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.

7 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Is About The Task At Hand

  1. When doing instruction, I frequently find that I self-censor. For example, to show how to research a pro/con issue, I will choose one that is not so hot-button (abortion) in favor of one like spotted owls. That’s probably doing my students a disservice and underestimating their ability to look at an issue in a open-minded way. But I do it, I think, not to offend anyone or give opportunities for rancor in the classroom.

    The “swastika” carrels issue is just insane. I feel so bad for Steven and his library. I suppose it can become a chance for a campus-wide discussion on sensitivity and the limits of political correctness. Obviously, the library was not exercising free speech or academic freedom in choosing those carrels; but the group protesting the carrels was.

  2. I think librarians have plenty of reason to need protection – but it’s more often school and public librarians who need it than academic librarians. Our collections are not the contested ground that they are in public and school libraries, where tolerance for personally unpalatable ideas can be seen as support for a particular perspective that someone has deemed inappropriate – usually on the grounds that its harmful to minors. The phrase “intellectual freedom” is a more inclusive one for librarians.

    Your example seems to me to trivialize academic freedom. A library director would be more likely to say “I spent good money on this furniture and I’m the boss” than to claim furniture choice has anything to do with academic freedom.

    To my mind “academic freedom” should be less narrowly framed than Fish does to mean “the faculty, who have been chosen as colleagues and rigorously vetted by their academic peers, should be allowed to do their jobs without interference” – “their jobs” defined as teaching and research, not choosing office furniture. And the reason this social contract should be extended to faculty is because these jobs involve finding and professing truth (or as near an approximation as we can manage) without predetermining it based on external factors, such as funding or job security.

    Call me a romantic …

    By the way, it’s not just furniture. The Navy had to rethink barracks in San Diego when people using Google Maps realized the buildings were Swastika-shaped.

  3. I agree that academic freedom should apply to librarians for the reasons given by Steven (the furniture example notwithstanding), and for reasons not stated as well. As Barbara Fister comments, the protections of academic freedom are granted when the job involves “finding and professing truth”. This definition, in my estimation, so very clearly applies to professional librarians as to be prima facie. Professional duties needing protection include collection development (the obvious example, cited by Steven); IL / classroom curricula (also cited by Steven); and the creation of intellectual content (bibliographic records, subject guides / pathfinders, published blogs, journal articles, books etc.). And how about “professing truth” in direct consultations with students? I frequently advise students on matters that lie at the intersection of the library and historical professions, and sometimes (not often) profess views contrary to those held by faculty.

  4. I am a university archivist, which places me in a distinct field outside of librarianship, but I was moved to comment on your post. Without any snark intended, I must respectfully disagree with a majority of your analysis regarding tenure and academic freedom.

    Within most university settings, librarians, archivists, and curators all share a common “type” of academic appointment. Whereas the other “types” of full-time academic appointment include professors, research scientists, and lecturers. The core functions of each type of academic appointment are clear. Professors have teaching and research obligations, research scientists usually have only research obligations, and lecturers have only teaching obligations. The core function of librarians, archivists, and curators is roughly, as you state, is to “collect, organize and make accessible collections.”

    I absolutely agree with Fish that tenured status should only be considered for the necessity of task performance. Tenure ensures academic freedom. However, I believe you display a misunderstanding of what academic freedom, as a tool, is really for. You write that the incident regarding the carrels “helps to shape my perspective on the need for academic librarians to have academic freedom.” I wholeheartedly agree with Barbara Fister that you trivialize academic freedom. I found your use of this anecdote bizarre and would suggest that the placement of furniture has nothing to do with academic freedom in the slightest.

    Refocusing the analysis on our shared primary function of collections development proves more appropriate. Fish describes the forces and influences of subversion which can impede an academic in their core functions. Academic freedom is a tool which can defend against these possible subversions. However, it is important to distinguish which individuals are most at risk of being subverted and not throw tenure appointments around like confetti.

    I agree that it is collections development can become subverted. However, we must look at the degree of risk of subversion when discussing the notion of tenure for academic positions. I believe, as it is commonly agreed upon, those who are most at risk are professors who teach and publish heavily, creating often controversial new knowledge. Teaching and publishing are not part of librarians, archivists, or curators core tasks. I often see librarians claim that they do teach – they teach research methods. I do the same, and teaching research methods is valid in its own context. However, teaching research methods classes are not equivalent to teaching a 4-4 course load. To claim this is embarrasing for everyone in the field of librarianship and it has more to do with a librarian’s insecurity amongst the university professorship rather than any notion of well-balanced reality.

