Tag Archives: Academic Freedom

November 12, 1900 (a Monday)

Edward Alsworth Ross

On this date, the economist and sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross was forced to resign from Stanford University as Professor of Sociology. This intrusion on academic freedom, which partly led to the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), clearly mixed not only intramural and extramural speech but also disciplinary and non-disciplinary speech.

In 1896, Ross endorsed the idea of free silver in a pamphlet and spoke in public on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Leland Stanford, the university’s founder, had died and left control of the institution to his widow Jane. She was offended at Ross’ break with Republican orthodoxy and demanded that he be fired. The university president managed to secure a delay and a sabbatical for Ross to provide a cooling off period.

On his return in 1900, however, Ross extended his public persona to include a condemnation of Chinese immigration which mixed labor issues with issues of race. In his words:

I tried to show that owing to its high Malthusian birth rate the Orient is the land of “cheap men,” and that the [Chinese immigrant worker], though he cannot outdo the American, can underlive him [in other words, because Chinese immigrants are racially disposed to work for lower wages, they are able to displace the native workers]. I took the ground that the high standard of living that restrains multiplication in America will be imperiled if Orientals are allowed to pour into this country in great numbers before they have raised their standard of living and lowered their birth-rate. I argued that the Pacific is the natural frontier of East and West, and that California might easily experience the same terrible famines as India and China if it teemed with the same kind of men. In thus scientifically co-ordinating the birth-rate with the intensity of the struggle for existence I struck a new note in the discussion of Oriental immigration, which, to quote one of the newspapers, “made a profound impression.”

I quote Ross at length to show that Ross, although his racism and his deplorable and misguided defense of it were not peculiar to him and were actually quite common among influential “progressives” of the time, was no angel. Somewhat obsessed with race, Ross was of course convinced that “the blood now being injected into the veins of our people is sub-human”; the newer immigrants were “morally below the races of northern Europe”; and that it all would end in “Race Suicide”.

Jane Lothrop Stanford was outraged, not because of Ross’s racism but because the Stanford fortune had been built on Chinese labor. Now he was out of a job.

Professional economists and some of the future founders of the AAUP came to Ross’s defense, despite the fact that while the 1896 comments were partly within his area of expertise, at least insofar as an economist was qualified to comment on the gold standard, the 1900 remarks were clearly not, since they went beyond commenting on Chinese labor to include a plea for Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Of course the 1896 statements included not only economic analysis but also a political endorsement. One would like to think that at least some of Ross’s defenders found his racism objectionable, but that they defended his right to speak nonetheless.

From 1900 to the 1920s, Ross supported the temperance (alcohol prohibition) movement as well as eugenics and immigration restriction. To his credit, by 1930 Ross had shed these notions and spent the greater part of his efforts promoting the New Deal reform and the freedoms of the individual. In fact, he became national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1940, serving until 1950.

References:

September 18, 1894 (a Tuesday)

Education

On this date, the trial committee in the case of Professor Richard T. Ely submitted its final report to the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin. The report, unanimously adopted, exonerated Ely, and heralded the board’s devotion to academic freedom:

As Regents of a university with over a hundred instructors supported by nearly two millions of people who hold a vast diversity of views regarding the great questions which at present agitate the human mind, we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary. Such a course would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true. This would cut our curriculum down to very small proportions. We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

A plaque at Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin

The outcome of the Ely trial, and especially the proclamation of academic freedom, were given wide publicity by the press. Despite occasional periods of turmoil in the subsequent history of the University of Wisconsin, the declaration was never officially repudiated. Notably, when the Wisconsin Class of 1910 voted to present to the University a plaque bearing the last sentence of the regents’ statement, the regents accused the Class of being influenced by radicals and of joining with them in attacking regent policies. Five years later the plaque was accepted and placed at the entrance of the main university building.

Years later Richard T. Ely could pridefully refer to the Regents’ report as:

…that famous pronunciamento of academic freedom which has been a beacon light in higher education in this country, not only for Wisconsin, but for all similar institutions, from that day to this. Their declaration on behalf of academic freedom … has come to be regarded as part of the Wisconsin Magna Charta …

August 15, 2001 (a Wednesday)

Education

On this date, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Hardy v. Jefferson Community College, 260 F.3d 671 (6th Cir. 2001). Kenneth E. Hardy, a white adjunct professor at Jefferson Community College in Kentucky, had sued Richard Green, who was the college president, and Mary Pamela Besser, a dean, in their individual capacities in 1999 for violating his first-amendment rights after the college told him it was not renewing his appointment because “there were no courses available for him to teach.”  Interestingly, the administrators were represented by John G. Roberts, Jr., who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in September, 2005.

Scales of Justice

Background. The professor had regularly taught two communication courses at the college, receiving outstanding student evaluations and strong supervisory reviews. During the professor’s fourth year, a black student complained to him about class discussions examining words used to demean minorities. The professor apologized to her for any discomfort the language may have caused her, but she complained to a local minister active in civil rights, who subsequently raised the matter with the college president. Although the administration had informed Hardy before this controversy that he was scheduled to teach three courses in the fall, the administration later did not renew his appointment, claiming no classes were available.

Decision. When the college tried to get Hardy’s suit dismissed, an appeals court ruled in the professor’s favor, recognizing the importance of academic freedom at community colleges by stating:

In balancing the competing interests involved, we must take into account the robust tradition of academic freedom in our nation’s post-secondary schools…The 1st Amendment tolerates neither laws nor other means of intimidation that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the free exchange of ideas in the classroom.

Perhaps most significant was the court’s unwritten holding that the First Amendment right of academic freedom applies to faculty members at public institutions, whether those faculty members are tenured or not.

In April of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand by refusing to hear the case. Roberts, the lawyer representing Mr. Green and Ms. Besser, trivialized the justices’ action, claiming it doesn’t mean that they think the lower court’s decision is wrong. “It just means that they don’t want to get involved,” he said.

Although Hardy died of lung cancer on June 8, 2002, Adrienne Regnier, his widow and a Jefferson College philosophy professor, continued with her husband’s case. “Ken was teaching about language and about how it can be used to abuse, to alienate, to oppress others,” said Regnier. “That was Ken’s lesson: that this is the worst word you can ever call anybody, that it’s worse than any other word you can think of.” Ironically, she believes her late husband and the Louisville civil-rights leader who spoke against him actually shared enormous common ground. Describing her late husband as a “rabid anti-racist” who routinely attended anti-Klan rallies, Regnier added, “Ken and (the civil rights leader) were on the very same side. But because of a knee-jerk reaction, at least some people are left with the mistaken impression that Ken was a racist.”

