Time for a breather

It’s the middle of summer and time for me to take a break.

Since I started this blog six months ago, I’ve published 130 posts (including this one) and over 80,000 words. Over 5000 readers from 58 countries on six continents (Damn you, Antartica!) have visited the blog.

Whew. That’s a lot!

I’m going to slow down my pace here so that I can take a little breather. I’ll sign off for the rest of the week while I chill in the Canadian wilderness, and then I’ll be back intermittently with occasional posts (including some guest posts I have coming up).

Meanwhile, I’ll keep using the #dailyacademicfreedom hashtag to reshare some of my “best of” posts. So head over to Twitter to follow the fun there.

Peace out, peeps.

A deep blue lake is outlined by fir trees. A dead tree lies across a portion of the lake on the left. Overhead, the sky is azure.
J. Matthew Lake, Lake Opeongo, Algonquin Park, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.



Two models of academic freedom, and strange bedfellows

Last week, I recapped the online course on academic freedom that I recently took with the University of Oslo and Scholars at Risk. I noted in that post that the course was organized around two central theses:

  1. That academic freedom is one of several core values that animate the modern university.
  2. That there are competing conceptions of what academic freedom is. The two main accounts are the traditional model and the socially engaged model.

For the rest of last week, I broke down the first thesis. Now, I want to say a little bit more about the second thesis, which is much more closely connected to the topic of this blog.

As we discussed last week (here and here), academic freedom evolved over time, and it continues to evolve. There is no central authority that dictates what exactly academic freedom is. It is interpreted in various ways by different groups in different contexts. (Indeed, much of this blog has been focused on the various interpretations of academic freedom. See here for instance.) We have discussed before, for instance, the disagreement between the Canadian Association of University Teachers on the one hand and Universities Canada and UNESCO on the other about the connection between academic freedom and institutional autonomy. (In brief: UNESCO and Universities Canada see institutional autonomy as an important part of academic freedom; CAUT prefers to separate them.)

While there are, therefore, many competing accounts of what exactly academic freedom is, the course I took usefully divides them into two broad classes: the traditional model and the socially engaged model. The main difference between the two models is the scope of activities they see as covered by academic freedom.

On the traditional model, which was dominant from the emergence of the Humboldtian university in 19th c. Germany to the late 20th century, academic freedom covers inquiry and dissemination within one’s scholarly, disciplinary context. On the traditional model, if a climate scientist is disciplined for publishing a peer-reviewed journal article on anthropogenic climate change, it is a violation of academic freedom. The scientist is engaging in scholarly dissemination within their own discipline and is therefore protected by academic freedom. However, on the traditional model, once the scholar disseminates outside of their scholarly wheelhouse — whether because they are communicating about something outside of their scholarly expertise, or because they are communicating in non-scholarly fora — they are no longer protected by academic freedom.

It is worth noting that, under the traditional model, freedom of expression kicks in where academic freedom leaves off. So, our climate scientist has as much constitutionally-protected right as anyone to give a speech in the town square about abortion rights. They just don’t have the extra protection afforded by academic freedom.

The socially engaged model is a relatively recent (late 20th c.) arrival on the scene. On this model, part of a scholar’s job is to be a public figure and to take part in public discourse about matters of general interest. This model therefore extends the scope of academic freedom, and the protections afforded by it. On the socially engaged model, both of the above examples (i.e., climate scientist doing peer-reviewed climate science, and climate scientist speechifying in public about abortion) are covered by academic freedom.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, academic freedom should protect Einstein when he gives a public speech about world peace, not just when he’s doing physics in the lab. I have even reluctantly come to the tentative view that this principle applies when the extramural expression (as it is termed) is offensive. So, no question — I’m a proponent of the socially engaged view.

You might ask: what difference does it make whether the extramural expression is protected by academic freedom (under the socially engaged model) or by plain old constitutionally protected freedom of expression (under the traditional model)? I think there are two important differences, one symbolic and one practical.

The symbolic difference: the public and the media often asks professors to weigh in on matters of interest, and universities promote this practice. Affirming that extramural expression is protected by academic freedom recognizes that this kind of socially engaged scholarship is scholarship — that it’s part of professors’ jobs.

