Academic Freedom & Course/Program Design

I received a message from an individual who, choosing to remain anonymous, writes:

I teach in a cohort-based university program where ‘academic freedom’ is invoked as a cautionary against providing information and recommendations on what and how to teach in this program. While I take the initiative to communicate with other faculty members who are willing to help me understand what has gone on in the program prior to my entrance into it, I worry that this model of teaching-what-we-want-and-how-we-want-it undermines our ability to help students master the knowledge and abilities that are prized in our fields. While no one would question the value of exposing students to diverse approaches and pedagogies, I worry that the learning exercise for students becomes less about engaging in cohesive program content and activities and more about figuring out what individual faculty members want and then giving it to them. Is upholding the principles of academic freedom in teaching more important than compromising and consensus-building to deliver a consistent program that scaffolds student learning?

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the merits and limitations of the idea of academic freedom as it applies to program design and classroom teaching? When does freedom of academic instruction begin to limit freedom of academic learning for our students?

Ok, so in brief — can universities impose particular content or pedagogical practices on instructors or does that violate the instructors’ academic freedom?

I think that the answer comes down to collegial governance. Since the early days of this blog, I have discussed not only the freedoms that cluster under academic freedom but also the responsibilities that attach to academic freedom. Those responsibilities include, among other things, following accepted disciplinary norms and ethical standards. Those norms and standards are set by and ensured by the community of scholars. In research, that often happens in the peer review process for grant applications and publications. In teaching, it happens via collegial governance, at the departmental, faculty, or university level.

It is, on my view, perfectly appropriate for a university senate the majority of which is made up of faculty members to vote to adopt certain pedagogical standards. Indeed, that’s what university senates are for!

Again, though, collegial governance of this type can also occur at the local level, for instance in the design and instruction of multi-section courses. In her useful Academic Freedom Primer, Ann Franke discusses constraints individual instructors may appropriately experience in the context of multi-section courses:

Do Several Professors Teaching the Same Course Have Academic Freedom? Yes, but their rights may be somewhat narrower than if they were teaching entirely different courses. Faculty members teaching multiple sections of a course often collaborate on designing the course. The faculty members as a group may decide on the general topics they will cover in each class session. All the professors may need to use the same textbook. Reasonable requirements for teaching multi-section courses, especially requirements designed by faculty for faculty, do not violate academic freedom. Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in the content of their courses and course sections.

By contrast, I do not think that the university or any of its support units can impose content or pedagogical standards or practices on its members without a collegial process and decision. If it does, it violates instructors’ academic freedom.

Where does this leave academic support units (for instance, my university’s Centre for Teaching Excellence) in terms of setting pedagogical standards for the university? Ultimately, if the good pedagogical practices they advocate are to be requirements rather than suggestions, I think those good practices need to be endorsed by the relevant collegial governance body.

There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this broad view.

First, some professional programs, like Engineering, are bound by the standards of the relevant professional organization. This is entirely appropriate. (But note that, once again, the professionals in the organization set the standards.)

Secondly, some aspects of university teaching are governed by federal or provincial law. For instance, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act obliges instructors to teach in a way that is accessible across a range of abilities. A professor who refuses to offer reasonable accommodations for disabled students is breaking the law, irrespective of what the university senate might think about such accommodations.