July 21, 1925 (a Tuesday)

Darrow addressing the jury and courtroom spectators.

On this date, the eighth day of the Scopes Monkey Trial began. Before the jury was called to the courtroom, Darrow addressed Judge Raulston, “I think to save time, we will ask the court to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.” This ensured that the defense could appeal the case to a higher court, which might rule the Butler Act unconstitutional. The defense also waived its right to a final address, which, under Tennessee law, deprived the prosecution of a closing statement. This greatly disappointed Bryan, who was unable to deliver a grandiloquent closing speech he had labored over for weeks [archived here].

John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and sentenced to a fine of $100.  After the verdict was read, Scopes delivered his only statement of the trial, declaring his intent “to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom.”  The trial came to an anticlimactic end.

References:

  • John Thomas Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, and Rhea County Court. The world’s most famous court trial: Tennessee evolution case (Cincinnati: National Book Co., 1925).

June 17, 1957 (a Monday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, Sweezy v. New Hampshire was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Background: On January 5, 1954, Paul M. Sweezy was summoned to appear before New Hampshire attorney general Louis C. Wyman for inquiries into Sweezy’s political associations. Under a 1951 New Hampshire statute, the state attorney general was authorized to investigate “subversive activities” and determine whether “subversive persons” were located within the state. Wyman was especially interested in information on members of the Progressive Party, an organization many politicians suspected of nurturing communism in the United States.

Sweezy said he was unaware of any violations of the statute. He further stated that he would not answer any questions impertinent to the inquiry under the legislation, and that he would not answer questions that seemed to infringe on his freedom of speech. Sweezy did answer numerous questions about himself, his views, and his activities, but he refused to answer questions about other people. In a later inquiry by the attorney general, Sweezy refused to comment about an article he had written and about a lecture he had delivered to a humanities class.

When Sweezy persisted in his refusal to talk about others and about his lecture, he was held in contempt of court and sent to the Merrimack County jail. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire affirmed the conviction, and Sweezy appealed.

Decision: The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The basis for the reversal was the New Hampshire statute’s improper grant of broad interrogation powers to the attorney general and its failure to afford sufficient criminal protections to an accused. The Court commented strongly upon the threat such a statute posed to academic freedom:

We believe that there unquestionably was an invasion of petitioner’s liberties in the areas of academic freedom and political expression — areas in which government should be extremely reticent to tread.

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

March 3, 1952 (a Monday)

Education

Education

On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952) (Douglas, J., dissenting).  This case is notable because it is the first Supreme Court case to mention, in the dissent by Justice William O. Douglas, the concept of academic freedom.

Background. This case involved a New York state statute that essentially banned state employees from belonging to “subversive groups” – groups that advocated the use of violence in order to change the government. Under the statute, public employees were forced to take loyalty oaths stating that they did not belong to subversive groups in order to maintain their employment.

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice

Decision. The majority, laboring in the shadow of the Cold War and McCarthyism, upheld the state statute. However, referring to the process by which organizations were found “subversive,” Douglas said that because the law excluded an entire viewpoint without a showing that the invasion was needed for some state purpose, it impermissibly invaded academic freedom. He wrote:

[t]he very threat of such a procedure is certain to raise havoc with academic freedom….A teacher caught in that mesh is almost certain to stand condemned. Fearing condemnation, she will tend to shrink from any association that stirs controversy. In that manner freedom of expression will be stifled.

Fortunately, the premise of Adler has now been rejected – today, public employees, including teachers, have at least the same rights of expression as others (see Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)).

January 23, 1967 (a Monday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Board of Regents of University of State of New York ruled that faculty members’ First Amendment rights were violated by a state requirement that they sign a certificate stating that they were not and never had been Communists and by vague and overly broad restrictions on verbal and written expression. Specifically, political “loyalty oaths” required of New York State employees (including educators) under state civil service laws were declared void, and New York education laws against “treasonable or seditious speech” were found to violate the First Amendment right to free speech. Thus, the Court finally awarded to teachers and professors the full complement of free speech and political privacy rights afforded other citizens.

The Supreme Court famously emphasized the importance of academic freedom in higher education:

Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. . . The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas.’ The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’ 

The AAUP’s Cary Nelson Goes to War

The president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has written a new book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, due to be published in January, 2010 by New York University Press. In it, he argues that academic freedom verges on being a lost cause, shared governance is in retreat, and the professoriate is in danger of losing any semblance of job security (that is, tenure) in a work force dominated by underpaid adjunct faculty members.  [Faculty who ignore these concerns do so at their own peril. -ed.]  His response is to call for an all-out effort to win not just battles but the hearts and minds of other college employees — even students.  The book  should be required reading for all college and university professors, including contingent faculty, lecturers, and instructors. An interview with Cary Nelson about his book can be read here.

The New Academic Labor System is Getting Old

Education

An ongoing theme at this site has been the corporatization of higher education. Commercial influence is nothing new in American higher education and has been with us at least since the Morill Land Grant Act of the 1860s brought agriculture and engineering to the university. As David Noble has demonstrated, the industrial revolution of the early twentieth century was an outcome of partnerships between campus and industry. However, one could argue that corporatization began to take off in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the onset of increased research spending — in an emerging climate President Eisenhower should have called “the military-industrial-educational complex.” Since then corporatization in higher education has increasingly gained the attention of scholars.

So, exactly what are we talking about? What is corporatization?

AAUP banner

Richard Moser, a professional historian and a member of the national staff of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote in an article entitled “Corporatization, Its Discontents and the Renewal of Academic Citizenship“:

[Corporatization] is the term now being used to describe a number of historical developments. For higher education it refers to the retreat of service to the common good as the purpose of our colleges and universities. In general it describes the decline of a social contract that prevailed in America during the mid-[twentieth] century and the reorganization of our great national resources, including higher education, for the purpose of maximizing profits

Corporatization is far from a perfect term, as there are many different approaches possible even in a corporate economy. Corporatization may well be viewed as the misapplication of a regressive corporate ideology to a non-market activity (education). As such, corporatization is as much an ideological project as it is a political or economic one. The Canadians call this process “commercialization” and the British “privatization,” and those concepts capture important aspects of the changes we are experiencing…

[T]he years between W.W.II and 1975 were characterized primarily by powerful government interventions in higher education that were a central component in what may be called the mid-century social contract [emphasis added].

