judgements concerning the quality of academic programmes; (d) institutional autonomy.

 (a) The first is one of those areas in which the AUCC draft “Statement on academic freedom and academic responsibility” attempts to introduce restrictions:  “Individuals or groups of individuals have the freedom to carry out scholarly research within areas of their expertise without reference or adherence to prescribed doctrine” (my italics).  I can’t do better than to quote former CAUT President Donald Savage’s response to this:  “The use of the phrase ‘within areas of their expertise’ is inappropriate and should be omitted.  It is too narrow and too easily subject to arbitrary and abusive application.  For example, academics can apply their research tools to social issues.  This holds regardless of the topics of their theses or other academic publications.  Surely the AUCC does not hold it improper for a chemist (Linus Pauling), a mathematician (Bertrand Russell) or a linguist (Noam Chomsky) to write about peace, economics, history or social justice.  The very public expression of views by such non-experts has played a major role in the development of the free societies which we are now privileged to inhabit.”  The position here rejected by CAUT has been endorsed by others, for example by Paul Dressel:  “Academic freedom provides no cloak of security for scholars making pronouncements in other fields... Academic freedom does not excuse and cannot and should not provide protection to the scholar who engages in intemperate expressions of personal opinion, in shoddy modes of investigation, or in biased reporting, even in his own field of scholarship” (“The Autonomy of Public Colleges,” New Directions for Institutional Research, No. 26, 1980, p. 3; quoted in the Task Force document).  So the question of extra-mural speech outside one’s areas of expertise is at least less clear-cut than the core freedoms discussed first.     

(b) The first part of Dressel’s statement (pronouncements “in other fields”) has been dealt with faithfully by Savage.  As for the remainder (“intemperate expression of personal opinion”), this raises the second issue to be considered here.  If Dressel means that academic freedom is not the freedom to manifest scholarly dishonesty or incompetence with impunity, then I agree; but if he means (as he seems to) that only speech which is based on impeccable scholarship is protected from censure and censorship, then I differ.  

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to examine positions critically, to expose bias, falsehood, faulty logic, and shoddy research wherever they occur.  And in certain situations it is also their responsibility to assess critically and impartially the quality of their peers’ work.  Those who make a habit of foolish, false, or unsupported assertions, who misinterpret (without deliberately falsifying) their data, or become the paid servants of special interest groups lay themselves open to negative criticism and evaluation, perhaps even to ridicule or moral condemnation —  but surely not to university discipline or censorship.  To quote from the CAUT “Reply...” to the Ontario Government’s ‘Framework Document’:  “Professors in their private capacity like any other citizens are free to say anything within the law, however foolish or however groundless or however unkind...”  The same document goes on to add, however:  “but the moment they put such pronouncement on their official university research record, they acknowledge that the university through proper and fair procedures has an obligation to judge the merits of the research involved” (p. 16).  In other words, publication of such opinions may lead to penalties the moment such work is listed on official university c.v.’s.  But it is vitally important, as a matter of due process, that when charges of professional incompetence or dishonesty are brought or investigated, this be done in the normal course of performance review procedures and not through special investigation of individuals who espouse views deemed foolish or offensive.

(c) A third area of dispute is described by Edward Shils as “the right and obligation to participate in decisions regarding the substance and form of courses of study, examinations, the marking of examinations, and the awarding of degrees” (“Do we Still Need Academic Freedom,”  The American Scholar, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1993), p. 190 [cited in OCUA Task Force paper]). These decisions are taken by the academic governing body of the institution (the Senate or equivalent).  While Shils regards it as the faculty member’s “right and obligation to participate in academic self-government,” the Task Force authors regard this as confounding academic freedom, an individual right, with university autonomy, which is a collective right.  However, it’s not hard to see that there may be individual rights at stake here as well.   Does academic freedom include the freedom of individual professors to criticize academic policies, practices, and programmes without fear of institutional or other censorship or censure?  May they do so outside as well as within university governing bodies, even outside the university itself?  Is this not only a right, but a responsibility, as Shils seems to suggest?  If it is only a collective right or responsibility, then it would seem to be confined to the university bodies charged with exercising such scrutiny.  Since Shils regards it also as an individual responsibility, incumbent on each faculty member, he can’t really be accused of confounding individual and group rights.  The question, whether it may legitimately be exercised outside the university brings us to a fourth area about which there is some dispute:   institutional autonomy.

