Faculty Rights and Responsibilities: Academic Freedom in a Changing Cultural Climate

What follows is the first of three lectures I delivered last week as part of the 2007 Anderson Conference at Portland Community College in Oregon

Though even solid principles must sometimes change to reflect changing times, to consider them simply situational is as perilous as viewing them as foundational and unalterable. Concepts do change, whether we want them to or not, and “academic freedom” certainly has been changing over the last few years, both in its public perception and as it is exercised and overseen within our educational institutions.

Perhaps the most important change in the concept of academic freedom over the past generation has been its diminution within quotidian and intramural academic activities while growing in importance in its extramural functions and perception. We rarely think of a scholar as needing academic-freedom protection from colleagues. We increasingly see the threat coming from outside the institution altogether.

Is this change warranted? Should we accept it as inevitable or should we be fighting it? Should we even see it as a threat? It may reflect changes in our institutions, but it still remains to be asked: Is it useful?

In general, I think not. Today, I will even argue that, in fact, we need to go the other way, re-establishing “academic freedom” as it once was, at least in terms of our direct scholarly and teaching responsibilities, taking the definition back to what it was when first defined, almost a century ago.

With that in mind, I would like to read a passage from the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 “Declaration of Principles” concerning academic freedom:

The […] conception of a university as an ordinary business venture, and of academic teaching as a purely private employment, manifests also a radical failure to apprehend the nature of the social function discharged by the professional scholar. While we should be reluctant to believe that any large number of educated persons suffer from such a misapprehension, it seems desirable at this time to restate clearly the chief reasons, lying in the nature of the university teaching profession, why it is to the public interest that the professional office should be one both of dignity and of independence.[1]

Echoing those words of Edwin Seligman and Arthur Lovejoy, the principle authors of the Declaration, it seems desirable at this new time, almost a century later, to restate the chief reasons why our profession should continue to be one of both dignity and independence in relation to the greater society—and to re-examine just what our rights and responsibilities are—or should be—in our institutions under the concept of “academic freedom.”

It is also worth remembering that, the words of many contemporary college administrators notwithstanding, an institution of higher education is still no ordinary business venture. The “dignity and independence” that we have won through institutionalization of the doctrine of “academic freedom” is not simple self-flattery, but a necessary part of our educational enterprise, and is something with no real parallel in the world of business.

Unfortunately, academic freedom, though it may be under high-profile attack from outside our institutions of higher learning, is also under attack by us within or, at least, by our negligence and misunderstanding. Paying so much attention to outside threats, we’ve forgotten to look within, to corrosion we create ourselves. In fact, our lack of care for our rights and the misuses of our responsibilities are leading to confusion over what academic freedom is and erosion of it as the right was envisioned when it was first explicitly expressed by the AAUP.

Perhaps the most critical area where we are allowing our academic freedoms is disappear is in our jobs themselves, in the ways we have established for evaluation for hiring, promotion, and tenure. In the ways, sometimes, that we are fired.

Of course, not everyone has forgotten this. Speaking with InsideHigherEd.com last December, the AAUP’s Director of Research John Curtis addressed this concern:

Given the AAUP’s historic role as a champion of academic freedom, the issue of faculty job status is crucial, Curtis said. “Our first and foremost concern is the academic freedom concern,” he said. “When people are worried about where their next job is going to come from, and when that becomes a constant situation, they really don’t have academic freedom.”[2]

I would take this a step further. When people are worried about the criteria that will be used in evaluation for promotion and tenure, and when this, too, becomes a constant situation, they really don’t have academic freedom, either.

But the issue gets confused. Again, what Curtis is talking about and what I am expanding upon are intramural issues. Again, what most people talk about when concerned with jobs and academic freedom in relation to jobs, however, are extramural issues—what someone says regarding a political situation, say, and the consequences those words might have on their continued employment. This can have unfortunate consequences.

Let me give an example: A professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder named Ward Churchill was recently fired, the result of findings by a faculty committee established for admittedly political reasons. Churchill had raised a furor by calling the employees of the brokerage firm Cantor, Fitzgerald who died on 9/11 “little Eichmann’s.” In the uproar, questions were raised about certain claims of Churchill’s, and about the honesty of his scholarship. The faculty panel established to answer them found that Churchill had been operating in a less than honorable fashion, that he is not all that he said he was and that his scholarship has been puffed by Churchill himself writing under other names.

