Many of us become academic librarians without much prior knowledge of the structure or practices of higher education. In time we become familiar with phrases and terms such as academic freedom, tenure, shared governance and others. In some cases we have just a surface understanding of these concepts, or we may have studied them in some depth. Whichever may be the case for you here is an opportunity to either refresh your knowledge of academic freedom or develop it further.
Tomorrow’s Professor Blog is featuring a chapter on “The Tenure System” by Matthew W. Finkin. This chapter is from the book, The Academic’s Handbook, edited by A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin (Duke University Press 2007). The chapter provides a historical perspective of academic freedom, as the progression of the system is described. It explains how academic freedom applies to faculty research and teaching, and the connection between tenure and academic freedom (“What is needed, in order to protect the exercise of academic freedom, is the insulation of the individual from that risk: whence tenure”.)
And what about academic freedom and tenure for academic librarians? It’s likely we’ll continue to debate whether we fall into the same class as faculty and therefore are in need of the same protections. If at the heart of academic freedom (and tenure) is a system “to reduce the penalties on unpopular unorthodoxy or on unfashionable orthodoxy and to encourage scholars to say whatever they feel that they have to say” are academic librarians in need of the same level of protection as a faculty member that is conducting research on a controversial topic or discussing it in the classroom? I tend to think not because academic librarians rarely, if ever, engage in research about or discuss controversial issues during the course of their work. Yes, it may happen, but few academic librarians can identify specific examples.
I know that some colleagues will argue that it’s unwise to make such a general statement because there is no predicting all the possible issues and situations that may cause an academic librarian to engage with a controversial topic and then be in need of academic freedom’s protections. While such instances are rare I suppose I can’t say it never happens. I would like to think that many of us work in forward thinking institutions that promote our intellectual curiosity and give us the freedom to express our thoughts in writing and speech. No matter which side of this debate a librarian chooses to support, it strikes me that it benefits all academic librarians to have a deeper understanding of academic freedom and tenure so that we are all better informed when we engage in discourse about this topic . The Finkin chapter is a good place to start.