    You write that tenure could help librarians to “earn respect from faculty colleagues.” Be honest. Isn’t this what this entire tenure argument is really about? It’s time to drop the facade on this entire debate, as I have followed it for some time through the librarianship literature. I would hope that clarifying this point would help usher out all those in the librarian, archival, and curatorial fields who subscribe to this concern. We are in distinct fields from the professorship and playing the insecure comparison game is very childish. This seems to be a big fear among academic librarians, getting “respect” from the professorship. If one of the best reasons you can suggest for awarding academic librarians tenure is to get “respect” from the “cool kids” in the lunchroom, I believe it is time for a wholesale reevaluation of where academic librarianship is going. Even when librarians, archivists, and curators are awarded tenure, the process doesn’t nearly comprise of the same level of intensity or scrutiny of that of a tenured professorship position. If anything, this type of tenure process, the current type implemented at academic libraries, lowers the level of respect professorship has for academic librarians. They know the process is not nearly as difficult. Again, the entire notion of begging for “respect” is embarrassing.

    Regardless of this inane “respect” argument, our positions should be viewed as academic. The nature of our work calls for this designation. However our positions and core tasks do not carry the same level of risk of subversion as the position of professor and do not require tenure. The professorship puts themselves “out there” through their teaching and publishing to a degree that is much more apt to stir a backlash directed at them as individuals. Librarians, archivists, and curators professionally exist a great deal more solely behind the metaphorical ivy-covered, iron-clad gates of the university and rarely would be in a position where they would be challenged individually. A professor’s course is hu’s intellectual property, as his any published material hu writes. The potential backlash this may create will come at the professor as an individual first and foremost. This differs from the dynamic of the librarian, archivist, or curator. While we put a great deal of personal care into our collections development, they are not our own collections. They are not our intellectual property. They are the property of the university and it is the university which will feel the great majority backlash if a controversy occurs from our collections.

    I appreciated your article. Thanks! :)

  5. Seems like folks are wondering where I was going with the furniture example. Sorry if you think I was not taking academic freedom seriously enough with it, but that was my way (perhaps I should have looked for another example but I thought folks would find this an interesting story) of exploring Fish’s point about academic freedom being connected to the nature of our academic work. I would venture to say that having access to our computer furniture is for many students more important than having access to our collections. But I get your point. What I’m trying to express is a question about the limits of what academic freedom can cover in the world of librarianship. Is it just about searching for, discovering and professing the truth? I don’t know that too many academic librarians are engaged in that business, but we certainly create the environment for others to seek it.

    Cavendish – thanks for your comment – you obviously have a lot to say about the topic, but I disagree with your assessment of my understanding of academic freedom. I believe I understand it well. The post was not intended to show how much I know about academic freedom. Rather I want to try to expand my understanding of it – and perhaps I did not succeed. And your discussion of whether or not academic librarians deserve tenure is certainly disproportionate to my mention of it. I’m not saying that I think tenure will help librarians earn respect from faculty. I’ve gone on record previously saying that you should earn respect from faculty based on what you accomplish and do for faculty. I’m simply listing some of the reasons that librarians have given in the past for why they can benefit from tenure. At that point your comment takes a sharp departure from my discussion of what academic freedom can mean for librarians. My post isn’t an argument for why librarians should have tenure. Rather it’s an exploration of the nature of the work of academic librarians and how it does or does not reflect the need for academic freedom – something that I think we should find interesting to explore and debate.

  6. Steven – you are correct. I was wrong. Retrospectively, I did assume a disproportionate connection between your view of academic freedom and tenure for academic librarians. I should have analyzed your position closer before commenting. Tenure is only one vehicle for offering academic freedom, and you make no position for or against tenure in your post.

    I responded to an argument which I wanted to respond, and not to what you actually wrote. I also should have read some of your other, numerous posts to afford your argument some context. My apologies. Thanks for hearing me out though, even though I went off on a sharp tangent.

    Cheers mate,
    cavendish :)

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