This notion of a social contract, or compact, has also been described by Neil W. Hamilton, in his 2002 book, Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance. It refers to the unwritten agreement between faculty members at colleges and universities and the society these institutions serve. Mr. Moser characterizes the social contract in the post-war period as a bargain between government, higher education, and business:

Government promoted and sustained economic growth through investment in higher education. The GI bill, the shift toward service industries, and demographic trends dramatically increased student enrollment. Higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post-war economic activity. Business and administrative leaders upheld their end of the bargain by permitting a rising standard of living for most working people…This period was also characterized by a high degree of respect for the AAUP’s 1940 Statement. Tenure, due process, and shared governance became the almost universally accepted ethical foundation for higher education…

In this so-called “golden era” the university was part of and dedicated to the public good [emphasis added].

So what ended the “golden era” of higher education? The demise of the social contract had begun by the late 1960s, according to Mr. Moser:

Slower economic growth and heightened competition were evoked to change popular expectations concerning living standards and public expenditures. In higher education the changing times were characterized by decreased public funding. That occurred simultaneously with the ascendancy of a corporate style of management and the subsequent shifting of costs and risks to those who teach, research and study…

The cutting edge of the corporatization of higher education was the restructuring of the workforce around a multi-tiered structure into what I call the “New Academic Labor System.” In the typical multi-tiered system new or younger employees are not offered the same level of compensation and job security as existing staff. A report on faculty appointments by the AAUP’s Ernst Benjamin revealed:

  • The change since 1975 is striking. Part-time faculty have grown four-times (103%) more than full-time (27%).
  • The number of non-tenure-track faculty has increased by 92%, while the number of probationary (tenure-track) faculty has actually declined by 12%.
  • Adjunct appointments went from 22% in 1970 to 32% in 1982, to 42% in 1993, to a current level of about 46 percent of all faculty [emphasis added].

In fact, the situation in higher education has become even worse than when Mr. Benjamin compiled his statistics in 2002. Today, about two-thirds of the faculty nationwide is contingent, and at community colleges, which enroll about 50 percent of all college students, the professoriate is about 70 to 80 percent contingent. How did this happen? Mr. Moser continues:

This multi-tiered approach succeeded, because it blunted opposition by implicitly promising not to affect existing constituencies. Tenured faculty were enticed with short-term benefits. The faculty did cooperate in their own demise, but not by formal decree. No faculty senate, AAUP chapter, or union ever explicitly agreed to abolish tenure for the majority of future faculty in exchange for cheap replacements for introductory courses or sabbaticals, but such complicity is rarely formalized…

The over-use and exploitation of contingent faculty is the linchpin of this process of corporatization, because it has fragmented the faculty and weakened our ability to act as a constituency.

The fact is that, even without this fragmentation, most academics tend to be “loners” — highly independent and concerned mostly with their own professional cliques. They shy away from political activism, and in general are oblivious to the plight of other academics outside their inner circle. The individualistic nature of intellectuals makes organized resistance against corporatization difficult. This was clearly explained in an article published on 29 November 2006 in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “An Adjunct Bill of Rights“:

Tenured professors may well be in the best position to champion academic freedom for both full-timers and part-timers. After all, they are far less likely to lose their jobs for speaking out.

However, Judith Wagner DeCew, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, has pointed out that most full-time faculty members have not seen fit to concern themselves with the increased hiring and exploitation of part-time faculty members. In Unionization in the Academy: Visions and Realities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), she writes: “While some full-time faculty members speak out for and support part-timers, there is a sense that most full-time appointees are concerned about their own salaries and working conditions, whether unionized or not. . . . Numerous studies have shown that the difficulties that part-time faculty confront can often be attributed to the fact that full-time faculty in academia are primarily concerned with protecting their own professional positions and privileges, not employment equity.”

Ken Jacobsen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle and a frequent advocate for part-time faculty members, has said that the reason the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service back in 1997 was because the full-timers felt the increasing use of part-timers would mean less work for them, since UPS could always choose to call in the lower-paid temporary workers. But since tenured professors are guaranteed a full-time workload year after year, Jacobsen says, they have not felt threatened by academe’s increased hiring of part-timers, and thus have looked the other way, feeling that the adjuncts’ plight does not affect them. Full-timers, Jacobsen said, have their piece of the pie, and their primary goal is to hang on to it, and to make sure that no one else takes it away.

How does corporatization affect the average faculty member? As Mr. Moser points out:

For faculty, corporatization means more authoritarian governance practices, not simply as reflected in handbooks but changes in the culture, as administrators get used to bossing around the majority of the faculty who have no hope of tenure or job security.

So, how can we, the faculty, oppose corporatization? A work action like that conducted by the Teamsters against UPS in 1997 would be unpopular and ineffective since there are so many unemployed adjuncts now who no doubt would ignore it. James G. Andrews, an emeritus professor at the University of Iowa who held an adjunct appointment in medicine, a secondary appointment in liberal arts and sciences, a primary appointment in engineering, and is active in the AAUP at the local, state, and national levels, cites a suggestion by Neil Hamilton in his book mentioned above, namely, that the academic profession “renew the social compact through continuing education”.  Andrews writes:

Under the social compact Hamilton describes, society ensures the environment and resources needed for professors to fulfill their responsibilities in exchange for the high-quality educational opportunities that faculty provide. That is, society agrees to subsidize an educational environment in which faculty can pursue teaching, scholarship or creative work, and service free from pressure to raise funds. Traditionally, this environment has been characterized by academic freedom, tenured appointments, shared governance, and due process protections. This explicit identification of society’s fundamental responsibility to support higher education may eventually lead to a resolution of the corporatization problem…

We need a better understanding, on the part of the public and the professoriate, of the mutual responsibilities of each.

As Hamilton notes, “If, in a market economy, a profession does not renew the social compact through continuing education, [then] money and economic efficiency will eventually sweep the field to define all professional relationships as simply economic transactions between consumers and service providers for profit.”  Practitioners must remind society, generation after generation, of the agreement’s purpose and demonstrate how the profession serves the common good.

The Priority Must Be on Learning…

Education

Education

Many people, even some faculty and most administrators, do not realize that the ability to assign grades to students based on academic performance is the exclusive right of the instructor. Barring any error or bias on the part of the instructor, administrators and supervisors of the instructor may not ethically interfere in this process. This right stems from the principle of academic freedom, which has long been championed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

AAUP banner

AAUP banner

An example involves two faculty members at Benedict College in South Carolina, who a few years ago challenged a new grading policy imposed by the college president and were dismissed for “insubordination.” They dared to question a mandate forcing faculty to assign grades to first-year students based on the formula of 60 percent for effort (attendance) and 40 percent for actual performance. One of the dismissed faculty members wrote that the president’s grading policy “will undermine the academic integrity of my classes and my professional standards as an instructor.” Both faculty members turned to the AAUP for financial assistance and advice. The AAUP pursued this case through its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, whose report follows:

A Supplementary Report on a Censured Administration [1]

This report concerns actions in summer 2004 by President David H. Swinton of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, to dismiss Professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams for having refused to grade students in their courses in accordance with a grading policy promulgated by the president.