The practical difference: and, on a practical level, adopting the socially engaged model obliges universities to have their scholars’ backs in material ways when they engage in extramural expression. (I wrote here about what it means for universities to have their scholars’ backs when it comes to academic freedom.) If extramural expression were only constitutionally protected, the university as employer wouldn’t be required to defend and support scholars who encounter legal and similar challenges to their extramural expression. So, the socially engaged model provides an extra layer of protection for professors who engage with the public.

One final note: these two models may have stranger bedfellows than you might at first guess. While the terminology of “traditional” vs. “socially engaged” seems to connote that conservative scholars would side with the former and leftist scholars would side with the latter, the reverse is sometimes true. Various prominent members of the so-called “intellectual dark web” regularly engage with the public on matters well beyond their scholarly expertise, and therefore benefit enormously from the socially engaged model. And, some progressive scholars, appalled by the character of that group’s public engagement, seem to advocate for the traditional model of academic freedom, i.e., for confining the intellectual dark web’s academic freedom to scholarly dissemination within their areas of expertise. I would be very curious to know whether either side actually knows which academic freedom model they’ve allied themselves with. (I have a guess, but I’ll keep it to myself.)

Three people under the covers together in a bed with a tall wooden headboard. The two figures on the outside are shirtless; the one in the middle wears a nightshirt. All three look surprised.
The two academic freedom models have surprising bedfellows. Tonino Delli Colli, screenshot from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “I racconti di Canterbury” (1972), Wikimedia Commons

Integration in the face of conflicting values: conflict over course evaluations

On Friday, I argued that when the core values of the university come into conflict, we should try to resolve the conflict through what Mary Parker Follett termed integration. Recall that, for Follett, integration involves getting folks to share what they want most out of a process or situation, and trying to find a way to satisfy all of these core desires. Friday, I used Follett’s example of integration in marriage. Here is another example she offered:

Suppose two of us are working in a library. I want the window open, but you want the window closed. On an integration approach, we push past the question of whether the window should be open or closed and ask instead why each of us wants what we want. What are the deeper desires motivating our desires about the window? When we dig down, we learn that I just don’t want the air to be stuffy and that you don’t want your papers to blow around. These are our real desires — it’s not about this window at all. The solution: we open the next window over. I get fresh air, and your papers remain undisturbed. Integration.

Ok. But what does this look like in conflicts in university governance? Here is one recent example of integration in action at my own university.

A couple of years ago, my university struck a working group on student course evaluation surveys. That working group was tasked with improving the course evaluations that we currently use. Their recommendations, which the university senate considered last fall, were geared toward that goal. Alas, the process was divisive. Students and senior administrators were in general in favour of improving course evaluation surveys, while many faculty members wanted to do away with them altogether.

Research had persuaded them that course evaluations don’t accurately measure teaching effectiveness, and that the surveys tend to reproduce racial and gender biases. But the students really valued the opportunity to provide feedback on instructors, and both the students and the administrators felt that course evaluation surveys, even if imperfect, are an important way to show that good teaching is valued. Critics of course evaluations responded that the surveys can provide useful formative assessment of instructors, but that salary increases and promotion shouldn’t be tied to them. After considerable debate, the university senate passed the recommendations of the working group. Now, a new committee is implementing those recommendations. The whole thing was highly polarizing, however, and lots of faculty members were left really unhappy with the outcome.

It seemed to me that all sides shared a couple of fundamental goals:

  • to support effective teaching
  • to treat everyone fairly (i.e., not to subject women and racialized faculty to unfair instruments, nor to use inaccurate instruments as the basis for salary increases or promotion)

It also seemed to me that the university felt painted into a corner because course evaluations were the only systematic approach it had ever taken to the first of these two desiderata.

I worked behind the scenes with student leaders, faculty members (including the faculty members most opposed to the use of course evaluations), the faculty association, and senior administrators, and then ultimately came to senate with a proposal to create a different working group devoted to researching and developing recommendations on methods of assessing teaching effectiveness complementary to course evaluations.

This word “complementary” is really important here. It meant that the new working group wouldn’t work on course evaluations. That wasn’t part of their remit. But it also recognized that course evaluations are a practice of the university. That is, the goal is to complement course evaluations, not to replace them. So, neither supporters nor opponents of course evaluations felt any conflict in supporting the working group. It was quite intentionally distinct from the course evaluation work.

We built the working group thoughtfully — ensuring that faculty, staff and students from various areas on campus are well-represented on the group. The group is now up and running and will be bringing recommendations for complementary teaching assessment methods to senate next spring.

