Refresh Your Knowledge Of Academic Freedom

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.

3 thoughts on “Refresh Your Knowledge Of Academic Freedom”

  1. The issue of tenure is always a highly charged one for academic librarians. The issue of tenure involves more than just academic freedom—there are several theories about the role of tenure, including the effect on university governance, the ability to recruit new (and brighter!) colleagues, and it’s contribution to scholarship. I’ve worked at institutions with tenure and without—and while it’s a small sample, I have found that being a “member of the academy” by having tenure has resulted in librarians more actively engaged in the life of the university. Because we have tenure at my current institution, librarians serve as elected representatives on major campus committees, including P&T, faculty senate, and search committees for university administrators. Yes, we have to conduct research and publish, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing either—it helps us stay engaged with our field, it helps us more fully understand the research process, and it helps us build collaborative endeavors with our faculty colleagues in other disciplines. I’m certainly not saying that these things could not be accomplished without tenure, but it has helped in our case.

  2. I am applying for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this year. I am also doing research on academic librarians, tenure, academic freedom, and if any academic librarians have been retaliated against or have had repercussions from their speaking or research into government censorship of sensitive information, especially in the last 7 years in the USA. Has tenure protected you? Have you avoided sensitive topics that you may otherwise be interested in because of political concerns in your institution?

    One thing I am finding out is that academic freedom is defined locally… and if there isn’t a specific policy or union contract which defines academic freedom, it means what you want it to mean. I don’t think it means a free license to do what you want. You can’t incite violence, hate, or promote discrimination and claim “academic freedom”…

    I wish to point out that academic freedom also applied to the work academic librarians do in Reference, Selection, Service.

    >”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.

    Yes but what about selecting controversial books for our collections, especially those which criticize the government? Even when we use our collection development policies and our professional judgement, we can be subject to reprisals, ostracism, criticism… And what about blogging? The easier it becomes for individuals to create and publish their work, I think the more vulnerable we as academic librarians are to retaliation. Not many academic libraries have blogging policies, its so new; however, I feel there is a lot at stake, and tenured librarians may have more protection than many of our non tenured colleagues who are employed “at will”.

    We deal with politics all the time, and tenure doesn’t make politics go away. Hopefully academic freedom helps librarians make independent professional decisions about our work, without being extensions of an institutional propaganda machine.

  3. Thank you for your recommendation for Finkin’s book and the chapter about tenure and academic freedom. In the opinions of some people, the tenure process is in itself very political and prone to the whims of people’s personalities and personality conflicts as any article written about information evaluation, librarian competencies, etc. However, as long as society shapes the creation and dissemination of information, I think tenure is important. Perhaps if library scholarship was more devoted to unpopular or politically incorrect idea, this would be more obvious. As Will Manley pointed out in the April American Libraries, intellectual freedom has not historically been something that librarians write about. Maybe librarians, as professional, simply don’t want to deal with topics that are going to make people angry even if it can make our profession and our services more democratic.

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