Governance threats to academic freedom

Having recently read of the aborted attempt by the governor of Wisconsin to unilaterally redefine the mission of the University of Wisconsin; having heard the governor of Florida remark that a degree in anthropology is essentially useless in the face of economic development needs; and having heard the US president suggest that a degree in art history couldn’t lead to much of a future, one has to wonder about the relationship between college and university governance, from whatever the source, and academic freedom.

If academic freedom is narrowly construed to mean the unfettered search for truth in a discipline in which an academic can claim specialisation by dint of holding a recognisable, appropriate credential, such as a PhD or a master of fine arts degree, there is plenty of mischief to be made.

This sort of definition excludes some of the oddities that are claimed as protected by academic freedom. For example, one of us heard, several years ago, of a professor who refused to teach his classes on the grounds that such a requirement had “interfered with his professional growth and development and therefore his academic freedom”.

Nor does it include a claim to a property right in an academic appointment that has not been approved by an institution’s ultimate and final appointing authority. It does, however, include the right of professors to sustain a line of inquiry without concern about where the outcome of such inquiry may lead.

It does include the protection of the process of expert work in following ideas in all sorts of disparate knowledge specialties. And it also does include the right of students to pursue expertise in academic inquiry.

The knowledge biz

It is fair to reflect, from time to time, upon the nature of academic work. For those of us in the higher education “business”, it is fair to ask us a seemingly simple question: “Just what is it that you do in a university?”

A reasonable answer to that is this: Our purpose is to generate, follow and clarify ideas in order to create new knowledge, verify that knowledge, preserve that knowledge, transmit that knowledge, and to find new uses for that knowledge. Knowledge formation is what we do. And we do it in the sole institutional form that is dedicated to those purposes and to no others. We do it in universities.

That doesn’t mean that ideas are not generated elsewhere in society; that would be a silly suggestion. It is only to say that universities are the only institutions charged solely with doing that work. We are in the knowledge biz.

It is true that we are also engaged in some side enterprises such as entertainment (eg, football), but universities were not formed for the purposes of these side enterprises – for the most part.

Is it possible, one might reasonably ask, that certain governance practices in higher education might serve to discourage the chief purposes of universities?

If by governance one means not only the institutional processes of governance, but also certain exogenous influences that directly or indirectly impinge upon the knowledge formation functions, it should be immediately clear that governance, when taken in that sense, can potentially impede idea generation, limit the variation in ideas and thereby damage the knowledge formation purpose.

When, in the course of discussion of the budget for a state’s universities, a member of the legislature rises to say that he can find no good reason why the citizens of his state ought to support the education of one more history major and another suggests that not every university needs to teach psychology or English, it becomes clear that in that particular governance body there is a clear willingness to limit thinkable thoughts and knowledge formation in certain ways.

That translates to campuses as “we can’t be all things to all people”. And that is quite true. Few universities have the luxury of inquiry into all things from anthropology to zoology.

But to suggest that the only things that are worthy of study and inquiry are those that lead directly to specific jobs and economic development (which we think does a profound disservice to students and their own economic futures), is to say at the same time that things such as “high culture”, other languages and their literatures, history in its broadest construction – those things are no longer of consequence in our civilisation.

And that would also be to say that the purpose of higher education is now less about education and much more about job training and skills development. And those points of view, therefore, are easily translatable into interference in the academic freedom of both students and their professors.

Rooting out authoritarianism

One of the reasons that the idea of shared governance on campuses has become important is that it provides an opportunity to find and root out authoritarianism in any of its forms. That is especially important if one understands that authoritarianism in any of its forms and origins, whether they be state governors, legislators or presidents, or for that matter faculty senators, serves as a direct blockage to the development of a variety of ideas and the growth of knowledge.

Authoritarianism is capable of limiting, perhaps even blocking totally, the right to dissent from the conventional wisdom in an institution that has, as a foundational principle, the right to dissent.

Similarly, the imposition of ideas of the supernatural as a way of controlling “thinkable thoughts”, ideas of corporatism, ideas that limit expression as in the case of political correctness and ideas that do not understand as a purpose of higher education the liberation of the individual from ignorance – all of these things constitute grave threats to academic freedom. And all of them can be, and have been, introduced on campuses through the various governance processes.

Academic freedom, when properly and narrowly construed, easily becomes threatened and then diminished for lack of vigilance over governance processes, whether they be endogenous or exogenous ones.

What is at stake here is not academic privilege, as some would suggest. It is the protection of the idea generation process and the development of human knowledge in all of its forms.

Michael Schwartz is former president of Cleveland State University and William M Bowen is Professor of Public Administration and Urban Studies at Cleveland State University, USA. They are authors, with Lisa Camp, of End of Academic Freedom: The coming obliteration of the core purpose of the university.