Building the group around the two main desiderata that everybody agreed on, rather than around support of or opposition to course evaluation surveys cleared a space for faculty, staff and students to work in a non-polarized way to develop teaching assessment methods (peer review, teaching dossiers, etc.) that really will support excellence in teaching and will do so fairly. And because the group has representation from all stakeholder groups, its recommendations will get buy-in.

The recommendations for improving course evaluation surveys are still being implemented.  But the complementary teaching assessment working group gives us as a campus community the opportunity to make meaningful in-roads on fair, accurate assessment of teaching effectiveness.

We opened another window.

A view from inside a room of an open window. Its two glass shutters open into the room and one wooden shutter is visible opening out of the building. Outside, it is sunny and green. Beside the window, a white hat hangs on a hook.
Stinglehammer, View from room at Hotel Centrale, Esino Lario, during Wikimania 2016. Wikimedia Commons.



On wrangling conflicting values

For the past few days, we’ve been talking about the core values around which universities are organized. The source of this discussion is an online course on academic freedom that I took last month. The authors of the course advanced the view that all universities are organized around a cluster of central values. Their reason for discussing this thesis is that they think that violations of academic freedom are best prevented, and most effectively addressed after the fact, by mobilizing campus communities around these values. On the account of the authors, these values are all important. None of them trumps the others.

I love this view. While I think that it may sometimes be rhetorically useful and appropriate to talk about inalienable rights or non-negotiable freedoms, I think that the reality behind the rhetoric is more complicated. While some rights and freedoms are really crucial, few — if any — of them are absolute.

Let’s look at the five core values the course lists:

  • academic freedom
  • equitable access
  • accountability
  • institutional autonomy
  • social responsibility

Now, imagine regarding these values as absolute, universal and inalienable. Consider, for instance, a large public university. What would it mean for both accountability and institutional autonomy to be non-negotiable principles for that university? On the one hand, accountability would, for a public university, mean answerability to the public and the state, which would presumably entail the possibility of constraints being placed on the university by the public and the state. But surely that would violate institutional autonomy!

Or consider the possible clash between academic freedom and institutional autonomy: I am hired to a dentistry school to teach dentistry, but over the years I become fascinated by issues of jurisprudence, and insist on my academic freedom to focus all of my teaching and research on the law. Doesn’t academic freedom taken to this degree conflict with the right of a dentistry school to remain a dentistry school?

Neither of these examples is in itself outlandish. The public and the state do impose demands on public universities. And public universities nonetheless seek to the greatest extent possible to decide for themselves how to conduct their business. Scholars’ research and teaching areas do sometimes change over time. (I started my career as a scholar of 17th-19th century philosophy, but nowadays primarily work on contemporary issues related to equity, social policy, and pedagogy.) But it is appropriate for universities, faculties, and departments to have particular goals and programming.

What is outlandish (on my view) is the idea that any of these tensions can be resolved by insisting on the non-negotiable character of the associated values or principles.

It is a complex world. We do the work we do within an entangled mesh of causes and effects, desires and fears, attachments and ruptures. In fact, this is precisely why it is important to assert our rights and freedoms. If we weren’t always bumping up against limits, we wouldn’t need to say that we’re free. We could just go freely about our business without the need to insist upon our freedom.

But those limits are a feature, not a bug, of the system. So, we need to be able to reckon with them.

I love the idea that when the public and the university clash on the mission of the university, we respond not by insisting that one value (accountability or institutional autonomy) trumps the other, but by discussing how important both values are, and why they’re important, and working together to find a way forward that takes both values seriously. Similarly with the dentist-turned-legal scholar. Their academic freedom is important, but so are collegial decisions about curriculum. Once we recognize that both are important — and again *why* both are important — the tough, important, exciting work begins.

The process I’m describing won’t always produce a happy ending. But moving away from zero-sum thinking may save us from the worst outcomes, and lay the foundation for better outcomes in the future.

In thinking about how to wrangle these tough conflicts over values, I am reminded of the work of Mary Parker Follett, an American philosopher and organizational theorist of about a century ago. She argued that there are three ways of resolving conflicts: domination, compromise and integration. In domination, those in power get what they want and their opponent doesn’t. It’s win-lose. In compromise, each side gives up something. Put differently, neither side gets exactly what they want. In some sense then, compromise is lose-lose. In integration, on the other hand, the various sides work together to develop outcomes centred on all parties’ fundamental desires and interests. Integration, for Follett, thereby gives us win-win outcomes.