(d)  The precise extension of this concept is itself disputed, but again there is a certain core of institutional responsibilities which are the object of a very wide consensus.  Thus the right to appoint faculty, to establish programmes, to set and control curriculum, admissions, degree requirements, and the relation between teaching and research mark out areas of relatively undisputed institutional autonomy.  Similarly, there are certain controls which are clearly the prerogatives of government.  These include, for example, setting the level of public support for higher education, ensuring an equitable distribution of such support, ensuring the diversity and complementarity of institutional missions.  Outside these areas of educational policy, on the one hand, and government expenditure on the other, there is much less consensus about the respective roles of academic institution and government bureaucracy concerning, for example, the institution’s non-academic budget, its personnel policy, capital investments and expenditures, and the like.  The Task Force authors quoted earlier maintain that the “state is often also assigned responsibility for the assurance of program quality and co-ordination (which implies the existence of a mechanism for program approval and review)” (p. 20f.).  This seems reasonable enough.  The granting of a Charter cannot mean carte blanche for the institution to do what it will in the areas of programme and curriculum.  There must be effective mechanisms, external as well as internal, of “quality control,” as a matter of public accountability.  If university administrations and Senates fail to exercise their prerogatives properly, if, for example, they fail to address key educational issues or withhold or distort information needed by those charged with assessment of programme quality, they invite questions about their right to autonomous self-governance even in the key areas of educational policy.  Arguably, it then becomes the responsibility of individual professors to speak out —  extra-murally, if need be.  Universities are right to resist any and all efforts to make them the instruments of the social policies of the government of the day.  (One could wish they were more vigorous in this.)  But the call for greater and more effective academic as well as fiscal monitoring may be justified.  And if the public can legitimately demand such accountability, surely individual professors have the right to make and press similar demands without fear of institutional reprisals.

3.  Neglected Areas:  Evaluation.  Without much doubt, the central academic freedom issue today is freedom of expression.  Given this fact, we tend to understand academic freedom primarily in terms of the ‘core’ freedoms.  Such debate as there is tends to revolve around freedoms like those considered in the previous section.  

However, there’s a second component to academic freedom, namely the right to have one’s teaching and research evaluated on their pedagogical and scholarly merits alone by qualified and objective assessors.  One has only to reflect for a moment on the alternative — namely assessment by extra-academic criteria, including (for example) membership in some political or biological group, or by individuals lacking the requisite competence or the necessary detachment —  to see that evaluation too is an academic freedom issue.  To quote again from Shils:  “It [academic freedom] is immunity from decisions about academic matters taken on other than academic or intellectual grounds, by academic, governmental, ecclesiastical, or political authorities.”  Evaluation is such an “academic matter.”  Thus while I agree that combating censorship must be the main line of defence of academic freedom, evaluation seems to me quite central as well.
Some form of evaluation of faculty members takes place in all of the following contexts:  appointment, reappointment, tenure, promotion, merit rating, preferment to administrative office.  In universities it is generally acknowledged that academic achievement, as assessed by impartial and competent peers, is either an important or the only factor in such decisions.  More debatable is whether the intrusion of extra-academic considerations constitutes a violation of academic freedom.  The suggestion is most easily resisted in the case of preferment to administrative office, to which a very wide range of competences may be relevant.  Of course, if we accept the premise articulated by Shils, and if all the above, including administrative appointments, are “academic matters,” as they seem to be, then the conclusion is inescapable.

4.  Students and Others.  I come, finally, to students’ academic freedom and the question, whether academic freedom issues are confined to professors and students.    As far as the evaluation of students is concerned, the principles set out already apply here as well (mutatis mutandis).  Academic performance must be assessed by intellectual criteria, failing which the academic freedom of students (and not just their right to equality of treatment) is compromised.  This means, for one thing, that students have the right to think critically and independently, without deference to professors’ or anyone else’s opinions, and to be assessed on the intellectual quality of their performance rather than their conclusions.  For another, it means that if one student is treated preferentially — say, in decisions about admissions to an institution or programme, or in grading practices, or in obtaining letters of recommendation —  be it on account of political views, biological characteristics, or personal relations with the instructor, the academic freedom of all students assessed on a competitive basis with that student is violated.  By this reasoning, conflict of interest or sexual harassment involving a student and a professor is not just a personnel matter to be dealt with by the university administration in accordance with institutional procedures; it’s an academic freedom issue as well, and as such concerns everyone who has made the defence of academic freedom his business.

Of course, the academic freedom of students extends beyond evaluation matters; it includes due process in discipline for offences like plagiarism and cheating as well as basic constitutional liberties:  expression, publication, assembly, demonstration.  Violations of students’ academic freedom also occur when restrictions are imposed by other students, by faculty, or by university administrations on what or whom they may read or hear in the classroom and elsewhere on campus.

But does academic freedom extend to anyone besides students and professors?  While I don’t think that anyone else possesses the rights and responsibilities associated with academic freedom, I believe that anything that pertains to the defence of academic freedom can and should be considered an academic freedom issue.  Thus, for example, when a member of the clerical or technical support staff intervenes (say) as a witness in an investigation involving the academic freedom of students, if that staff member is subsequently subjected to reprisals, such treatment is not just an employment nor just a human rights issue; it’s an academic freedom issue as well.      Just how broad is the notion of academic freedom then?  As I’ve said all along, the core about which there is consensus is fairly restricted.  But as it has a centre, so academic freedom has a periphery.  This much, at least, seems clear if it’s legitimate to ask, not just who has academic freedom, but what cases of discrimination, censorship, and harassment raise academic freedom issues.

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