Several times every year, I hear or read about a faculty member invoking "academic freedom'' as justification for actions taken both in and out of the classroom. The mantra is so commonly, and erroneously, used it has become almost meaningless. Perhaps it is worthwhile to revisit the concept as it applies to the work we do as nurse educators.
Academic freedom has its roots in medieval times, when universities were considered free from the constraints of civil law, to protect the faculty from political and religious interference. Today, the higher education academy generally subscribes to the definition of academic freedom set forth in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In essence, these principles grant faculty the freedom to:
* Conduct research and disseminate the results.
* Teach topics for which they are qualified and discuss issues pertinent to those topics in the classroom, as long as they do not introduce topics or opinions unrelated or irrelevant to the subject at hand.
* Express in public writing or speech their opinions as citizens, without discipline or censure, as long as they make clear they are not representing their employing institution.
Thus, academic freedom is circumscribed by well-defined limits. Nurse educators, when invoking the principle of academic freedom, should first compare any intent to assert academic freedom as protection for their ideas or actions with the above three principles.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear academic freedom used to cover many decisions made or actions taken by faculty who believe they should be able to make such decisions or take such actions autonomously and independently of the academy of peers or of institutional policy and practice. Consider the following examples, drawn from my own experience:
* A student appeals a course grade to her clinical instructor in a team-taught course on the grounds that she earned the only C in the course, all of the other students earned grades of A or B, and therefore, she should also be awarded a grade of B. The clinical instructor submits a grade change to the registrar's office without consulting the course coordinator or other team members, asserting that as the student's clinical instructor, she knows the student's work better than the other team members. Despite the grading standards previously agreed on by the team, when questioned about her unilateral action, the instructor invokes academic freedom to initiate such a grade change.
* Despite an institutional policy that prohibits administering tests or graded assignments during the final class week, a course instructor decides to administer the final examination during the last week of scheduled classes, stating that students requested to take the examination during the final week, so they can be released for the holiday break early. When the department chair points out that the instructor's action violates established policies, the instructor replies that he has the academic freedom to make adjustments to the schedule, as long as the students initiated the request.
* An established policy requires that students complete all didactic requirements prior to progressing to a final intensive clinical internship. Two students have not met the didactic requirements, but the course coordinator decides to permit one of the students to begin the internship because the student "has a reasonable chance of passing the didactic requirements" but does not allow the other student to continue because that student "has had difficulty all along with test taking." When asked about this differential application of the established progression standards, the instructor claims that academic freedom allows her, as the content expert, to use her judgment in adapting standards to students based on their different needs and performance.
* Approximately half of the class sessions in a professional issues course are taught by guest lecturers. When a guest lecturer cannot meet at the established class time, the session is rescheduled outside of published class days and times, and students are required to attend. Failure to attend the rescheduled lecture results in lost points. The course faculty claim they have the academic freedom to make such adjustments to ensure students are exposed to the essential content.
* A course instructor in a pathophysiology class decides to use class time to hold a discussion on the pros and cons of the President's decision to go to war in Iraq in the interest of "promoting students' knowledge of public policy," an objective of the nursing curriculum. A review of the course objectives reveals no similar objective related to national issues or public policy. When a student complains to the dean about inappropriate use of class time, the instructor states he has a right to express his opinions to help students learn how political issues can influence health care.
None of the above examples fits nor is protected by the accepted definition of academic freedom. These examples highlight the lack of understanding of the term and an unfamiliarity with, or perhaps unwillingness to acknowledge, the other side of the coin of academic freedom - academic duty.
Donald Kennedy (1997), former president of Stanford University, notes that "Academic freedom has a counterpart, academic duty, that is much more seldom used," and goes on to say that, "...although the freedoms necessary for teaching and scholarly work are understood and reasonably well accepted, the counterbalancing obligations are vague and even obscure" (p. 2). In addition, Neil Hamilton (2002) astutely points out that "The AAUP does not investigate or prosecute individual cases for the violation of the corresponding duties of academic freedom" (p. 4).
What are these corresponding faculty duties?
* To become familiar with and abide by relevant institutional policies and practices, especially as they apply to the academic mission, such as published class schedules, agreed-on evaluation and progression standards, and established channels of appeal for students.
* To teach on topics that are relevant for a given course or curriculum.
* To avoid using the classroom or one's position to advance a cause or agenda unrelated to the academic mission or the particular program goals and outcomes for which one has responsibility.
* To engage in the ethical conduct of teaching and of scholarly inquiry and research.
* To subscribe to and foster a "culture of high aspiration" (Hamilton, 2002) characterized by standards for peer review, shared commitment to the obligations of the professorate, compliance with established standards and policies of the academic program and the institution, and willingness to take collégial action when teaching or research misconduct occurs.
In today's litigious environment, it is even more imperative for faculty to know and comply with their institutional and programmatic policies and procedures. Local, state, and federal judicial systems have traditionally upheld these policies and procedures as long as they do not violate existing law or regulations and the institution can show their fair and equitable application. When faculty step outside these bounds and assert academic freedom as justification, they not only place their institutions in potential legal jeopardy but also violate the agreed-on standards of conduct of the professorate and their corresponding academic duty to themselves, their students, their peers, their institutions, and most important, the public, which grants the privilege of academic freedom in the first place.
- American Association of University Professors. (1940). 1940 statement of principles on academic freedom and tenure. Washington, DC: Author.
- Hamilton, N.W. (2002). Academic ethics. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Kennedy, D. (1997). Academic duty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.