U committee tackles grad student academic freedom

Members plan to decide if the U has sufficient guidelines in place.

Emma Nelson

The University of Minnesota has been involved in a number of academic freedom cases in recent years, leading it to establish guidelines on how the protection applies to faculty.

But for graduate students, the discussion is just getting started.

The University Senate’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee began looking at possible guidelines for graduate students’ academic freedom this fall.

“It is a concern that graduate students at a certain level are kind of in this in-between gray zone that perhaps doesn’t have sufficient policy clarity,” said Carl Flink, a professor in the Theatre Arts and Dance department and one of the committee’s co-chairs.

Graduate students, working simultaneously as students, researchers and instructors, are in a unique position, Flink said, making it difficult to determine how academic freedom applies to them.

Some of these responsibilities, like teaching and publishing, resemble those of faculty members, said Andrew McNally, a doctoral candidate in American studies and the executive vice president of the University’s Council of Graduate Students.

Because faculty members have academic freedom while doing this work, he said, graduate students should, too.

The discussion wasn’t spurred by any specific incidents regarding graduate students’ academic freedom, Flink said, but committee members want to decide what the appropriate guidelines are before an issue arises.

Committee members are also hoping to include at least one graduate student in future discussions.

Flink said committee members have begun to look through existing policies at the University and other institutions but are still in the early stages.

The University’s Board of Regents has an academic freedom policy for faculty members, which the committee decided applies to graduate students. There are also guidelines for filing grievances related to academic freedom.

“[What] we’re seeing is that there’s a lack of clarity in the documents,” he said. “We feel we need to do the necessary research to kind of pull things together and see if we feel it’s sufficient to be guiding or if there’s something that needs more substance to it.”

Some institutions have a clearer stance on the issue.

The American Association of University Professors, which discusses issues related to academic freedom, adopted a statement on graduate students in 2000. The statement outlines rights of graduate students in areas including teaching, research and institutional governance.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln also has guidelines for graduate students’ academic freedom in its annual Graduate Bulletin.

While faculty members are responsible for course content, for example, graduate teaching assistants are able to make suggestions at the discretion of the faculty member and may express their own views within the scope of the course.

David Moshman, a founding member of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska and a professor at the university, said he sees more potential for problems in research than in teaching.

“Most faculty are not really interested in obstructing what graduate students can teach,” he said. “But in cases of research, there are authorships at stake and there are careers at stake in getting your names on things, and the order of authorship.”

Another situation that could be problematic, Flink said, is if a faculty member and graduate student co-authored a project that an outside group found offensive.

The current policy isn’t clear about whether the University would protect the graduate student if such a situation arose, he said.

“Academic freedom doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want,” he said. “But it means that the institution and the society in which it’s embedded are committed to the value of people being able to look at those issues.”