The Benedict College administration was placed on censure by the Association’s 1994 annual meeting after an investigating committee found that it had acted inappropriately in terminating the services of three professors. Litigation initiated by the professors resulted in an out-of-court settlement in each case, but the censure has remained in effect because deficiencies in the college’s official policies on academic freedom and tenure have not been corrected. President Swinton, formerly dean of the School of Business at Jackson State University, took office as president of the college in summer 1994, shortly after the censure was imposed.

At the beginning of the spring 2002 semester, President Swinton distributed a new policy on student grading, entitled the Success Equals Effort (SEE) Project, effective as of that semester. The Benedict faculty had not approved the policy, and indeed had not been afforded an opportunity to review it. The SEE document’s introductory statements refer to a large number of newly admitted students with poor high school preparation and poor study habits, to an “excessive number” of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals in the grading of first-year and sophomore students during the eight years of President Swinton’s tenure, and to losses during each of those years of 33 to 51 percent of the first-year class and another 15 to 25 percent of sophomores. Requisite steps for remedying the situation, according to the SEE policy, include an increase in student efforts, an increase in the connection between efforts and grades, improvement in student grades, and a resulting increase in learning and retention among first-year and sophomore students.

Under the SEE policy, first-year and sophomore students thus were to be graded according to a combination of their knowledge (as demonstrated by test scores and written assignments) and their effort (as shown by attending class, handing in homework, and participating in study and tutoring sessions). The grades for first-year courses were to allot 60 percent to effort and 40 percent to knowledge acquired. Sophomore grades were to be based 50 percent on effort and 50 percent on knowledge. Junior and senior grading was to be determined by the respective schools and departments.

Professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams, members of Benedict College’s Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Health Science Department, spoke out against the SEE policy and resisted instructions to assign grades in compliance with the policy. Professor Motley, who taught biology, did his undergraduate work at Hampton University and received his PhD in microbiology from the University of Louisville. He taught for fourteen years at the Morehouse School of Medicine before beginning in 1999 at Benedict College, where for his first three years he served as department chair. Professor Williams, who taught environmental health, is an alumnus of Benedict College who received a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in environmental science from the University of Alabama. He began on the Benedict College faculty, in his first teaching position, in 1996.

Professor Motley, despite strong misgivings, implemented the SEE policy in grading his “Principles of Biology” class for the spring 2002 semester. He has described having to give a “C” final grade to a student whose highest grade on any test was less than 40 percent but who regularly attended class and participated in laboratory exercises. His experience that semester with the SEE policy led him to disregard it in subsequent semesters, and he made no secret about his doing so. Professor Williams, who declined from the outset to adhere to the policy, also made his position known.

Moves to Compel Compliance

By the end of the fall 2003 semester, it had apparently become clear to Benedict administrative officers that the SEE policy was not being universally applied. Dean Stacy Franklin Jones of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics sent communications early in 2004 to faculty members in the school, calling on those who were not adhering to the policy to identify themselves and explain why. Professor Motley replied on March 5, expressing his belief

“…that the policy will undermine the academic integrity of my classes and my professional standards as an instructor. A student has to learn. He can’t simply try to learn, he has to learn period. Otherwise, we will have Benedict graduates who lack sufficient knowledge and skills to hold jobs in their majors and who will be at severe disadvantages in graduate and professional school. . . . I cannot obey the request to implement the SEE grading policy in my classes.”

Replying to Professor Motley, Dean Jones instructed him to change his fall 2003 grades in accordance with the SEE policy lest he face the consequences of insubordination. In a March 29 letter to the dean, Professor Motley expanded on his reasons for not complying. He wrote that although he fully supported the mission of Benedict College, he had

“…become increasingly concerned about the manner in which the college has performed its mission, particularly its willingness to sacrifice academic quality to maintain enrollment. . . . I, like you, want our students to succeed in achieving their professional goals. In order to succeed, our students need a strong educational foundation that is provided by our faculty. By placing a heavier emphasis on helping students to pass a course rather than to learn the course material, the SEE policy threatens to erode that foundation. The priority must be on learning. . . . You will probably consider my refusal to implement the SEE policy as an act of insubordination. Needless to say, I disagree with that assessment. As I said earlier, I believe that the SEE policy undermines the academic reputation of Benedict College. I therefore will not be involved in any policy that may prove detrimental to this college.”

Professor Williams did not at first respond to Dean Jones’s memorandum about adherence to the SEE policy. Another memorandum from her, stating that “nonresponse by March 26, 2004, will be construed as insubordination,” led to his reply on that date. He characterized the SEE policy as a choice “to continue a form of social promotion” for students with poor high school preparation. He questioned the premise “that lower standards for freshmen and for sophomores will miraculously produce students who are prepared for junior and for senior level courses.”

“To clarify my intentions,” Professor Williams concluded in his March 26 letter, “I will not make any changes in grades assigned during the fall of 2003. The students who received passing grades earned them. Those who decided that they were not going to do the work earned theirs also.” Dean Jones’s reply, dated March 29, was relatively terse:

“Once again, the SEE grading policy has been officially adopted by the college. Consequently, the implementation or lack thereof is not subject to the opinion of individual faculty. Please submit to my office either your letter of resignation or [compliance] with the request to revisit your fall 2003 and spring 2004 semester grades. . . . Should I not receive either of the requested responses by 5 p.m. on April 2, 2004, you will be recommended for termination, effective immediately.”

Dismissal Proceedings

Professor Motley neither resigned nor changed his grades, whereupon a committee appointed by Richard C. Miller, senior vice president for academic affairs, recommended that he be dismissed. By letter of June 8, 2004, President Swinton notified Professor Motley of his dismissal on grounds of insubordination. (An administration spokesperson has stated that, after a similar recommendation from Vice President Miller’s committee, notification of dismissal was also sent to Professor Williams on that date. Professor Williams, however, had left town after his last class in the spring in order to teach a summer course at a college near Charleston, and he was not aware of his dismissal until the press reported it much later.)