Follett uses the example of a healthy marriage to illustrate integration. Rather than the spouses giving up the freedoms of single life, they should focus on building together what they both want most out of married life. To be married, argues Follett, isn’t to lose two independent lives; rather, it is to build a new life together.

Well, marriage is often far from ideal. Likewise, universities. Still, governance and scholarship organized not around defeating one’s opponent, or everyone sacrificing something, but around working together in good faith to identify and apply our most important values is an ideal worth striving towards.

A close-up of a man sliding a wedding ring on a woman's finer. The woman's hand is manicured; she is wearing a diamond bracelet. The man is wearing a dark suit. Only their arms are visible. Their skin is light-coloured. Ih the background, foliage and audience members are just visible, but out of focus.
Marriage is about creating a new life together, not losing two single lives, says Mary Parker Follett. Photo: Petar Milošević (Wikimedia Commons)


Tenure? What tenure?

I promised a post today thinking through how to handle conflicts in fundamental university values, but let’s postpone that for a day or two.

Today, let’s focus instead on a shocking case out of Vermont that illustrates how not to navigate conflicting values.

July 1, 14 out of Vermont Law School’s 19 faculty members lost tenure. The short version of the story is that the school was struggling with a long-standing debt and a slump in enrollment. To address these, the administration took the decision to offer 3/4 of its faculty a terrible choice:

…they could choose to continue teaching another year under a new contract or they could opt for six month contracts with varying teaching requirements and salaries, or they could leave. (vtdigger)

Some of the faculty forced into these straights had been with the school for decades.

The decision seems to have been taken managerially rather than through a collegial process. And faculty members were required to sign agreements preventing them from discussing the matter with anyone except their spouses and prohibiting them from disparaging the school. (I’m not quite sure how one can require lawyers and law profs to sign anything they don’t want to, but there it is…)

I suspect that most folks who read this blog support tenure and collegial governance and will not therefore require any argument to persuade them that Vermont Law School’s conduct is appalling. However, just in case some readers incline to the view that financial pressures can force tough decisions, it is worth stating outright that decisions like this that cut to the heart of a university’s academic mission ought to be made by the collegium of scholars. Managers and boards may well hit a financial wall that forces tough decisions, but if those decisions have academic ramifications, they should be taken by the scholars in a transparent, clear, consultative process.

Yesterday and the day before, we looked at five core university values:

  • academic freedom
  • equitable access
  • accountability
  • institutional autonomy
  • social responsibility

While VLS’s decision may in some sense model financial accountability, the lack of transparency in the process in fact shows a disdain for accountability. VLS violated academic freedom not only by stripping its faculty of tenure, but also in prohibiting them from criticizing the university. Further, the decision is arguably a failure in social responsibility since the move by VLS guts one of the U.S.’s top environmental law programs and will consequently have deleterious downstream affects on environmental law.

Read more about the story here.

A three story white building with a green roof and "Vermont Law School" emblazoned on the front portico. There is a tree, a car, two light posts, a sidewalk and a driveway in front of the building. Overhead, the sky is cloudy.
By Jared C. Benedict. – Jared C. Benedict, Transferred from the English Wikipedia by Minh Nguyễn., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=175234


University values, past and present

Yesterday, we talked about how the evolution of the university, and the co-evolution of the central values of universities.

Here are some milestones in that history:

  • 3rd c. CE: China establishes imperial schools that institutionalize the practice of combining teaching and research functions in institutions of higher education.
  • 9th c.: Universities established in Northern Africa; they are organized around the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. (A millenium later, European colonization of Northern Africa leads these universities to adopt more utilitarian ends.)
  • 11th c.: Universities founded in Europe, organized around a guild system. The beginning of collegial governance!
  • Early 19th c.: Humboldt research university model introduced in Germany, affirms freedom to teach and freedom to learn.
  • 1918: Cordoba Reform in Latin America strengthens collegial governance, involves students in university governance, and establishes public universities’ autonomy from the state.
  • 1920s to 1940s: American Association of University Professors established. AAUP codifies academic freedom and establishes tenure to protect academic freedom.

