Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues

Richard T. DeGeorge
New York, Boulder, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997
300 pp., $23.95 pb

George M. Dennison, President
University of Montana-Missoula

This book merits close reading by all who believe that academic freedom and academic tenure perform critical functions in American society. Richard DeGeorge observes that academics rarely discuss their "ethical responsibilities...regarding academic freedom in general and in particular cases" (113). In fact, the "claim that...faculty members have responsibilities with respect to academic freedom would come as a surprise to many...who, if they give...[it] any thought, consider it a right they have that others must respect and if necessary protect" (ix). He intends with this book of analysis and selected readings to stimulate a dialogue that will rectify that failing.

In brief, DeGeorge argues that institutional autonomy provides the initial bulwark in defense of academic freedom, which "has three aspects: institutional autonomy, student freedom to learn, and faculty freedom to teach and research" (55-6). Those knowledgeable about truth and its discovery--i.e., those with "epistemic" authority--have the best claim to determine the curriculum and decide what to research. To sustain their claim, they must search for and teach the truth and extend the boundaries of knowledge (12, 59-60, 82). If truth does not exist, only opinions or preferences, then anyone may teach anywhere, since one opinion or preference will serve as well as another, and no society needs a place where truth prevails since truth has no meaning (14, 88). If those who teach abdicate their responsibility to search for truth and new knowledge, they forfeit their protected positions, since a free society has no need for them as employees indulging their preferences (10, 40-1). Viewed from this perspective, "The core justification of academic freedom is the attainment of truth for the benefit of the society," not the exclusive privilege of students and faculty (3, 12). Universities that shirk the societal responsibility to pursue and teach truth and new knowledge have no claim to autonomy.

DeGeorge discusses academic freedom as a responsibility, not a right. "It is not attained but exercised," and only then "does it make sense" (84). In his view, institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and academic tenure "are justifiable[,] providing...they are construed as carrying with them certain responsibilities, and their justification is contingent on these responsibilities being met" (8). Institutional autonomy alone cannot assure academic freedom, which depends upon academic tenure for support as well (67). Academic tenure protects the faculty members who have to pursue truth free from external as well as internal interference. External groups or agencies cannot intervene to protect academic freedom without infringing institutional autonomy, thereby further jeopardizing academic freedom. Governing boards and other such agencies have the responsibility to protect the university from external threats, leaving the university to govern its internal affairs so long as it stands accountable for fulfillment of its mission (65-7, 106). But who assures internal accountability? I will return to that question later.

It follows from these arguments that academic tenure relates directly "to academic freedom" and the "academic function of faculty members" (4, 8). While he concedes that academic tenure offers some economic security as an inducement to talented people to pursue academic careers, DeGeorge repudiates the popular view of academic tenure as "primarily a financial issue" (8, 17-27). As he sees it, "Academic tenure is the best means our society has devised to secure and preserve academic freedom" (9). Put another way, academic "tenure means that one cannot be discharged for what one teaches or professes" (39). It loses "its central meaning" if internal or external agencies dictate "what is true" and "what may be taught or published." Under such conditions, "What is provided is job security. But this is not academic tenure, since it is precisely for one's work in an academic area that one is most likely to lose one's position" (10).

The internal accountability for academic freedom is the responsibility of the faculty. As he says, faculty members exercise rather than attain academic freedom, and they validate their claim to academic tenure in support of academic freedom only so long as they fulfill their responsibilities "to keep up in their field[s], teach, carry on research, and publish to the extent expected by their institution[s], pursue the truth and...defend academic freedom in their own and other institutions as well" (40-1). To this list, DeGeorge adds involvement in university governance (81-2, 86). Unless faculty members participate in governance, they cannot defend academic freedom. Since they possess epistemic authority by virtue of their knowledge and expertise, they must exert a strong, if not dominant, influence over curriculum, course content, degree requirements, and admissions standards, and guard the freedom of faculty and students to pursue the truth in their studies and research. "The university is properly autonomous in the areas in which knowledge is appropriate and decisive," and the faculty must protect that autonomy (60). He relegates all other areas, such as "the functioning of the plant and the operation of the institution, [where] knowledge is typically not decisive," to the President, the Deans, and even external agencies that exercise "executive" authority (59-60). However, faculty members must also have some involvement in strictly management decisions so as to prevent intrusions into the academic domain (82). DeGeorge outlines a consultative or advisory role, with formal processes for grievances as the usual arrangement, emphasizing faculty involvement (81-2, 86).