Professor Motley appealed his dismissal, which led to a hearing by the college’s Faculty and Staff Grievance and Appeals Committee that was convened on June 28 for that purpose by Vice President Miller. Four members of the seven-person committee appointed by President Swinton came from the faculty. Vice President Miller began the proceedings by summarizing the reasons for the hearing. He described the committee’s charge as not passing on the merits of the SEE policy but only on whether Professor Motley was insubordinate in refusing to follow the policy. The vice president then left the proceeding, whereupon Professor Motley arrived, provided amplification of his opposition to the SEE policy, and answered questions. After his departure, the committee adopted a motion that the Motley dismissal be rescinded, by vote of 4 to 3, with all four faculty members voting in the affirmative. The committee also determined, before adjourning, that the following reasons would be provided to President Swinton for recommending rescission of the dismissal:

  1. The termination is an extreme violation of academic freedom.
  2. This termination is selective in terms of one policy being singled out, whereas violations of other policies by other faculty members have not resulted in termination.
  3. The SEE policy is a recent policy and constitutes insufficient grounds for termination.
  4. The termination did not take into account the complete picture of the person.
  5. There is further selectivity in that only one dean initiated grounds for termination based on violation of the policy.
  6. The termination is unfair to one faculty member when there may be others who are not following the policy.
  7. The termination is overlooking the excellence of the faculty member in other areas.

President Swinton responded to the Grievance and Appeals Committee on July 13, rejecting its recommendation and finding no merit in any of the seven reasons that the committee had provided. Regarding violation of academic freedom, he asserted that the concept does not permit faculty members to set academic policies and the college cannot “allow its policies to be insubordinately flouted under the guise of academic freedom.”

As to the committee’s second point, singling out the SEE policy from other policies as warranting dismissal in the event of violation, he asserted that “Dr. Motley’s persistent refusal to follow policy constitutes willful insubordination which rises above more inadvertent policy violations.”

With respect to the third point, that the SEE policy is a recent one whose violation should not be a basis for dismissal, the president asserted that the “faculty may not selectively implement those policies they favor or consider important.”

Regarding the committee’s fourth point, that “the complete picture of the person” was not taken into account, he asserted that “merit in other areas cannot justify persistent insubordination.”

As for the fifth point, that only one of the college’s deans had initiated grounds for dismissal, the president invited committee members, if they knew of similar refusals elsewhere in the college, to inform the administration immediately “so that corrective action can be taken.”

Commenting on the sixth point, that the dismissal of one faculty member is unfair when others may also be ignoring the policy, he rejected the point as irrelevant and stated that others will also be subject to dismissal if and when a violation is detected and is not corrected.

With regard to the seventh and final point, “the excellence of the faculty member in other areas,” President Swinton called it redundant after the fourth point and reiterated that the dismissal “is based solely on the persistent violation of college policy cited.”

There was reference during the Motley hearing to similar dismissal action against Professor Williams. Whether a June letter of dismissal was also sent to Professor Williams, who was then away from his home address, is a matter of some dispute, but he was doubtless not surprised when, after his return to Columbia, a feature story on the two dismissals appeared in the press on August 20, and certified notification of his dismissal was sent to him.

He filed an appeal, which led to a hearing on his case by the Faculty and Staff Grievance and Appeals Committee on September 9. The issues presented at the hearing were essentially the same as those at the Motley hearing. As has been stated, four of the seven members of the hearing body appointed by President Swinton in the Motley case were faculty, and the committee recommended rescission of the dismissal. For the Williams case, the president appointed a larger number of administrative staff members, and the committee recommended sustaining the dismissal by vote of 5 to 2.

The Association’s Involvement

One result of the administration’s moves to enforce the SEE policy was a newly active Benedict College AAUP chapter. On July 20, the chapter called on the national Association for assistance in the wake of the Motley dismissal, and shortly thereafter the Association’s staff heard directly from Professor Motley. After receiving and examining applicable documentation, the staff, on August 10, wrote to President Swinton to convey the Association’s concerns.

Referring to the issue of academic freedom as central to those concerns, the staff’s letter disputed the president’s assertion to the hearing body that academic freedom does not provide a right to set academic policy. On the contrary, the letter argued, Professor Motley’s opposition to the SEE policy “falls well within the ambit of protected conduct under principles of academic freedom.” Referring to the president’s charge of insubordination, the letter emphasized the provision in the Association’s Statement on Professional Ethics that professors are to observe stated institutional regulations “provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom.”

Noting the continued presence of Benedict College on the Association’s censure list, the staff’s letter observed that the cases involving academic freedom that led to the censure had been satisfactorily resolved. Stating that the Association certainly did not want to have to report on new academic freedom cases at Benedict under the current administration, the staff expressed its strong hope that the president would give further consideration to noncompliance with the SEE policy as a matter warranting dismissal and would take corrective action.

In a brief reply dated August 19, President Swinton commented, “We thank you for your opinion and input. However, we are confident that our policies are appropriate and do not seek your support to deal with our internal personnel matters.”

Shortly thereafter, the Association’s staff heard directly from Professor Williams and received documentation bearing on his situation. The AAUP’s general secretary then authorized the preparation of this report, and by letter of September 8, President Swinton was so informed. On October 1, 2004, Professor Williams initiated litigation in South Carolina’s Richland County Circuit Court; Professor Motley did so on October 4.

Observations

The Association’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities assigns primary responsibility to the faculty “for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction.” The grading of student performance is certainly one of these areas. Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has reiterated that the responsibility for grading students rests with the faculty. The faculty collectively has the prerogative of setting policy on grading, and individual faculty instructors have the prerogative of determining the grades that their students receive. The freedom to grade one’s students is an essential part of the “freedom in the classroom” that the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure ensures college and university teachers.

This report has dealt with the Benedict College administration’s actions, in disregard of the foregoing principles, to dismiss two professors for insubordination. The professors had graded students, and had insisted on continuing to grade them, without adhering to an administration-imposed policy requiring first-year and sophomore students to be graded at least as much for effort as for academic performance. The administration allowed the dismissals to stand despite subsequent hearings in which all of the faculty members on the hearing bodies recommended that the dismissals be rescinded.

The dismissals on grounds of insubordination were threatened in March and were effected, with cessation of salary payment, that summer. The 1940 Statement of Principles and the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure call in such dismissal cases for a year of severance salary if moral turpitude is not involved. An interpretive comment on the 1940 Statement sets the standard for determining moral turpitude as “not that the moral sensibilities of persons in the particular community may have been offended. The standard is behavior that would evoke condemnation by the academic community generally.” Those in the general academic community who are concerned with grade inflation, far from condemning professors who insist on grading according to academic merit, would doubtless find the position of Professors Motley and Williams admirable. The Association’s Statement on Professional Ethics calls upon professors “to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit.” It would seem that Professors Motley and Williams tried to do precisely that. [2]

Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has by vote authorized publication of this report in Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP.