The defenders of Churchill have rarely contended that the charges against him are not true, only that he should retain his job because his academic freedom has been violated by the very act of constituting the panel to investigate him.

There are two distinct issues here, one intramural and one extramural, though both do relate to academic freedom. Churchill’s dismissal resulted from his professional scholarly activities and his misrepresentations within that arena. This is internal to the university. His defenders are claiming academic-freedom protection, however, for an external statement that has nothing to do with the actions that led to his firing. Though it sparked the investigation into his work, it did not directly cause his dismissal.

Put another way, if Churchill had not contravened his own responsibilities to academic freedom, he would not have been fired, his external statements notwithstanding. Yes, we as a profession, should vigorously defend his right to make any statement he wants without endangering his academic standing, but that cannot and should not drop a blackout curtain around him. As an academic, as someone who, by virtue of his position, should be both a supporter of academic freedom and someone living up to its responsibilities, Churchill should be willing and able to let light fall on all of his academic activities, no matter the source of the light. He should also be ethical enough in all of his academic activities to withstand scrutiny. He must not, in other words, hide his intramural failings under extramural protections.

Warranting a special right requires demanding special responsibility, takes living up to that dignity and independence Seligman and Lovejoy wrote of. We don’t deserve academic freedom because of anything inherent within us but because, through judicious use of our academic freedom, we add something—many things—to our society. This needs to be constantly reiterated to our fellow citizens through our actions as professional academics and not simply through results.

Ultimately, my refusal to support Churchill in his quest to retain his job comes down to this: I’ve no use for anyone who claims protection of academic freedom but does not live up to its responsibilities.

And that’s really what I’m talking about this morning, our rights and our responsibilities in connection with academic freedom and how we exercise them today—and how we’ve been letting our rights slide. I will be leaving aside questions relating to academic freedom that are more accurately seen as First Amendment concerns or as part of extramural academic-freedom rights. What I want to focus on is not rights under law, but rights of practice within the institution—and even on how our current practices may be undermining those rights.

Ward Churchill’s rights under academic freedom are not contravened by his firing. The same, however, cannot be said of all cases of dismissal—or of the means we now use for determining promotion and tenure—a much more common area of academic-freedom problems.
Robert Post, former general counsel to the AAUP, has written that:

Rights of academic freedom are […] designed to facilitate the professional self-regulation of the professoriate, so that academic freedom safeguards interests that are constituted by the perspective and horizon of the corporate body of the faculty. The function of academic freedom is not to liberate individual professors from all forms of institutional regulation, but to ensure that faculty within the university are free to engage in the professionally competent forms of inquiry and teaching that are necessary for the realization of the social purposes of the university.[3]

As Post says, one of the most important demands of academic freedom is that we, as faculties, be self-governing in terms of our research and our teaching. This was the reasoning behind establishing a faculty committee to examine Churchill. No one but fellow faculty, the argument goes, can be expected to be able to judge us without the bias of their own position external to the faculty or with the necessary expertise.

But what has this led to? Have we proved that we can judge ourselves any more impartially? Do we carefully judge the scholarship that is placed before us for evaluation? Do we keep ourselves open, as a profession, to new ideas in both research and teaching? Do we step back from our individual parochial viewpoints and dispassionately examine the whole? The answer, in Churchill’s particular case, may or may not be yes. But, in other cases, it is often “no.”

As long as I am asking questions, let me add another: Do we make it clear to the greater society, through an openness and invitation that corresponds to our dignity and independence, just what we are doing in the way of scholarship, just what we are offering through our teaching? This is the extramural side. If we are to maintain our rights of academic freedom, the answer has to be “yes.” Yet, given the attitudes towards academic that are now prevalent in our culture, the answer, unfortunately, is “no” here, too. When they think about us at all, too high a percentage of Americans imagine a pampered leftwing elite, teaching little while earning large salaries.

They even have come to equate work hours with classroom hours plus, maybe, office hours, seeing even the most over-taxed among us as working maybe eighteen hours a week.

This misunderstanding, in turn, can be used not only to further attack us, but actually to reach into our activities from outside. At the Pennsylvania campus where I used to teach, a legislator once showed up on a Friday afternoon to see how many professors were in their offices—thereby, “working.” He found few. This, in his eyes, vindicated his view of us as underworked.

