Contours of Academic Freedom

My dean has told me that if I do not change the grade of a student who has complained to her about my teaching, she will change the grade herself. Can she do so consistent with principles of academic freedom?

Faculty members are entitled to freedom in the classroom. Freedom to do what? One answer is the freedom to evaluate the academic performance of students enrolled in courses they teach, and, as a corollary of this freedom, the right, under normal circumstances, to judge the grades awarded to those students. This much is well understood and accepted. But what happens to the right of faculty members to assign grades when circumstances arise such as those you describe?

There is a strong presumption that a faculty member’s grades are conclusive. At the same time, situations arise in which a student alleges that a grade he or she received results from prejudiced or capricious evaluation. A mechanism for appeal that respects both the prerogatives of the teacher and the rights of students should thus be available for reviewing allegations that inappropriate criteria were used to determine the grade, or that the teacher did not adhere to stated procedures or grading standards. One possible outcome of an appeal is that a grade will be changed over the objection of the teacher who assigned the original grade.

Administrative officers should not unilaterally substitute their judgment for that of the individual faculty member concerning the assignment of a grade. The review of a student complaint over a grade should be by faculty members, under procedures adopted by faculty, and any resulting change in grade should be by faculty authorization.

Three considerations underlie these requirements. First, faculty are members of a profession, and thus the institution should respect the right of faculty members to establish and enforce their own standards of professional judgment. Second, whether the teacher has graded unfairly can be fully and appropriately assessed only by those with experience of what teaching involves and of the different ways in which its ends can be achieved. Third, the possibility that an instructor’s grade will be changed implicates academic freedom, and faculty, because of their training, disciplinary expertise, and classroom experience, are uniquely qualified to determine how academic freedom is best practiced and protected.

I have been asked to teach several sections of an introductory course, but I do not want to use the textbook used by faculty colleagues in the other sections. I believe it is poorly written and replete with errors. Do I have the right to assign a different textbook?

 In a course for which you are the only instructor, you have the right, under principles of academic freedom, to determine the texts (and other materials) the students will be required to read. Your right in this regard is not absolute, however. The texts should be related to the subject of the course and practical concerns about availability and cost should be considered. Still, the principle is clear that the faculty member who is solely responsible for the course has the freedom to select readings for it.

In a multisection course taught by several faculty members, however, responsibility is shared among the instructors for identifying the text(s) to be assigned to students. Common course syllabi and examinations are also typical. The shared responsibility bespeaks a shared freedom, which trumps the freedom of an individual faculty member to assign a textbook that he or she alone considers satisfactory. Your freedom in other respects, however, is undiluted. You should be able to assign supplementary materials to deal with subjects that you believe are inadequately treated in the required textbook. You also have the right to discuss in the classroom what you see as deficiencies in the textbook; doing so could turn out to be as effective in engaging the students as requiring them to use an alternate textbook that you favor. Of course, the department should have a process for periodically reviewing decisions on textbooks for multisection courses and altering them based on a consensus of the appropriate teaching faculty.

A student in my physics class complained to the department chair that I am interfering with her freedom to learn by commenting during the class on national political controversies. I have made such comments, but doesn’t my academic freedom allow me to do so?

The freedom to teach and the freedom to learn are inseparable facets of academic freedom, and the student is therefore right to see that her freedom to learn depends on your teaching the content of the course for which she enrolled. As to what your academic freedom permits, if your comments are related to what you teach, you should be free to expound on these matters as you think reasonable. In other words, if your remarks are not simply ruminations on current events but are in fact about relevant political issues, say, for example, controversies about global warming that you link to the study of physics, they would be protected by academic freedom. Even if your comments are not directly relevant to the subject matter of the course, they might pass muster if they are meant to lighten the mood of the class as you deal with the complexities of the course subject. However, assuming that improving the mood of the class is your goal, the fact that a student has complained suggests that your technique may not be working. Should you want to continue with it, you might consider several questions. Are your comments persistent? Do you spend some portion of each class talking about national political issues not related to physics? How much class time do you actually spend doing so? Have you considered other, perhaps more effective, ways of teaching physics?

A rare case may arise in which a faculty member seriously disregards the obligation to teach the subject of the course, and some action will be needed to correct the situation. But a notion of teaching that discourages a faculty member from discussing controversial questions in the classroom ill serves academic freedom.

In a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper, I questioned the decision of the board of trustees to build a new student union. The chair of the board has admonished me for speaking out on a matter not within my area of academic competence. What can I say in response to her?

First, all policy matters are of potential concern to the faculty: not only such obvious matters as the curriculum, the requirements for academic degrees, and internal rules that affect academic freedom and tenure, but also the institutional budget, changes in the academic calendar, and the establishment of new schools, campuses, and buildings. Faculty members should not be discouraged from expressing opinions about these matters; their speaking out is properly understood as an exercise of academic freedom. A campus community that is proud of its commitment to free expression will encourage intramural criticism, debate, and protest about nonacademic matters as much as it will applaud vigorous intellectual disputes among and between faculty members and students on academic issues.