JOAN WALLACH SCOTT (History), Institute for Advanced Study, chair

Members: JEFFREY HALPERN (Anthropology), Rider University; MARY L. HEEN (Law), University of Richmond; EVELYN BROOKS HIGGINBOTHAM (Afro-American Studies and Divinity), Harvard University; DAVID A. HOLLINGER (History), University of California, Berkeley; STEPHEN LEBERSTEIN (History), City College, City University of New York; ROBERT C. POST (Law), Yale University; ADOLPH L. REED (Political Science), University of Pennsylvania; CHRISTOPHER M. STORER (Philosophy), DeAnza College; DONALD R. WAGNER (Political Science), State University of West Georgia; MARTHA S. WEST (Law), University of California, Davis; JANE L. BUCK (Psychology), Delaware State University, ex officio; ROGER W. BOWEN (Political Science), AAUP Washington Office, ex officio; DAVID M. RABBAN (Law), University of Texas, ex officio; ERNST BENJAMIN (Political Science), Washington, D.C., consultant; JOAN E. BERTIN (Public Health), Columbia University, consultant; MATTHEW W. FINKIN (Law), University of Illinois, consultant; ROBERT A. GORMAN (Law), University of Pennsylvania, consultant; LAWRENCE S. POSTON (English), University of Illinois, Chicago, consultant;GREGORY SCHOLTZ (English), Wartburg College, liaison from Assembly of State Conferences.

Endnotes:

[1] The text of this report was written in the first instance by the Association’s staff on the basis of available documentation. In accordance with Association practice, the text was submitted to the Association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. With the approval of Committee A, it was then sent to the professors whose cases are reported, to the Benedict College administration, to the president of the Association’s local chapter, and to other persons concerned in the report. In light of the responses received, this final report has been prepared for publication. (This report was originally published in the January-February 2005 issue of Academe: the Bulletin of the AAUP [Vol. 91, Issue 1: 51-54].)

[2] After a draft text of this report was sent to the concerned parties at Benedict College, President Swinton wrote to the president of the AAUP chapter, William F. Gunn, and the chapter’s vice president, Larry D. Watson, each of whom chaired a department. He notified them that they would be removed from their chairs (and thus would suffer substantial reduction in salary) at the end of the current academic year.

Admittedly, this example of the abrogation of the right of faculty to grade freely and fairly was egregious. Unfortunately, it is more often subtle and indirect, for example, when a supervisor suggests that an instructor needs to “improve student performance” after noting a paucity of students receiving “A”s in her class. For an instructor without tenure, also known as contingent faculty, this can be all the intimidation that is necessary to essentially force her to give students higher grades that, in her professional judgment, they do not deserve.  The instructor is well aware that her supervisor can easily justify dismissing her based on the poor evaluations she is, no doubt, receiving from disgruntled students – who are not getting the grades they want, but the grades they deserve.

Student Learning Outcomes: Another Silver Bullet?

mortarboard_

Everything that can be
counted does not necessarily
count; everything that counts
cannot necessarily be counted.

-Albert Einstein

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When I was in the tenth grade in high school, during the Cold War era, my civics class was having a teacher-moderated discussion about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The question, from what I can remember, was whether the U.S. should increase its number of nuclear warheads. I was silent during the discussion, as is customary for an introvert like me, so when the teacher called on me to express my opinion, I said what was on my mind at that moment – I said the issue was moot since once either side began a nuclear war, so many nuclear explosions would occur that life as we know it on this planet would be over. Well, that comment sank faster than a proverbial lead balloon. No one wanted to contemplate the real consequences of what they were talking about, and I had just burst their bubble. So, the teacher ruled my comment irrelevant and continued the discussion as if I had never said a word.

You would think I would have learned the real lesson from that class period – that one should never point out to others that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. But I am also stubborn by nature, and so I will say in the remainder of this essay what many people in the education industry probably don’t want to hear, much less agree with.

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It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

-Albert Einstein

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The latest buzzword in academia, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, is “Student Learning Outcomes”, or SLOs for short. Proponents claim that they improve student performance, but like most “reforms” that come and go in the education industry, there is no evidence to support this assertion. As Thomas C. Hunt has written in an essay entitled “Education Reforms: Lessons from History” and published in Phi Delta Kappan (September, 2005):

The history of American education is replete with examples of supposed panaceas. Taking the shape of “reforms,” these well-meaning efforts — often worthy in themselves — have dotted the educational landscape since the time of Horace Mann in the 1830s and 1840s. For example, the common school itself would remove all crime and poverty from American society. Mann described it as the “greatest invention ever made by man.” The devotional reading of the Bible in schools would result in a virtuous America. Texts such as the McGuffey readers would unfailingly instill the “right character” in the students. The public school of the early 20th century would make good, loyal Americans out of the children of the immigrants who were then arriving in large numbers. In the mid-20th century, the “Life Adjustment” curriculum would prepare all American youths for satisfying lives as individuals, family members, and citizens. The infusion of funds into the science and math curricula by the National Defense Education Act would help the U.S. “catch up” with the Soviets in the post-Sputnik era, instill needed academic rigor in the secondary school curriculum, and fittingly challenge our “gifted” students.

Potential panaceas grew in number as the 20th century progressed. We were greeted with open education, which would educate the young “naturally.” Schools would play a central role in the War on Poverty. Accountability, especially in the guise of performance contracting, would make the schools accountable to their constituents. Behavioral objectives would serve as an infallible means of achieving the goals of effective teaching and learning. Such pedagogical movements as modular scheduling would provide the proper organizational pattern for the curriculum. Site-based management would remove the educational problems created by large size.

Mr. Hunt cautions that “only when we see history as a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow that influences the present and are willing to learn from it will we avoid being victimized by the latest ‘silver bullet.'” For example, in terms of secondary schools in the United States, the public education profession has been guided for nearly a century by the belief that the difficult task of teaching a wide range of students to use their minds well isn’t really necessary; this implies that most students are better served by being taught to use their hands rather than their heads. This long-standing and deeply seated anti-intellectualism in public education, from its turn-of-the-century origins to the “life-adjustment” movement of the 1940s and 1950s and the neo-progressivism of the 1960s and early 1970s, has been well documented by David Cohen in The Shopping Mall High School (1985), by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Lawrence Cremin in The Transformation of the School (1964) and Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and by Diane Ravitch in The Troubled Crusade (1983) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000). Such history brings today’s “standards movement” into much sharper focus. It’s one thing for state and federal policymakers to impose demanding new academic standards on public schools; it’s another to realize that public school systems were never organized to deliver a serious academic education to more than a fraction of their students. Most school leaders didn’t think they should teach serious academics universally, nor did they have enough highly-trained teachers to do the job. I will come back to anti-intellectualism in a few moments.