He didn’t care that we spend long nights planning our classes, and longer ones grading exams and papers. That we meet with students many times beyond our office hours. That we attend campus events, showing support for students and for fellow faculty. That we serve on committees with all of the work outside of the meeting entailed. Oh, and don’t let me forget the research and writing we may be doing, or the work needed to merely keep up in our fields. He didn’t care that, in point of fact, even the laziest of us probably works more than forty hours a week—averaged out over the whole year. It simply fit his agenda to show how lazy we are by making it look like we all run off early for the weekend, just like students do, in another stereotype. The truth of the matter didn’t interest him.

No, not any more than it interests many of the critics of academia these days. Few of them spend much time really researching what we in academia do. Why not? Well, ultimately, their interest isn’t in what we do but in controlling what we do. David Horowitz, who has drawn more attention than any other right-wing scourge of the universities, even admitted to me that he isn’t interested in visiting classrooms—he can get the information he needs from other sources—or so he believes. In other words, he’s not interested at all in the education we provide; he’s interested simply in making sure it covers only what he wants covered. He doesn’t need to examine the details to achieve that.

It is here that the danger of mounting an extramural defense of Churchill’s intramural failings is most clear. By defending Churchill from the consequences of his inability to live up to his responsibilities vis-à-vis academic freedom because he has been attacked on other grounds, we make it appear as though we cannot police ourselves—a crucial aspect of the implementation of academic freedom. What it comes down to, then, is this: Those who defend Churchill on academic-freedom grounds are actually undermining the very foundation of academic freedom by weakening the public perception of our ability to regulate ourselves.

Yet, though the outside attacks on our institutions of higher education are clear and obvious, there’s an insidious inside attack that, while not gathering much attention, is destroying our academic freedoms and making it easier for the outside attacks to succeed. This is our lack of care and consideration in our internal reviews of both scholarship and teaching. Oddly enough, the Churchill case is significant for its singularity; this other problem is common.

Rarely are we willing to bring each other to task for our failures to live up to the inherent responsibilities of academic freedom relating to how we regulate ourselves. And, more rarely still, are we willingly fighting the encroachments on academic freedom threatening it today from within our institutions as substantially as do the outside attacks coming from the likes of Horowitz.

Though the focus of our internal policing needs to be on both scholarship and teaching oversight, I’m not going to spend as much time as I might on the problems concerning scholarship—though they do affect even you, here at a teaching institution, more than one might suppose. I want to concentrate on teaching and on how we are losing our academic freedom in the classroom through our own actions and inactions. But I’ll start by speaking about the state of oversight of scholarship, how it is actually limiting academic freedom, and how it, too, is dividing scholars into two classes, those at research institutions and the few outside who publish regularly and in accepted venues and those unable to get a foot in that door.

In a process that began almost as soon as the research university was first established well over a century ago, scholarship has been retreating behind university walls. First, it got harder and then harder still for someone without an advanced degree to be taken seriously by those within academic communities. Later, it became more and more necessary to be legitimized by employment at one of the research schools. Soon, it was having published an article, then a book, that gave one gravitas. After a decline in the sixties and seventies when we saw our professional responsibilities moving to a greater focus on students and on teaching, “publish or perish” has returned with a vengeance, making acceptance of one’s research all the more important to advancement even at a lot of teaching institutions. With competition growing tougher and tougher, in some fields it has gotten to the point where one needs to show as much research just to get a tenure-track job as it once did to reach tenure itself. The demand for publication, unfortunately, hasn’t broadened scholarship, as one might have expected, but has further narrowed it by creating new divisions in venues of presentation.

With the explosion in higher education since World War II has come a corresponding explosion in the number of avenues for publishing and presenting research. Prior to World War II, a journal article was a significant achievement—for there weren’t many journals in any field—and a book was a milestone. Today, there are countless journals and book publishers—not to mention conferences—for presentation of scholarly activity. So, many people reason, simple publication or presentation isn’t enough. The article has to be in a “major” publication, the book from one of the “better” presses, the presentation at one of the “big” conferences.

Even teaching institutions are beginning to demand not just scholarship, but its approval by the heavy-weights in the field who control the tonier venues. It’s easier, after all, to accept that a book coming from Cambridge University Press is a sign of worthiness for promotion than is one a scholar published herself through an online printing house such as lulu.com. You don’t need to even read the book to judge it—the reputation of the publisher can stand in for the work one should be doing oneself.

