Daily Archives: December 2, 2008

Academic Freedom Is About The Task At Hand

You may think you learned everything you needed to know about academic freedom when you took ACRLog’s Academic Freedom Quiz. The reality is that our understanding of academic freedom will continue to evolve as higher education experts and others continue to examine the exact nature of academic freedom and how we can best intepret the principles behind its establishment. A new book about academic freedom may shed even more light on this topic by offering “a concise explanation of the history and meaning of American academic freedom, and…clarifying the fundamental functions and purposes of academic freedom in America.” While I have not yet had an opportunity to examine this book (it is available in March, 2009) I did learn a few things about it and what it has to say about academic freedom from Stanley Fish. In one of his recent columns he provides a preview of For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom.

According to the Quiz academic freedom is neither an inherent right of faculty or a protection guaranteed by a faculty contract. It is a privilege granted by individual institutions. According to Fish’s reading of the book this can be further refined. In discussing the authors’ explanation that academic freedom differs fundamentally from First Amendment speech rights Fish says:

The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”

Fish goes on to state:

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

With respect to the debate concerning whether or not academic librarians need to be granted the privilege of academic freedom this sounds eminently practical. Rather than making blanket statements that academic librarians need academic freedom because faculty have it or that it makes responsible collection building possible, it is sensible to examine first what tasks academic librarians perform and then determine what are the special conditions of that task necessary for librarians to fulfill its requirements. What is unique about collection development, bibliographic instruction or any other tasks that academic librarians perform that require the “degree of latitude” offered by academic freedom.

Fish draws from the book another way of looking at this:

If the mission of the enterprise is, as Finkin and Post say, “to promote new knowledge and model independent thought,” the “special conditions” necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance. Those forces and influences would include trustees, parents, donors, legislatures and the general run of “public opinion,” and the device that provides the necessary protection is called academic freedom.

So let’s apply that thinking to academic librarianship. First we need to know what the mission is. Let’s say the mission is to “collect, organize and make accessible collections that support student learning and faculty research, and make the academic community aware of and skilled in the use of the library’s resources”. So exactly what forces can we identify that would subvert the academic librarian as he or she goes about fulfilling this mission. Perhaps a student or faculty member could make an effort to block the acquisition of certain materials, or that might come from an external force, such as a politically motivated organization. I might also imagine a situation in which a student or faculty member may wish to block a particular librarian’s choice of examples for use in an instruction session. What actions or conditions would keep the academic librarian from fulfilling these purposes? Your response would likely indicate where you stand on the need for academic librarians to have academic freedom.

My response is that conditions do arise that stand to hamper our ability to fulfill our mission. For example, this past summer at my library we were engaged in a project to renovate our computer commons. All the furniture was replaced by a mix of great looking wood furniture to meet the needs of individual or collaborative workers. Shortly after the furniture arrived we received a complaint from several students that one of the carrels resembled a swastika. This took us by surprise because we had a prototype on the floor for several months before we made our order and we received nothing but praise for the carrel. As we learned our library was not the first to get that reaction to what is a fairly standard configuration for computer carrels. Clearly we had a serious public relations matter on our hands, as well as serious investment in the carrels. We could hardly discard them and order replacements. What if our response was that ordering library furniture fulfilled our mission of furthering student learning, and that actions taken in pursuit of this mission were protected by academic freedom and therefore no one on campus could dictate to the library what furniture it should or should not provide. I suppose we might have prevailed. But you know that in the long run we would have lost this battle in a public relations nightmare.

My story helps to shape my perspective on the need for academic librarians to have academic freedom. First, situations that may impede academic librarians from fulfilling their mission or just day-to-day tasks are rare. The same may be said for faculty and what they do. But protections need to be in place for even rare occurrences. Second, when challenges to our performance of these tasks do arise achieving resolutions may be more a matter of working cooperatively to acheive win-win outcomes than one of standing firm on the principles of academic freedom. Third, the current intellectual freedom climate at the vast majority of academic institutions is liberal in its interpretation of the rights of librarians so that it allows them to conduct their tasks without the type of subversion or influence that academic freedom was created to protect against.

There may be any number of good reasons for academic librarians to have tenure – participation in governance, better pay, promotion and benefits, more equitable status with faculty or you might even make a case that it helps librarians to earn respect from faculty colleagues. But given how this new book frames the nature and purpose of academic freedom it could be a challenge to make a case for tenure based on the need for academic librarians to have the protection of academic freedom. I will look forward to the book and what it has to tell us about academic freedom. If academic librarians wish to make the case that they are in need and deserving of academic freedom, as a basis for tenure or otherwise, they should be able to concretely document that the nature of their work and tasks they perform requires it so that they should be able to fulfill their purpose.