Another impetus for SLOs could be the additional revenue for the publishing industry that sells stuff about it (the training handbooks alone run 50-70 pages) and for the testing agencies that sell the standardized exit exams. And even if the assessments are flawed and meaningless, at least they produce what the government likes best: numbers.

Politicians and administrators often make another claim about SLOs, namely, that they are driven by issues of cost and affordability – “the public will be asking more critically than in the past, ‘What are we getting for our money?'” However, in my years of teaching at the college level, I cannot remember one time that any student or parent asked, “Can you demonstrate learning outcomes?” or “What am I getting for my money?” Exactly who is the “public” in all these discussions about the “public” wants to know?  Furthermore, proponents of SLOs don’t realize that higher education does not merely equate to acquiring new information. It involves growth, critical thinking, values definition, and applying what you learn, among other things. By saying that what we provide in higher education is equal to reading a stack of books is insulting. Higher education is just as much, if not more, about the experience as it is about earning a degree.

But there are important negative consequences of SLOs. Let me quote David Clemens, professor of English at Monterey Peninsula Community College here in California:

That SLOs are about “student learning” is the first, and biggest, lie. There is no objective evidence that SLOs have any positive effect on learning at all, although there is evidence that they negatively affect learning because they encourage dumbing down and teaching to the test….

A few years ago, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, (WASC), adopted SLOs as a totalizing basis for accreditation and in a single stroke made fundamental changes in the definition of what we do and the way we do it.

For years we had been assured that “Assessment rubrics and student learning outcomes are just data collection and will never be used for teacher evaluation.” In fact, expected outcomes and assessment schemes are perfectly suited for use on teacher evaluation forms and already have been. But anyone who actually teaches knows that the most important factor in education is the student. The greatest effects on student learning are the individual student’s knowledge of subject, self motivation, language proficiency, disposition, parental support, social skills, talent, physical and mental health, preparation, cultural background, religious beliefs, political persuasion, commitment, desire, determination, level of cognitive growth, age, and work ethic. Student learning outcomes are silent on all these factors.

Yet as of last year [2007], SLOs are already a component of teacher evaluation. WASC Accreditation Standard III: Resources [part 1c] reads:

“Faculty and others directly responsible for student progress toward achieving stated student learning outcomes have, as a component of their evaluation, effectiveness in producing those learning outcomes.”

…Because student attainment of stated SLOs will affect teacher evaluation, SLOs actually create downward pressure on curricular standards. If I am to be judged by my students’ achievement on outcomes tests and SLO guarantees, I will spend my class time on the most testable and achievable SLOs so as to insure “student success” on the exit test. The next step involves the current buzzword: “alignment.” Certainly, if the English 1A SLOs at one college are producing a higher metric of “student success” than other schools, the logic of SLOs is to identify such “best practices” and create statewide alignment of them. Voila! One hundred nine schools, one curriculum, one set of outcomes, one exit test, and one set of textbooks.

Another common but egregious lie is that learning outcomes do not compromise academic freedom. On the contrary, SLOs are the greatest danger to academic freedom in my professional lifetime. The fact that WASC’s definition of SLOs mentions “attitudes” I find chilling. The heart of academic freedom is the conviction that both education and community suffer when teachers are forced to embrace a single viewpoint. To the contrary, our highest courts have held that society benefits when students are exposed to various academically legitimate yet contradictory ideas.

One of the key strategies of coercion employed by SLO zealots is that it’s all one big conversation and in the end we all agree. This is another lie intended to produce the appearance of consensus. I believe that it is vital to dispel this illusion. The word from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to WASC is “SLOs or we will kill you and replace you with a federal bureaucracy.” [emphasis added]

The last paragraph is most provocative. Could the real reason politicians are pushing SLOs is because they want to just look like they’re doing something to improve student performance? From their point of view, it’s better to hold the teachers accountable (read: blame the teachers) than the students and their families, since there are more voters among the latter and the latter don’t want responsibility for student performance, anyway. Of course, there are also other forces at work here, including the ever-present financial motive for anyone who has something to gain from a new education fad. Obviously, the accreditors have families to support, so they have got to get with the program if they want to keep their jobs.

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The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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So, if incompetent teachers are not to blame, why is student performance so poor in high schools and colleges?  Paul Trout, who taught English at Montana State University at Bozeman, suggested in 1997 – over ten years ago – that student anti-intellectualism and the consequent corporatization of education is to blame:

Increasingly, career-minded students see college – or at least required courses – as an imposition between high school and the good life, an obstacle to be gotten over as soon as possible, just like high school was….

To attract and reassure such students, colleges and universities are wont to talk about them as being consumers of higher education. This notion implies, of course, that the desires of the customer reign supreme (“consumer sovereignty”), that the customer should be easily and completely satisfied, and that the customer should try to get as much as possible while paying as little as possible. When this consumer model is applied to higher education, it has disastrous effects on academic standards and student motivation.

The consumer model implies, for instance, that university “services” – among them, courses – should be shaped to satisfy student tastes, and that students can use or waste these services as they see fit. When students think of themselves as consumers, they study only when it is convenient (like shopping), expect satisfaction with little effort, want knowledge served up in “easily digestible, bite-sized chunks,” and assume that academic success, including graduation, is guaranteed. After all, failure – or consumer dissatisfaction – is “ruled out upon payment of one’s tuition”.

When taken to its logical conclusion, as many students do, the consumer model implies that students buy grades by paying for them through learning. Students who subscribe to this notion try to be consumers by paying – that is learning – as little as possible. A few carry it even further, and believe that whenever they learn something they have actually lost in the exchange.

Needless to say, instructors who try to teach students more than the students have bargained for are going to run into trouble…

The situation has only gotten worse in the last twelve years. Much worse.

[If you happen to be one of my students, and you’re offended by what Trout wrote, then chances are you aren’t one of the students he’s complaining about. Besides, I doubt an anti-intellectual student would bother reading my blog – after all, it won’t be on the test.]

The Corporatization of Higher Education

MortarboardYou think the corporatization (a.k.a. business model or consumer model) of education is a myth cooked up by “elite” intellectuals in order to justify the resurrection of tenure in academia?  Well, something can’t end that hasn’t started.  Daniel J. Ennis, professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, opines that the end of the business model is at hand. In fact, he misses it! He writes, in part:

It has been months since somebody told me that “a university must run like a business.”