Sure, odds are that the book done through lulu isn’t as good as the one from Cambridge—but how can we be certain of that? Cambridge, after all, has produced clunkers—and not everything printed through lulu is bad.

Ultimately, all we have done, through this insistence on the “majors,” is further shrink the universe of scholarship and make sure that people with really radical ideas are relegated to the periphery. All we have done is open ourselves up to the idea that ours is a club of sycophancy, one of the charges that people like Horowitz have expanded on as part of their attacks on the “liberal” universities.

But what, exactly, has this got to do with academic freedom?

Just this: instead of conscientiously regulating ourselves, we are shutting people out—whether through laziness, elitism, or close-mindedness, it happens. It is even getting worse: Just as independent scholars started to find it hard to get their work accepted in the early years of the twentieth century, people who don’t come from the elite institutions are having more and more difficulty finding access to the top venues in their fields—yet their institutions are demanding, more and more often, that they do just that. This leads desperate people to imitative scholarship, to the hope that something similar to what was published in one prestigious place will be accepted by another. It leads to the following of fashion rather than to striking out on one’s own. People begin to imagine that they can only get published by working within the mainstream of the discipline, for that is all the results they are seeing. A constriction of academic freedom, though not formal, is now in place.

We argue that we are simply instituting and enforcing professional norms, but we tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that norms involve judgment. Based on interpretation, they are necessarily contestable—but we shut contest out of our consideration by letting the venues of presentation decide for us. Each time we say, “But this isn’t from an important press,” we are ceding our responsibilities in the realm of academic freedom to others—to the editors of the journals and books, to the moderators of conference panels. Each time we say it, therefore, we are decreasing our own individual academic freedom by diminishing our own responsibility to it.

This also leads to a situation where, once you have been published by a “major” journal or press, it is easier to place a second piece or book—though the work may be substantially worse than the first. It leads to a situation where, once you have received a major grant, you find it easier to get a second. But people who make it over the initial hurdle can’t coast: that they now have greater possibilities only puts further pressure on them to keep producing so that they won’t be forgotten, slipping back into hoi polloi. I know a professor stuck at the Assistant Professor rank though his dissertation was published by one of the top academic presses in the world. He waited too long to get going on a second book and did not present the conference papers that might have kept him current in the minds of his colleagues. Now, he is back competing with new scholars, fresh out of grad school, but, because of his early success, he is unwilling to go with the not-so-prestigious presses who might be interested in his work today.

With the greater and greater demands for scholarly activity as a means of promotion, we have gotten to the point, in some fields, where the work being produced begins to seem irrelevant to anything but a tenure folder. Scholarship begins to take on an arcane, almost bizarre aspect, making outsiders wonder why we need any sort of academic-freedom protection at all, if this is the sort of dreck we turn out.

Some of us, these days, are trying out other forms of scholarship presentation and academic discussion, using the possibilities we are finding on the Internet as one new avenue for conversation. Yet we are warned that even this may be bad for us. After all, it has no prestige.

Someone writing anonymously on InsideHigherEd.com, using the name “Ivan Tribble,” even went so far as to counsel young scholars that blogging could be detrimental to their careers. Perhaps well meaning, his advice does no good for the concept of academic freedom. In fact, it diminishes it by closing another door.

By continuing to promote a narrow and unexamined hierarchical system of scholarship, we are hurting our scholarly pursuits and our public image. By demanding greater success in this constricted arena, we are also hurting those among us who aren’t interested in pursuing the more scholarly aspects of an academic career. These, of course, are the real teachers, the people who devote themselves to classroom teaching often at the expense of their scholarly activities.

I suspect that many in this room fit that profile. Sure, many of you have published books, articles, and have presented scholarly papers. But your real focus is on teaching—otherwise you wouldn’t be here. If you really were more interested in scholarship, you would let your teaching slide—not to any horrible extent, but to the point where you knew you weren’t doing as good a job as you could—in order to get that paper revised, that book finished. But I doubt there are many of you willing to do that—it’s a deal with the devil, though one with little chance of even short-term reward. And most real teachers teach for love, not advancement, anyway.

But it’s a deal no one should have to make. Here, and at most community college, departments understand that teaching really must be the main focus. But even community colleges are beginning to feel the pressure towards scholarship as a greater force in promotion. For many people, scholarship equals prestige—and those who run institutions of higher education of all types are quite susceptible to the siren call of prestige.

