Academic bill of rights unnecessary at the U

Sensitive University professors use an open mind in order to open minds of students.

The article in August 3rd’s Minnesota Daily “Academic bill advances” was quite interesting and touches on an important and delicate issue. That is, fundamental academic freedom and the rights of both faculty and students.

I believe that most professors are indeed very sensitive to the rights of students in their classrooms and to that end are quite willing to encourage free thinking and expression and open articulation of their perspectives. In my own experience, I have found on occasion that I even teach something differing from my own personal perspective because it has been demonstrated by a base of evidence to be the most accepted truth.

There are few professors I know who do not fully endorse “intellectual pluralism” and the active promotion of diverse viewpoints. In fact, a very basic premise of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to advance academic freedom, define professional values and ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good. Indeed the AAUP has actively fought against censorship in higher education.

However, as pointed out by both Jan Morse and Jeremy Nienow in the article, professors, by our very nature, consider and value very seriously the pedagogical approach by which to impart and evaluate the knowledge of our students. Professors must exercise some control over the classroom, otherwise it is possible that things could easily get out of control, particularly when a class may have well over a hundred students. Professors are primarily committed to effective student learning and not necessarily the articulation of their own political or other philosophies other than how they might be utilized as tools to assure a beneficial student experience.

Professors do and should set the terms of their particular course but allow forums for open expression. It is my conviction that most of us do just that. Obviously, due to content, scope and time, certain guidelines must be applied to individual courses in order to accomplish the objectives of the course. A good course syllabus will list those objectives or competencies as well as the general philosophy and pedagogy for that specific course.

Therefore, in effect, the rights and expectations which may be included in a “Bill of Rights” are usually pretty clearly spelled out at the beginning of the course. Professors are the gatekeepers of those guidelines. An Academic Bill of Rights is a good idea, however, it must not be restrictive. To use the words of Mr. Nienow, no type of regulations, should “curtail the rights of faculty, at any level, to decide the best practice for teaching their students.” That is fundamental to assure academic freedom.

Many academic units with the University of Minnesota indeed have an “Academic Bill of Rights” or “Academic Due Process” policy which specifically detail the students’ rights and process for concerns about course organization, content, pedagogical approaches, grading policies, faculty conduct, etc. The University of Minnesota also has an excellent Teaching and Learning Resource Center which is an effective resource for helping faculty organize courses, include diversity, active and community learning, and strategies for ensuring open participation in the classroom. There is also an effective ombudsman program and a Board of Regents Student Academic Grievance Policy. Obviously, the University of Minnesota also considers these matters seriously by having other formal venues which students can easily access, such as the University’s Student Dispute Resolution Center.

I believe that the bottom line is that professors as a whole are quite sensitive and serious regarding students rights, especially freedom of expression. Many of us struggle more often with getting students more engaged in the classroom.

Nelson L. Rhodus is a University professor and president of the University’s American Association of University Professors. Please send comments to [email protected]