I’m alarmed to think that the era of the Business Simile is over.

I think I speak for many liberal arts types when I say how scary it is to lose that surety, that hard mooring in the results-oriented world, that comforting discipline of being told from across the conference-room table that the market imperatives must be paid heed, that we in the academy merely deliver a product to our clients, and that the efficiencies of the private sector can and must be brought to bear on the out-of-touch ivory tower. See, I liked that. There was a bracing firmness in such announcements. On the one hand, it fed my craving for intellectual loftiness — to be on the receiving end of such pronouncements allowed me to position myself as a defender of the faith, as true educator unsullied by a preoccupation with filthy lucre. On the other hand, I was secretly reassured when I heard that the important decisions — how to find the money, how to spend the money — were in the hands of realistic, highly-qualified, private-sector types who knew how the world worked. I wanted them on that wall. I needed them on that wall….

So I confess that I liked being told that the university must be run like a business. After all, it left me time to think abstractly about big ideas (and picturesquely, I might add, leather-bound books at hand, maybe wearing a scarf). It allowed me to scoff at the bean counters even as I consumed the revenue they wrung from the institution. I came to depend on the kindness of those strangers who understood accounting and statistics, core competencies and market niches. Who better to protect me from the real world than the agents of the real world?

Dennis muses that the current economic meltdown has undercut the business model (or business simile, as he refers to it) in education:

But now the “university like a business” simile has been undercut by, well, the real world. Some of the most prominent companies in the United States are starting to resemble universities. They receive massive government aid, suffer from significant new government oversight, cling to inefficient fiscal models, and are buffeted by a howling public who sees tax dollars being thrown down the hole without concomitant results…

As long as “business” represented competence and “university” represented inefficiency, then the Business Simile was able to win many an argument. But similes die, and they die when their referents stop making sense. Hardly anybody says “in like Flynn” anymore because very few people remember who Errol Flynn was, much less that he was associated with skillful swordplay and copulation. Who says “like clockwork” anymore? Only those who remember what clockwork was, or those who use the simile as a nostalgic gesture.

I hope Professor Ennis is right. His essay is well worth reading at Inside Higher Ed.

Did you know…

(For the benefit of my students – past, present, and future – and all administrators)

  • MortarboardThat instructors in higher (post-secondary) education have something called “academic freedom“?  That this applies to full-time, part-time, temporary, contingent, tenured, and non-tenured faculty? The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, jointly written by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, recognized that “teachers,” whether tenured or not, “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” More recently, judges and juries have recognized that right, too.
  • That academic freedom in higher education includes the right (and responsibility) of an instructor to challenge students – meaning, to expect more of students than they expect of themselves?
  • That academic freedom in higher education includes the right (and responsibility) of an instructor to grade according to professional standards – meaning, to give students the grades they deserve, not the grades they want?
  • That in higher education the students’ grades are a measure of their performance, and not a measure of the instructor’s ability to teach – meaning, that if the student gets an “A”, the student gets the credit and if the student gets an “F”, the instructor does not get the blame?
  • That attending an institution of higher learning is a privilege, and not a right?

Think about it…

Tenure and Honest Grading – a Connection?

Scales of Justice

Finally.  A judge ruled last week in Colorado that not only is tenure a good thing for the professors who enjoy it, it is valuable to the public! Further, the court ruled that the value (to the public) of tenure outweighed the value of giving colleges flexibility in hiring and dismissing. That is a principle that faculty members say is very important and makes this case about much more than the specific issues at play.

The ruling came in a long legal battle over rules changes imposed by the board of Metropolitan State College of Denver on its faculty members in 2003. While noting “countervailing public interests” in the case, Judge Norman D. Haglund wrote that “the public interest is advanced more by tenure systems that favor academic freedom over tenure systems that favor flexibility in hiring or firing.” The ruling added that “by its very nature, tenure promotes a system in which academic freedom is protected” and that “a tenure system that allows flexibility in firing is oxymoronic.”

AAUP banner

In a related development, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)  voted on June 13 to censure Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, because it had terminated Maureen Watson after 12 years of work as a non-tenure track faculty member, with one day of notice — even though she had earned consistently good reviews. The AAUP faulted Nicholls State for not providing due process appropriate for someone with that much of a work history at the university, and for not even acknowledging Watson’s right to know why her teaching career was being ended. The association also noted plausible evidence — not refuted by the university — that Watson lost her job because her rigorous grading was resulting in too many students receiving low or failing grades in her mathematics courses.

The AAUP report stated:

The Nicholls administration’s efforts to reduce failing grades seem to have been detrimental to the climate for academic freedom by causing faculty members in affected departments to believe that they did not have the right to assign grades based on their own knowledge and judgment. Ms. Watson exercised her own academic freedom by grading as she saw fit, despite the administration’s pressure for a reduction in failing grades. Her dismissal, if the investigating committee’s conclusion on the matter stands unrebutted by the administration, was therefore in violation of her academic freedom. The investigating committee commends her determination to grade according to her best professional assessment of the merits of student performance…

No plausible reason for the administration’s dismissal of Ms. Watson can be ascertained other than its displeasure with her having assigned a large percentage of failing grades to her students in college algebra. Dismissing her for that reason, assuming the reason remains unrebutted, violated her academic freedom. Her insistence on grading in accordance with her best professional judgment of a student’s academic performance warranted not dismissal but commendation.

Ernst Benjamin, former interim general secretary of the AAUP, said that the case was important both because of Watson’s adjunct status and because of what the issues say about academic freedom. While people associate academic freedom with controversial research or teaching topics, Benjamin noted that for “most faculty, the ability to maintain professional standards” through honest grades is of great importance to their academic freedom.

The Deceitful Ben Stein

As noted at the Free Exchange on Campus website, it’s tempting to ignore Ben Stein’s so-called documentary entitled Expelled!, an anti-science film that is based on smears and innuendos rather than actual, real science. However, the film is helping to drive “academic freedom” bills in Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri that grant K-12 science teachers the “freedom” to teach “alternatives” to evolutionary theory (missing out on the fact that there is nothing “academic” about these alternatives). No doubt, Ben Stein feels the same way Martin Luther (1483-1546) did about telling falsehoods for God:

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.

(Cited by Luther’s secretary, in a letter in Max Lenz, ed., Briefwechsel Landgraf Phillips des Grossmüthigen von Hessen mit Bucer, vol. I.) To find out more about Expelled!, check out this blog and this webpage about the film.  Also, the magazine Scientific American has extensive commentary here.