Is Academic Freedom a Conflict of Interest?

Higher Ed October 19 / October 22, 2019

 – Caroline Fell Kurban –

Educators often see top-down reforms “not only as an infringement of academic freedom and an intrusion into their sphere of competence but also as an interference with their own efforts to adapt teaching towards a changing demand” (Gaebel & Zhang, 2018, p. 54). And this is not surprising. Necessary changes to the higher educational landscape contradict some of the existing guidelines on academic freedom. Academic freedom was embraced by higher education institutions to:

    • Ensure intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation… give both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing and through electronic communication, both on and off-campus — without fear of sanction…
    • Give both students and faculty the right to study and do research on the topics they choose and to draw what conclusions they find consistent with their research… meaning that the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs of politicians, administrators, and members of the public cannot be imposed on students or faculty…
    • Give faculty members and students the right to seek redress or request a hearing if they believe their rights have been violated… give faculty members and students the right to challenge one another’s views, but not to penalize them for holding them…
    • Protect a faculty member’s authority to assign grades to students, so long as the grades are not capricious or unjustly punitive… (and) guarantee that serious charges against a faculty member will be heard before a committee of his or her peers… with due process (Nelson, 2010).

Is it possible to have academic freedom while also being required to follow an institution’s pedagogical strategy?

All of these points are critical in keeping an open dialog in universities to respect varying views and to advance knowledge. However, academic freedom also:

    • Establishes a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments…
    • Protects faculty members and students from reprisals for disagreeing with administrative policies or proposals…
    • Gives faculty members substantial latitude in deciding how to teach the courses for which they are responsible…
    • Encompasses both the individual and institutional right to maintain academic standards. (Nelson, 2010)

It is in these second set of points that dissonance is now arising as universities shift towards certain pedagogic approaches. Is it possible to have academic freedom while also being required to follow an institution’s pedagogical strategy? These are the questions that Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey ask in their book Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century: Moving to a Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model (Kezar & Maxey, 2016).

Rethinking academic freedom

Colleen Flaherty, author of Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century, references Kezar and Maxey, saying that they believe, due to changes in society’s expectation of higher education provision, that it is time to have “meaningful discussions as to why beliefs about faculty professionalism don’t meet employment practices” (Flaherty, 2016). Flaherty also highlights that Kezar and Maxey identify faculty autonomy as being an aspect that may need to be rethought (Flaherty, 2016). “Faculty as professionals in today’s environment may need to emphasize working collectively toward community, institutional or departmental goals, since it is unclear how well autonomy has served the academic enterprise as a whole” (Kezar & Maxey, 2016). Dilly Fung, Academic Director of the Arena Centre for Research-based Education at University College London, agrees, saying:

Surely scholars cannot legitimately see themselves as actors who should be entirely free to follow their own choices and habits, regardless of who is paying their salary, regardless of their values, intentions, and standards of the wider research and learning community and regardless of their students’ needs (Fung, 2017, p. 11).

Fung believes the way to overcome these challenges is to implement a shared “quality culture”

Implement a shared quality culture

As we question whether it is possible for instructors to have academic freedom while also being required to follow an institution’s pedagogical strategy, we recognize that this freedom may also act as a barrier to universities implementing certain pedagogical approaches. If these barriers are not removed, then universities will not be able to make the changes needed to meet society’s expectations for higher education provision today.

Fung believes the way to overcome the barriers caused by the existing model of academic freedom is to implement a shared “quality culture.”  She draws on the European University Association’s (EUA) 2006 report to define what she means by this:

(Quality culture is) an organizational culture that intends to enhance quality permanently and is characterized by two distinct elements: on the one hand, a cultural/psychological element of shared values, beliefs, expectations and commitment towards quality and on the other hand, a structural/managerial element with defined processes that enhance quality and aim at coordinating individual efforts (Fung, 2017, p. 11).

In practice

This is exactly the approach that MEF University took when establishing as a fully flipped university. It is a mission-oriented university. This means that all instructors who sign up with MEF sign a contract to educate themselves in Flipped Learning and to provide Flipped Learning courses. And MEF provides support, training and guidance to do this. It was made clear to all faculty from the outset that MEF would pursue its vision of being a flipped institution and that it would not shift back to a traditional model if there was resistance against Flipped Learning. This may go against academic freedoms that allow “a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy” and to decide “how to teach the courses for which they are responsible” (Nelson, 2010). However, as Kezar and Maxey point out, in a mission-oriented, student-centered university, it is critical that all faculty are working towards collective, institutional and departmental goals, and these must not be overridden by extreme autonomy at the individual level (Kezar & Maxey, 2016). Thus, universities must implement shared quality cultures to drive institutional missions forward. 

This article is an excerpt from the New University Model: Flipped, Adaptive, Digital and Active Learning by Muhammad Sahin and Caroline Fell Kurban  Read more >>>

Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.

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