Faculty free to express ideas

Report finds academic freedom is healthy at the U.

by Molly Moker

Many faculty and students value the ability to openly discuss and explore their ideas and opinions without restraint.

To ensure that ability exists at the University, a committee of nine professors spent one year looking at the state of academic freedom on campus.

Raymond Duvall, chairman of the committee, said the task force found the University’s commitment to academic freedom to be healthy.

But Duvall said it is a fragile freedom, and more can and should be done to ensure its continued vitality.

Duvall and Senior Vice President and Provost Christine Maziar presented the committee’s findings to the Board of Regents on June 10.

Regents policy defines academic freedom as the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, to research a creative expression and to speak or write as a public citizen without discipline or restraint from the University.

Maziar, who appointed the committee in April 2003, said these values are necessary in an academic setting.

“The idea is to have as free as possible a discussion of ideas, and to look at a topic with all different kinds of conventions,” Maziar said. “By having that kind of openness of exploring all kinds of ideas, we have the best opportunity at illuminating the truth.”

Maziar said she appointed the committee not in response to a particular incident at the

University, but rather because of a general concern for academic freedom in higher education nationwide.

“Here is this cherished value that we don’t talk about very well and don’t understand very well; and that always leads to a danger of losing something like that,” she said.

Academic freedom protects scholars from external philosophical constraints, but does not exempt them from legal restrictions, Maziar said.

“We’re certainly subject to the law, but it’s very important that there is a place in society where question and study and inquiry can be raised without those kinds of pressures,” she said.

Academic freedom is critical for faculty as well as students, Maziar said. Assignments should be able to reflect a student’s opinion and not be graded on the opinion, but the quality of the argument, she said.

“We need to be very vigilant in teaching our students the skill of disciplined debate,” she said, “We should (be able to) vigorously and furiously argue, and then go off and have an age-appropriate beverage as colleagues.”

Duvall said academic freedom does not provide unlimited liberties.

“It’s not an absolute freedom; it does not mean one can study whatever one wants,” he said.

Academic freedom has two integral parts, Duvall said. One part protects the pursuit of knowledge; the other protects the open debate of that knowledge, he said.

Maziar said the perception of which departments are most challenged by academic freedom has changed. In the 1960s, social sciences and humanities were challenged more often. Now science and technology departments seem to be more threatened, she said.

Mark Paller, assistant vice president for research at the Academic Health Center, said the center exercises academic freedom.

A peer review process determines which research projects are conducted. Projects are judged based on feasibility, not whether others agree or disagree with the topic, Paller said.

“Researchers pose a research question; if it’s well thought out and the resources are available, then in general that research can be carried out,” he said.

Paller said regulatory burdens are a bigger challenge for the Academic Health Center than academic freedoms.

“Obviously it makes it very difficult to be a health science researcher,” he said. “The list of committees to go through to do research can be daunting.”

To ensure academic freedom is guarded, the committee recommended that the University strengthen academic freedom provisions for staff and faculty not protected by tenure, international faculty and students who are involved in research for regular faculty.

Duvall also said the institution should do more to teach students about the principles of academic values and do more to model disciplined debates so the community, students and faculty can see the importance of academic freedom.

The Faculty Consultative Committee, the highest body of faculty governance at the University, has already met and begun conversation on how to proceed, Duvall said.

“Things are moving forward,” he said. “The members and I hope very much that the kinds of recommendations we made will be taken seriously and acted upon.”

Regents said they were impressed with the report at last month’s meeting.

“This is very interesting,” Regent Peter Bell said. “I liked the case studies and found them very provocative and thoughtful.”