Second, while competence in a particular academic field is certainly a key consideration in selecting an individual for a faculty position, it does not follow that professors must be silent on questions concerning subjects that they were not appointed to teach, or that they must avoid giving opinions on matters that they themselves may consider outside their area of academic competence. An effort to restrict academic freedom to one’s area of competence is usually aimed at keeping faculty members from taking part in public discussions of controversial issues. But no true meaning of academic freedom can have an area-of-competence limitations clause. It is neither practicable nor principled to try to distinguish subjects that are off limits from those that are acceptable. It is not practicable because a professor’s area of competence can be flexible and changing; it is unprincipled because an institution committed to academic freedom should not seek to discourage freedom of speech on grounds that it displeases some.

My colleagues and I are concerned about a new college policy that includes collegiality as a separate criterion for assessing faculty performance. What are the potential ramifications of this criterion for academic freedom?

It is a commonplace to observe that faculty members should be collegial in the sense of showing due respect for the opinions of others, which is to expect no more than that faculty members will be civil in their relations with students, colleagues, and administrative officers. The more difficult situations are those in which collegiality (or the lack of it) is the stated basis for denying reappointment or, in an extreme case, revoking tenure. Seriously disruptive behavior by a faculty member can be a relevant factor—it may well be the deciding factor—in a decision not to renew an appointment or to dismiss a faculty member. What needs to be avoided, however, is having a distinct criterion of collegiality independent of teaching, research, and service. Collegiality is a quality whose value is expressed in the carrying out of these three functions.

When collegiality is treated as a separate criterion of evaluation, the danger exists of acting against a faculty member for speech or conduct that should be protected under principles of academic freedom. A faculty member’s disagreement with colleagues or administrators on a controversial issue often precedes the discovery that the individual is noncollegial. Faculty members who are abrasive, quarrelsome, or outspoken—even adamant—in articulating their views may tend to elicit such judgments. The claim of noncollegiality can, however, too easily become a tool for silencing dissent. It should therefore not by itself be the basis for nonreappointment, denial of tenure, or dismissal for cause.

My college administration insists that it owns the copyright to a syllabus that I developed for a new course that I teach.  Is the administration’s position reasonable?

Yours is not the only administration to make such an assertion or one similar to it. These claims are usually based on the use by the faculty member of the institution’s resources, such as office space, supplies, library facilities, or computers in developing the syllabus. The use of these resources, so the argument runs, means that the syllabus is a “work made for hire,” and therefore the institution owns the copyright. The key defect in this argument is that academic work is not ordinarily made for hire. In a typical work-for-hire situation, the employer controls the purpose, design, and content of the work. In the academic world, however, the faculty member rather than the institution determines the intellectual substance of what he or she has created. If the institution were to own the copyright under a work-made-for-hire theory, it would have the power to revise the work, determine if it should be published and where, prepare derivative works based on it, and even forbid its dissemination altogether. Clearly, such power would be repugnant to academic freedom.

For these reasons, the long-prevailing academic practice, consistent with the copyright laws of the United States, is that faculty members are the copyright holders of works they create at their initiative for academic purposes. Examples of such works are class notes and syllabi; articles, monographs, and books; works of fiction and nonfiction; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; and educational software. This practice has customarily been followed irrespective of the physical medium in which the works appear.

I have just learned that my dean has opened my university e-mail account to look for any correspondence I might have had with members of a search committee. He suspects that I am trying to influence the committee to reject a candidate whom he favors. Did the dean violate my rights?

E-mail communications are undoubtedly subject to more supervision than is true of print-mail communications. For example, colleges and universities regularly back up substantial portions of electronic message material, verify passwords, and maintain the network or system. Although these differences are important, they do not mean that institutions should be less respectful of the need to ensure privacy for e-mail. Rather, in view of the growing importance of electronic communication as a substitute for, or alternative to, print mail, a compelling need exists for a comparable degree of privacy. Indeed, the standard for e-mail privacy should be the same as the standard for mail you send and receive in sealed envelopes: the envelopes should not be opened by university officials except under extraordinary circumstances, for example, to search for evidence of criminal activity. Moreover, if a need arises to open a private e-mail message, both the sender and the recipient should be promptly informed of that prospect prior to the proposed action, save for the highly improbable case in which any delay would threaten life or property.
The dean’s action, as you have described it, is objectionable for at least two reasons: no exigent condition existed to compel it, and he did not notify you about what he planned to do. If your institution does not have a policy that governs the privacy of electronic communications, it should. Faculty should be involved in its formulation, and the policy should make clear any exceptions to the principle that e-mail privacy will be respected.