By: Lisa Hoover
The state of Texas recently filed a brief in a lawsuit over “campus carry” laws that has alarmed proponents of academic freedom. The brief — written by the attorney representing the University of Texas, the regents, and the Attorney General — argues that the right to academic freedom resides within the institution, not necessarily with the individual professors.
“The right to academic freedom, if it exists, belongs to the institution, not the individual professor,” the brief argued. “Assuming a right to academic freedom exists, it cannot help plaintiffs, because it is not their right to assert.” (Ellis, 2018) A lawyer for the state also argued that academic freedom was a “workplace policy” and not a 1st Amendment right. (Ellis, 2018)
While the university president, Gregory L. Fenves, sent out an email to faculty distancing the college administration from the lawyer’s argument, this argument raises significant concerns for anyone working as an instructor in an academic community. Assuming this argument is successful, it could set a precedent which significantly undermine the culture of academic freedom academics rely on when engaging in scholarship, authorship, and teaching.
Whether we consider academic freedom as a legally protected right or just an academic cultural norm, it is integral to instructors and students alike, especially in an era where colleges are increasingly relying on adjuncts and other untenured faculty who have fewer protections and less job security. (Edmonds, 2015)
Looking back at my experience as a student and my own teaching philosophy today, I firmly believe the most important thing colleges teach (or should teach) is not content, but how to think. And I don’t mean “how to think” in the sense of what to think or of indoctrinating a specific perspective or conclusion, but in teaching students how to expand their minds, how to think critically, and how to be lifelong learners and thinkers. At least for me, this was more valuable than anything else I learned in college or graduate school, and I think this is true for most students.
In order to do this effectively, instructors have to be able to raise controversial issues and challenge students’ thinking and arguments. In order to do this, they have to be able to get students talking about controversial issues without fear of losing their jobs, and this requires intellectual freedom.
This goes beyond college, too. I’ve spent far more years than I care to count as a student, but the lesson that has stuck with me the most came in 5th grade (I think, it’s been a while…). We were about to start talking about the American Revolution and the colonies, but beforehand our teachers set several arbitrary rules and “taxes” in the classroom to help us understand the colonists’ perspective. I specifically remember a rule about having to use pencils that we had to buy from the teachers, and they were taxed. This lesson worked so well my tiny little class in upstate New York decided to protest, and we stormed the principle’s office protesting the unfair taxes. Talk about an effective lead-in to a talk about taxation without representation and the Boston Tea Party! As someone who teaches now, I can only imagine how thrilled my teachers were by the effectiveness of this lesson and our response.
I bring this example up to say that instructors have to be able to take some risks to create engaging and effective lessons. If teachers have to worry about their academic freedom, they are less likely to try creative approaches that leave lasting impressions and a deeper level of meaning for students.
Playing it safe rarely opens students’ minds and creates true critical thinking about the material, in my opinion. It’s the lessons that really force us to engage with the material, that challenge our existing worldview, that stick with us and help us learn how to really think deeply. And that’s what school — at any level — should be all about.
I’ve been trying to use the word “instructor” instead of the word professor or faculty here, because it’s important to remember that traditional faculty are not the only ones who teach. While the first thing we think of when we think of school is the teachers or professors, there are many others that help fulfill this role – most dear to my heart, of course, are the librarians.
Many librarians fulfill an instructional role, even if they are not faculty, and librarians also aim to improve students’ critical thinking. All we need to do to do to confirm this is to look at the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which is clearly intended to go beyond teaching content to focus on teaching students how to think critically. Just as in the context of a content-based course, to do this effectively and creatively requires academic freedom.
Weakening the protections of academic freedom will make it harder for all educators to do their jobs effectively and creatively. I think for most of us, if we think back, we will realize that the teachers we remember most, and that we learned the most from, are the ones who challenged the way we think and pushed us beyond our comfort zones. Educators at all levels need to continue to have the freedom to do this.
Edmonds, D. (2015) More than half of college faculty are adjuncts: Should you care? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/05/28/more-than-half-of-college-faculty-are-adjuncts-should-you-care/#1c6119431600, July 27, 2018
Ellis, L. (2018) What is academic freedom? Statement that alarmed professors at U. of Texas sets off debate. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-Is-Academic-Freedom-/244004?cid=wsinglestory_hp_7 July 27, 2018.
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora, and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.