In this history, we can see early versions of the contemporary values around which universities are organized, but not always at the same time. In the early Chinese university, we see universities’ social function, but academic freedom, collegial governance and institutional autonomy are not yet present. An early version of academic freedom starts to emerge in the 9th c. North African universities, but again, no collegial governance, for instance. Medieval European universities introduce something akin to collegial governance, but their religious affiliations block academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

And, of course, the animating values of universities are not always successfully or rigorously applied.

Today, on some plausible accounts, the central values guiding universities are:

  • academic freedom
  • equitable access
  • accountability
  • institutional autonomy
  • social responsibility

If you are a member of a university, do you regard all five of these values as equally present, and equally in force at your university? Are some more evident or more consistently applied than others? Are some of them in ascension or on the way out? Are there other values besides these five that drive your university? New values emerging on the horizon? My university talks a lot about entrepreneurship. Is that a scholarly value worth enshrining with these five, or is it something extra that isn’t really central to the mission of the university?

And do all of these values apply to all universities equally? On this blog, we’ve often consider encroachments on academic freedom at universities around the world. How many of us still belong to universities that are meaningfully guided by these values? Can private and public universities equally be said to support equitable access? Social responsibility?

And what do we do when these core values come into conflict with each other? Let’s talk about that tomorrow.

University values evolved around the world over the course of many centuries… and they are still evolving

Regular readers of this blog may recall that last month I took an online course about academic freedom offered jointly by the University of Oslo and Scholars at Risk. I haven’t yet had much to say about that course. Let me start to correct that now.

The course had two central theses:

  1. That academic freedom is one of several core values that animate the modern university.
  2. That there are competing conceptions of what academic freedom is. The two main accounts are the traditional model and the socially engaged model.

I’ll talk about that second thesis in a future post or posts. For now, I want to say a few words about the first thesis. Today, I’ll just summarize some highlights from the course content about that thesis. We’ll get into some analysis and assessment in a future post.

First, the values that course lists as core to universities are as follows:

  • academic freedom
  • equitable access
  • accountability
  • institutional autonomy
  • social responsibility

The authors of the course view these values as interconnected, with none of them trumping the others. When two of the core values come into conflict, university members need to do the patient, complicated work of navigating the conflict. On this view, we don’t get to ignore social responsibility in the name of academic freedom. Nor though should we allow equitable access to trump academic freedom.

Where do these values come from? The course authors offer an historical account. The values that many of us in higher education now take to be central to universities emerged over time as universities evolved. And that evolution didn’t start and end in the West. Here is a very brief sketch (with many omissions, alas) of the world history of universities:

The course lists Asia as the oldest source of what was to become the university. Nanjing University in China (I’ve taught there!) dates back to a 258 CE imperial school. China’s private academies started as libraries and then evolved into research and teaching sites. In North Africa, universities were established in the ninth century CE. They were important seats of learning, where (according to the course) “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was a recognized good.” However, these universities (and, according to the course, universities in general) were set back under European colonialism, when the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was supplanted by more utilitarian purposes. Universities began to be established in Europe, starting in the 11th century. They were initially organized on a guild system. The University of Paris, established in 1150, had considerable self-governance at the department level, but with some of the same conflicts with university leadership that occur today. By the early 19th century, German introduced the Humboldtian system wherein research universities affirmed the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn. In 1918, the Cordoba Reform in Latin America created a new model of university governance in which universities elected their own leaders and were autonomous from the state. Shortly thereafter, the American Association of University Professors was formed in the U.S. The AAUP formalized the definition of academic freedom that was merely tacit until then, and created the institution of tenure.

What is clear from this very brief account is that universities have evolved over time, as have the core values that animate them. There is no timeless independent fact of the matter concerning the core values of universities. Those values continue to evolve as universities do.

In part for this reason, the course authors emphasize the importance of university members developing their own statements of the core values guiding their institution, and of involving the larger university community in the process of articulating and strengthening those values.

I’ll tell you more about the course tomorrow. Meanwhile, here’s what one small corner of one of the world’s oldest universities looked like in 2012.

Hundreds of bikes are parked together under a corrugated metal awning, painted blue. Behind the bike parking area is a grey building and several trees. Just visible: some laundry is hung out to dry from some of the building's many air conditioning units.
Nanjing University bike parking, 2012. Photo by Shannon Dea.