From the President: Whose Academic Freedom?

By Cary Nelson

Thirty years ago, as a recently tenured associate professor, I was one of the first beneficiaries of a new department rule—that all faculty members would periodically teach first-year composition. The guidelines for the course had changed quite a bit over the years, but two that were in place at the time presented me with problems: that I had to choose one of five textbooks that had been selected and that I had to assign ten papers over the course of the fifteen-week semester. Invoking academic freedom, I informed the course chairperson that I would do neither. I preferred a different well-known text, and I wanted to use five of the papers as rewriting opportunities. The text I preferred opened with numerous exercises in revising sentences, which was exactly how I wanted to begin the class. Current research in the field, I added, demonstrated that you cannot learn to write well unless you rewrite until you succeed. Writing a thousand papers does not guarantee that your next paper will be any better than the ones before it.

I was told that I had to follow the rules. At that point, I invoked tenure, challenging the department and saying that I would remain true to my own pedagogical philosophy since there was little the department could do to stop me. The department backed down and agreed to let me do what I wanted so long as I didn’t tell anyone else. I responded that I hadn’t planned to until they prohibited me from doing so. I taught the course the way I wanted, but that was the first and only time I was assigned to teach first-year composition. I certainly understood that the department had the right to assign classes.

The AAUP has surprisingly little advice to offer on this fundamental conflict between individual and institutional academic freedom, the latter often exercised by departments supervising multisection courses. As the profession’s reliance on contingent teachers has increased over the years, the problem has become more pressing. I would not recommend that the average part-time faculty member behave as I did. But what about the graduate student with five or six years of teaching experience, perhaps teaching four courses a year, who has developed a well-considered teaching philosophy and an elaborate set of lesson plans? Or the postdoctoral fellow with still more experience?

The AAUP explicitly recognizes the academic freedom of all who teach in our colleges and universities, drawing on the compelling arguments endorsing classroom intellectual independence first put forward in our 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. Yet all these more vulnerable groups regularly face departmental restrictions on how they conduct individual sections of multisection courses. Indeed, the AAUP knows of at least one instance when a tenured faculty member was threatened with termination over a textbook dispute. The recent pressure to codify outcomes assessment and to produce demonstrably comparable outcomes has only increased institutional willingness to override individual instructors’ academic freedom.

This year, our local chapter and state conference faced these issues over a multisection introduction to a chemistry course at Indiana State University. The course had traditionally been taught as a wet lab, where students deal directly with chemicals, but one instructor planned to teach experimental method primarily with computerized simulations. Although the course catalog did not specify that the course had to use wet bench instruction, and although it was an optional general education course and not part of a chemistry sequence for either majors or nonmajors, the department barred the faculty member from proceeding. The local AAUP chapter became involved, citing academic freedom and supporting the faculty member’s right to teach the course the way she believed best the following semester, after she submitted a formal proposal. A compromise proposal put forward was rejected as well. Not very far in the background was another matter, increasingly relevant to higher education: the department was making a notable profit from each student’s lab fee, a profit that would be significantly reduced if more expensive simulation software were used.

The profit motive was also at issue in my own department’s plans this year to institute a required online text in its composition program. Once again, the tension between institutional and individual academic freedom came into play. Although our new composition teachers have long followed a prescribed syllabus, experienced teachers have been given wide latitude, within basic guidelines about course goals and requirements. Without warning, the course chairperson suddenly announced uniformity would now be imposed on all composition sections: all would use the same online text, lesson plans would have to be approved six months in advance, and, most amazingly, all paper assignments would have to be related to University of Illinois history or current campus concerns. Predictably, more reliable and consistent outcomes assessment was promised. A proposal had been drafted and approved by the college administration, but it had never been distributed for discussion to the department’s teachers.

At the very least, it would seem that the existence of both institutional and individual academic freedom requires consultation and negotiation before rules are imposed. Mutual respect for institutional authority and individual teachers’ integrity should obtain. These concerns, among others, were addressed in some thirty detailed letters of protest submitted by our composition teachers. In the end, my department head stepped in and notified everyone that the new system would be optional for continuing teachers, thereby preserving academic freedom for individual instructors. Yet we never had an open discussion of the fundamental issue—the conflict between institutional (or departmental) and individual academic freedom in the classroom.

That is exactly the issue I am now urging the AAUP to address, with the aim of producing a statement that helps both faculty and administrators negotiate this increasingly central conflict. I am planning to work with the national office staff, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the Committee on College and University Governance, and the Committee on Teaching, Research, and Publication to put together a special committee to address this problem. I expect to involve a diverse group from multiple constituencies. Once the committee is established, we will send out an e-mail inviting faculty from around the country to submit detailed dossiers about related examples of how these issues have been handled on their own campuses. It would be especially helpful to get not only an introductory letter but also dossiers including all relevant documents.

One place where the AAUP does address the potential conflict between institutional authority and individual academic freedom, albeit briefly, is in the 1999 statement Academic Freedom in the Medical School. There we support the right of teachers “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.” But courses in medical schools are often jointly taught, and an individual teacher may be responsible for as little as one two-week segment. Such courses require “a significant amount of structure” and thus “the decisions of the group may prevail over the dissenting position of a particular individual.” Even here, however, the language implies group consultation and decision making, not the arbitrary imposition of administrative will. The AAUP specifies that teachers make these decisions democratically.

In any case, this is not sufficient guidance for how to resolve the composition or chemistry course conflicts I have described, let alone sufficient guidance for how to preserve the academic freedom of those contingent faculty who voice their dissent only at their peril. Nor does case law in the courts send a clear message. As Robert O’Neil demonstrates in the “Whose Academic Freedom?” chapter of his 2008 book Academic Freedom in the Wired World, courts for many years faced cases in which the academic freedom claims of faculty members and universities were in harmony and thus no distinctions had to be drawn. O’Neil’s work builds on David Rabban’s detailed 1990 review of the legal issues. The Supreme Court has never really defined the distinction, though it has shown some sympathy for individual faculty rights. Decisions in two district courts over the last twenty years, however, have been less than reassuring, having tended to vest academic freedom in the institution. What the Supreme Court might decide if it were to take a case bearing on the issue one cannot say, but that is all the more reason for the AAUP to issue more fully developed recommendations for policy and practice now.