Mind you, I have nothing against scholarship. I just don’t think it should ever be at the expense of teaching. At the same time, I believe that scholarship should be open to everyone, based on the quality of their work, not on where they got their degrees—or even on what degrees they have—on where they work, or on where they have published before. Sure, we have a peer-review process that is supposed to insure that such things aren’t taken into consideration when decision is made on submitted work, but that process is something of a farce. The anonymity that is supposed to serve as a protection to the researcher often turns into protection for the reviewers, allowing them to let out their own frustrations on the work of unsuspecting applicants.

Personally, I would never be willing to be a reader in such a process. Just as when I blog, I want anything I write about someone else’s scholarship to be over my name—so they can respond and a real dialogue, possibly, can ensue. If I am unwilling to stand by my opinions, in my view of the world, my opinions are meaningless. Furthermore, if I need to hide behind anonymity, then I must not really believe that academic freedom ever protects me, so I needn’t bother to protect it.

For academic freedom to mean anything, we as a profession need to be responsible to it, insuring that it fosters a broadening of scholarship, not a narrowing, as has been the slow trend over the last century. We are demanding a special right. With it comes special responsibilities, and I don’t think we have been meeting them—not, at least, in the area of scholarship.
Or in our teaching, for that matter.

The psychologist B. F. Skinner once told me that the critic and rhetorician I. A. Richards would invite him to address his classes at Harvard at least once a year. On Skinner’s arrival, Richards would invariably introduce him to the class by saying, “And now, may I present… the devil!” Skinner laughed as he recounted this. After all, he loved playing the devil’s advocate. He loved riling people up, getting them mad enough at him to spit—for that, he believed, led to thinking.

Both Skinner and Richards had the confidence to approach their classrooms via disagreement and variety. With intelligence and humor, Skinner would manage to challenge any group he came into contact with. And Richards had confidence that he could invite even somebody as dastardly (in reputation) as Skinner into his classroom without risk.

Skinner and Richards had that self-assurance because academic freedom really was, at that time (the 1950s), an important aspect to the classroom. It had come under attack, yes, but the main focus was on extramural activity. Academic freedom was not yet, at that time, being attacked from within. Neither Skinner nor Richards ever felt constrained by their colleagues judgment on their classroom style.

Unlike you, who teach in community colleges, few who teach in four-year institutions really have much background in teaching methodology. Few of them, in other words, were ever trained as teachers. And it shows, making them cautious and averse to experiment. They don’t really know what they are doing, so latch onto the conventional wisdom around them, which they then, almost unconsciously, begin to foist on others. Their lack of confidence leads to a retreat from anything out of the ordinary in their classrooms.

Of course, problems in the classroom have been a part of academia since it started. Bad teaching can reach legendary proportions, as you all know, having been students for a long time before you ever became teachers, and it has always been difficult to do anything about it. If one is operating within the strictures of academic freedom as they have been described since 1915, however, the only people with the right to judge our teaching are our peers—expanded more recently to include our students. And there is no guarantee that either is competent to judge.

The problem is that, in many institutions, few professors really know what they are talking about when they talk about teaching. This makes the situation different from evaluation of scholarship where the competence of the judges in their own fields is assumed to have been established—and generally has been in fact. Such is not the case with teaching. Yet, somehow, we are all assumed competent to judge each other’s teaching—in many cases without ever having really established that we have the knowledge necessary for making that judgment.

Let me give an example: Four years ago, when I had just returned to teaching and was working as an adjunct, I was observed by one of the new hires in the department, someone with impeccable scholarly credentials, but also a foreigner new to American educational institutions and fresh out of graduate school. The class that day was a discussion, broken up by a small-group segment, on a topic the students were already prepared for. It went well, and I assumed that the evaluation would be positive. It was, but not of the top rank. I asked why, and was told that I should have been using the blackboard.

It didn’t matter that the blackboard was an inappropriate tool for reaching the goals of class that day: my observer had been given a list of things to look for, and using the blackboard was on it. I hadn’t, so my rating could not be the top.

Of course, most people observing the classes of their colleagues do have much more experience than she did at that time, but that does not mean that they know much about teaching pedagogy or the real variety of effective teaching styles. It does not mean that they can evaluate the success or failure of approaches they may never have experienced let alone used themselves—or that might not even be appropriate to their particular personalities.

