ACADEMIC FREEDOM: Why What Worked Yesterday Will Not Work Tomorrow

Higher Ed Sumer 20 / August 24, 2020

– Dr. Caroline Fell Kurban –


COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through higher education worldwide.  Scott Galloway, a New York University professor, recently published a quadrant-style breakdown of 437 U.S. colleges and universities, showing which institutions are at risk based on how the value they deliver lines up with the cost of tuition.



Galloway’s message is clear, what worked in higher education yesterday, will not work tomorrow. A new university model is emerging out of pandemic-driven necessity. The following excerpt is from our book. It offers a deeper explanation of the problem and points to the path forward using the Flipped Learning model.



Why What Worked Yesterday, Will Not Work Tomorrow

In the beginning, higher education was for the privileged few, a source of knowledge only accessible to the intelligent elite. Only those with means (in time and money) could afford it. In that world, traditional education was based on a fixed mindset, which held that learning and ability were static and essentialist in nature (Dweck, 2006). Operating from this perspective, “exams were designed to select the best minds,” which meant that “failure [was] the responsibility of the student” (Laurillard, 2012, p.11). In this zero-sum game, students were necessarily pitted against each other: one student’s success meant another’s failure. Exams existed to weed out weaker minds. However, several shifts have occurred in the modern-day that are changing that model.

First, we now understand learning in terms of a growth mindset: learning and ability can be grown and developed (Dweck, 2006). Second, universities have moved away from elitism and now provide education to a greater proportion of society, expanding students’ knowledge and skills for practical use in the working world. The new emphasis is on student learning, not on elite competition. This change has shifted the responsibility for learning success to the institutions and teachers themselves, “impl[ying] that the teachers in all education sectors (as well as institutions) must know more than what it takes simply to impart subject knowledge; they must understand what it takes to learn and re-conceptualize that knowledge” (Laurillard, 2012, p. 11). Learning success, then, must be measured in a new way. The old model of assessment cannot survive this seismic shift. Instead of remaining a tool for ensuring that only the strongest survive, assessment must function as a measure of how well every student has mastered the knowledge and skills they set out to learn.


Our education systems are designed so all students of a certain age are grouped, sit together in a classroom, undertake the same activities, and are held to the same expectations for speed of learning and attainment. This is not realistic.


Third, the existing education system does not take into consideration the fact that every individual learns in their own specific way. Our education systems are designed so all students of a certain age are grouped, sit together in a classroom, undertake the same activities, and are held to the same expectations for speed of learning and attainment. This is not realistic. It leads to labeling some students as clever and others as failures when often all students need is more time, more support, or a different way of approaching the concept being learned. This system has persisted until today. For years, instructors have struggled to provide personalized, differentiated learning to each of their students. Yet, to do so takes a great depth of knowledge about each student’s understanding and a great deal of time regarding materials design and implementation. However, the emergence of adaptive learning is changing all of this.

To be effective then, instructors and educational institutions now need a deeper understanding of the purpose of learning, learning design, and assessment. Furthermore, they need to understand the positive impact that digital and adaptive learning can have on students’ learning. To some extent, the purpose of learning is just what we have been discussing: effectively imparting to students the knowledge and skills that they need to function in society. The more difficult questions are:

    • Which learning-design model is most effective in doing that?
    • Which technologies can support effective student learning?
    • How do we accurately assess learning success?

Without answers to those questions, the future of the university is uncertain.


Academic Freedom

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 education landscape contradict some of the existing guidelines on academic freedom. Higher educational institutions hired academic freedom 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).

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… (and) encompasses both the individual and institutional right to maintain academic standards (Nelson, 2010).

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.


It is in the second set of points that dissonance is now arising as universities shift towards certain pedagogical 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). Colleen Flaherty, author of the article 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.”


The roadmap for a defining moment

COVID-19 has changed the rules for university survival overnight. Those looking for a viable path forward will find a proven model in Flipped Learning. MEF University was the first university in the world to be established with the intent of teaching using Flipped Learning from day one. It turns out that the decision to flip instruction positioned MEF to thrive during the pandemic-driven disruption that is putting many universities and colleges at risk. 

MEF went online on the same day the first coronavirus case occurred in Turkey. And the results of MEF’s flipped approach became apparent in April 2020, when an organization called “University Research Laboratory” conducted a survey among university students in Turkey. In this survey, MEF University was ranked as the best university in Turkey, out of around 70 foundation universities, for managing the transition to fully online learning. Furthermore, in June 2020, MEF was awarded a Blackboard 2020 Catalyst Award for Teaching and Learning, which recognized MEF’s adoption of flexible, distance, and online delivery to positively impact students’ educational experience. 

In 2019, MEF published two books, The New University Model: Scaling Flipped Learning in Higher Education – An Insanely Simple Guide, and The New University Model: Flipped, Adaptive, Digital, and Active Learning (FADAL) – A Future Perspective. These books proved prescient, as they explain what we later ended up facing and implementing as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded. We are now developing our plans for the new academic year. Around the world, there are discussions regarding whether campuses should open for face-to-face education, a hybrid model, or fully online education. However, with the latter, many universities still lack the infrastructure and knowledge regarding how to teach fully online. 

The New University Model books provide a road map for instructors and institutions transitioning to online learning, hybrid teaching, or more active learning instruction.  You can request a free digital copy by sending an email to or using the form below or order a printed copy from




Caroline Kurban
Dr. Caroline Fell Kurban
As Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at MEF University, the first and only fully flipped university in the world, Dr. Fell Kurban has the responsibility of supporting instructors and students in development of Flipped Learning. Her role has seen her undertake practitioner research into flipped learning in higher education. Through the Flipped Learning Global Initiative, Dr. Fell Kurban is excited to join other researchers who are passionate about striving for excellence in flipped learning for the benefit of our students. Caroline’s particular interest lies in the development of quality assurance parameters as well as the implementation of professional development programs to assure efficacy and quality of flipped learning provision in institutions of higher education.

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