Tag Archives: academic_freedom

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.

An Academic Freedom Quiz

As a profession we’ve spent lots of time debating academic freedom and tenure for academic librarians. Do academic librarians need the protections of academic freedom? If not, why do they need tenure? If yes, why are some on the tenure track and not others? These are questions for which there are no easy answers. But academic librarians should know the answers to basic questions about academic freedom and tenure that demonstrate their knowledge of these cornerstones of higher education. If we don’t have a firm grasp of academic freedom, its origins and function then how can we understand how it impacts our profession.

If you already have a deep understanding of academic freedom and intellectual freedom that’s outstanding, but if not or you want to test your knowledge, take this quiz. It’s based on information found in an article titled “Academic Freedom Issues for Academic Librarians” authored by Richard A. Danner and Barbara Bintliff in Legal Reference Services Quarterly, V. 25 (4) 2006, pp. 13-35. As Danner and Bintliff write:

Whether or not a university has chosen to extend the protections of academic freedom to librarians and professional staff, it is important for librarians to understand the implications of current and ongoing challenges to academic freedom, and be able to respond to them…It is essential for academic librarians to understand the differences between the concepts and the importance of academic freedom and tenure to faculty, students, and others involved in teaching and research.

1. Academic freedom is:
a) an inherent right granted to faculty
b) a protection guaranteed to those who have a faculty contract
c) a privilege granted to faculty by individual institutions
d) all of the above

2. A tenured professor directs a member of your library staff not to remove from the stacks several “library use only” books that need bibliographic maintenance work because she may need to refer to them at any time for her studies. Academic freedom gives the faculty member the right to do so. True or False?

3. Academic freedom is not a guarantee of freedom of speech. True or false?

4. Both tenured and tenure-track faculty enjoy the full benefits of academic freedom? True or false?

5. For academic librarians, having traditional intellectual freedom typically means:

a) a guaranteed right of free speech
b) a commitment to ensuring users’ access to information
c) a right to enjoy the protections of academic freedom even if not tenured
d) a form of academic freedom that applies only to collection development work

6. Which of the following organizations was the first to issue an official statement on the right of intellectual freedom:

a) american association of university professors
b) american library association
c) american civil liberties union
d) united nations

Now, to see how you did on the quiz go to the answers page. Whether you are an academic freedom expert or novice, get a hold of Danner and Bintliff’s article to refresh or boost your academic freedom awareness. I agree with the authors. Whether you have it or not, understanding academic freedom and tenure is an essential component of academic librarianship.

NOTE: the answers are based on information found in the article, and I’m aware that academic freedom, tenure and intellectual freedom issues can involve gray areas. So if you have a different interpretation of an answer or have additional insights to share, please add them with a comment.