When I first taught in the 1970s, I was told to make my teaching student-centered. No lecturing—concentrate on activities the students could engage in or take the lead on. I was to organize and facilitate. That worked well for me at the time—after all, I was less than a decade older than many of my students. My authority was limited and I needed to lead from behind, so to speak. Also, students of that time were intrigued by the idea of working in small groups and on their own. This had not been part of their earlier experience; they were interested and willing to give it a try.

Times change and people change. Now, when I enter a classroom, there’s no way I can convince my students that I am their peer. I am older than most of their parents and, in the environments where I teach these days, I am also from a different cultural and ethnic background. Students expect authority and confidence from me; they would hear a false note, a patronizing note, if I used a “community of learners” approach. Also, those who went to high school in the United States have had it up to here with small groups—and the immigrants are often extremely uncomfortable in something so far removed from the hierarchical educational experiences of their past.

So, I teach much differently than I once did. I’ve learned to be something of a showman, an actor in front of the class, moving around, constantly watching the students, picking up cues and changing my plan as I go. Now, my by-word is “flexibility,” not “facilitation.”

My way of teaching constantly evolves, based on what I see happening in the classroom. But it remains based on the extemporaneous lecture. Through this sort of lecturing, I can open up students to worlds they’ve yet to imagine, let alone encounter. Through lecturing, I can also move them to discussion and writing more effectively than I ever have before. Yet mine certainly isn’t the only avenue for effective teaching—simply the one that seems to me to be most effective given my personality, the types of material I cover, the goals of my courses, and the specific groups of students. In some situations, I do drop lecturing completely—but I judge the need as I go. Yet I am still judged through an increasingly static list of criteria for what makes a good class: Clearly stated goals. A recap at the end. A variety of activities. Use of diverse material aids (including that blackboard). Student participation. How was role taken? Did the class start and end on time?

Unfortunately, these are not often used, as they should be, as the basis for discussion and for suggesting improvement, but for judgment. On most campuses, the peer observation report does nothing more than sit in a file, waiting to be brought out at renewal or promotion time. Very rarely does it carry with it a mechanism for increasing teaching proficiency, though all of these are things that can be improved. They are not part of the art of teaching, but of the method.

There are rationales for promoting a certain kind of rigor in the classroom, but some methodologies are out of favor for unexamined reasons. Lecturing, for example, is seen as a bad thing today, if done too frequently. Though the professors who influenced me most as an undergraduate were also the school’s best lecturers, the assumption now is that they couldn’t have been the best teachers. My father used Mastery techniques in his Psychology classrooms that wouldn’t fit today’s models any better than lecturing. Both, however, can work—when utilized by the right person in the right circumstances.

The point is that we are limiting the variety of teaching methodologies in many of our institutions of higher education by the very act of trying to improve them through peer evaluation. And we are doing this through a method that seems to be in keeping with the precepts of academic freedom. Ironic, isn’t it? Most of us recognize the weakness of this system, but aren’t willing to rock the boat—how our colleagues imagine us in the classroom has too much of an impact on our careers. It has gotten to the point where those of us who teach well tend to keep quiet and use the methods that work best for us—except on the days when we are observed. Then we go out of our way to follow what have become the new rules. We have been constrained—and that is not good for academic freedom.

We need peer evaluation, of course we do. But it also needs to come with a little bit of training. Just because we’ve taught doesn’t mean we are good at it—teaching is a skill as much as an art. Like me, many of you have taught in high schools, where there’s a much greater emphasis on teaching methodology than even at most community colleges, which themselves focus on it more than most four-year institutions.

A misuse of the concept of academic freedom keeps us from teaching ourselves to teach on many campuses. We give lip service to the idea that each of us must be able to decide what goes on in her or his classroom, so we don’t insist that we actually learn something about what we are doing. As we haven’t studied teaching, we really don’t know how to evaluate it, let alone do it, so fall back on formulae that only further diminish our instruction.

Now, in some departments great care is taken in the way both peer and student evaluation is used. In such places, there is no numerical threshold for rehiring or promotion. Instead, the chairs and their appointment committees involve themselves in what one of my colleagues—who serves on our own appointments committee—calls “compassionate guidance.” Members of the committee work directly with faculty to help improve their teaching skills. In my department, and those like it, the evaluations are never used as a threat. I have seen other places, however, where they hang over teachers’ heads like the sword of Damocles.

It is in the arena of “compassionate guidance” that community colleges can begin to take the lead in higher education, for it is here where expertise unmatched in other institutions of higher learning is housed. While the kind of professional development mandated for most public school teachers would never fly in much of academia, something is needed that will actually improve teaching rather than simply narrowing the scope of what goes on in our classrooms, ultimately making too many of them too similar. You are the ones best situated to find and develop that “something,” thereby restoring one measure of academic freedom to the rest of us. As expert teachers, you can develop methods of peer evaluation and professional development within the concept of academic freedom that the rest of us could use, though we could never build them ourselves. You could yoke evaluation and development together in ways that actually build teaching skills and not merely tenure files.

Academic freedom means academic responsibility. In terms of teaching, just as in scholarship, we are not taking adequate responsibility for what we are doing. Case in point: our new reliance on student evaluation for promotion and renewal.

Yes, just as with peer evaluation, student input needs to be part of our evaluation of teaching, but it is becoming a determining factor—and it should not be, any more than evaluation by administration should be. The whole purpose of academic freedom is to keep the faculty self-regulating—adding students into that mix defeats that purpose just as surely as adding in administrators does. In both instances, the input is necessary. But the care that is taken with the administrative role is lacking when it comes to students.

Teaching evaluations by students can be used by faculty to help improve their colleagues’ performances, but they are being used for much more than that, sometimes even in a punitive fashion. This is particularly unfortunate, since most of what passes for student evaluation of their teachers is meaningless. As T.L. Simmons wrote a decade ago:

Student evaluations of teacher effectiveness (SETEs) are, at best, nothing more than evaluations of the students’ perceptions of the teachers’ effectiveness – at best. It should be intuitively apparent to most that opinions expressed are subject to a great many variables that may have little or nothing to do with evaluating the teachers’ ability to teach.[4]

This is not to say that all student evaluations are meaningless, simply that few have been developed that really provide meaningful data. At best, they should be used as a warning sign, a signal that there might be trouble. Unfortunately, they are often used for more than that—and people actually lose their jobs because of them, or are denied promotion.

Though few have been willing to admit this, using student evaluations in this way is a direct contravention of academic freedom.

Students tend to evaluate teachers higher on the scale the higher they think their grade will be. Teachers know this—whether they like it or not—and it becomes a contributing factor to grade inflation. Students also evaluate their teachers based on whether or not they like them personally—making the evaluations as much a popularity contest as anything else.

Student evaluations, if they are used in renewal and promotion, severely limit teachers in their classrooms, and not always in a positive way. Certainly, they end up limiting the academic freedom of the teacher in terms of what they can and cannot do in a classroom situation. Yet faculties have allowed this encroachment, too timid, perhaps, to react with vigor to an overstepping by a legitimate move towards protection of student rights and to a new but misguided administrative model that sees students as clients or customers, moving them away from their unique status as learners and to a new one simply as buyers.

Teacher evaluation and student evaluation intimidate professors, keeping them from experimenting or stepping beyond the common wisdom. They lead us to act as though there is but one way of teaching and as though there are formulae that must be followed in every class.
Though we do need to evaluate each other, it needs to be with openness. That’s part of academic freedom. Instead of trying to bring people into our way of doing things, we need to see that there are different avenues that work for different personalities—and at different times.
Without our paying attention, new demands—for increased scholarship and for a respect for the desires of students—have put new pressures on academic freedom. Unless we begin to fight back, to respond to these pressures in new and creative ways, we will see a further diminution of our rights. And that will not hurt just us, but our whole society, for the intramural doesn’t stay inside forever, any more than the extramural stays out.

Thank you.

[1] Seligman, Edwin and Arthur Lovejoy, “AAUP 1915 Declaration of Principles,” http://www.akronaaup.org/documents/AAUP1915.pdf.
[2] Jaschik, Scott, “The Job Security Rankings,” InsideHigherEd.com. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/12/11/aaup.
[3] Post, Robert, “The Structure of Academic Freedom,” in Beshara Doumani, ed., Academic Freedom after September 11 (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 64.
[4] T. L. Simmons, T. L., “Student evaluation of teachers: Professional practice or punitive policy?” http://jalt.org/test/sim_1.htm Shiken: JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct. 1996 (p. 12 – 16).