Because of this division of power and separation of roles, a university can remain fully accountable to external authorities while also preserving its autonomy and thus academic freedom. In fulfilling their responsibilities, administrators and faculty must resist any external effort to intervene in epistemic decisions. But they must also stand fully accountable for their attention to academic matters and for responsible management, developing and implementing standards by which to judge their performance (66-7). As DeGeorge notes, "academic not only compatible with accountability, but...society is justified in granting...autonomy only on the condition that society holds the institution accountable" (65). However, the administration and faculty must remain alert to possible subversion of institutional autonomy by manipulation of the financial support that society provides in return for accountability (62-3). DeGeorge sees no conflict or contradiction here, so long as everyone understands the separation of power and authority, and so long as faculty members and administrators attend their responsibilities (49).

These distinctions lend credence to DeGeorge's analysis of internal relationships. In some sense, all curricular requirements "limit" the student's freedom to learn (69). Those with epistemic authority have the responsibility to exercise it in ways to assure that student learning occurs. Every requirement must rest on a careful justification that relates primarily to learning, not to faculty preferences, departmental needs, or other extraneous considerations (69-73). Academic freedom provides the protection for students to learn, but it also allows for the legitimate exercise of epistemic authority by the faculty. But who judges whether that occurs? I will discuss that question shortly.

To close the circle, DeGeorge distinguishes the academic freedom of faculty and students from the freedom of speech of all citizens (55). "Freedom of speech is a civil right," an individual right guaranteed by the Constitution (96). Because of its nature, it "does not yield autonomy for the university any more than it does for any other business or institution, nor does it acknowledge any special consideration for the pursuit of knowledge" (86). By contrast, the freedom to learn "is not a moral or human...[or] civil right." If a right at all, it is "special" and flows from the student's membership in "an institution of learning[,]...a right...appropriately limited by consideration of learning and by the comparable right of all the other members of the learning community" (73-4).

Similarly, while faculty members enjoy freedom of speech as citizens, they exercise freedom to teach and research because of academic freedom. In DeGeorge's view, "There is a difference between faculty at a university and people in other positions." Specifically, "Faculty [members] are paid precisely to profess or teach and advance knowledge" (86). No other individuals within society have those functions. Freedom of speech does not suffice to protect them because it lacks cognizance of the legitimate constraints that apply within the classroom and offers insufficient protection of the freedom to research (55, 78, 80-1, 86). As he puts the distinction, "Faculty members are not paid to express their opinions on any topic any time they wish [a right they have as citizens], but to teach and pursue research within the context of the institution. They are paid to teach courses with academic content" (80). Nevertheless, both students and faculty retain freedom of speech, " the the purpose of the class and the administrative rules that appropriately govern its conduct" (79-80). Outside the classroom, free speech prevails; inside the classroom, academic freedom takes precedence because of the academic nature of the activity.

DeGeorge acknowledges "many more appropriate restraints on the academic freedom of the faculty as teachers researchers" (78). Quite simply, faculty members have free choice of research topics, but they teach as assigned. Only the interest, competence, and diligence of the faculty member constrains the freedom to research and publish the results, if adjudged worthwhile by peers (74-5). Areas of expertise have a determining influence upon teaching assignments, with attention to the needs of the institution and some concern for preference as well. As he says, "Academic freedom does not mean that a faculty member has the right to teach anything under any course title or description" (78). It means instead that the faculty member teaching the course has the discretion to decide the most appropriate teaching techniques and materials, with due respect for the course title and description and assurance of competence as a teacher (77). Because of the epistemic authority protected by academic freedom in the classroom, the faculty member incurs "obligations and restraints...[that function as] limits on...freedom." These limits represent an "important part of academic freedom" not always recognized in practice, as he notes (78).

DeGeorge sees nothing remarkable about the use of administrative, peer, and student evaluations of faculty performance because "faculty [members] are accountable not only to students but also to their colleagues for what and how they teach" (79-80). Further, they have the responsibility to submit their research for peer review and to share the results in the pursuit of new knowledge (74-6). They can do neither teaching nor research in secret (80). Both require public arenas that are kept open by institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Nothing in the law of free speech offers the breadth and scope of protection required.

If performance evaluations reveal that faculty members "have no knowledge" or refuse "to pursue knowledge," but simply teach their biases and indulge their preferences, then the university must respond with appropriate action (14, 88). DeGeorge suggests some responses, such as differential teaching assignments because of deficiencies in research, or even termination for failure to fulfill responsibilities (30, 39-43). In addition, he endorses administrative intervention when the faculty select or refuse to sanction colleagues who ignore their responsibilities (49-50). In doing so, he recognizes that academic administrators have a role in epistemic decisions to assure academic integrity, an oversight responsibility requiring some epistemic experience and background (30, 33-4, 66-8). Nevertheless, he has much less to say about remedies for nonperformance than about ethical responsibilities and the imperative to abide them.

Undoubtedly his caution reflects his perception of the difficulty of differentiating between irresponsibility or incompetence, on the one hand, and legitimate intellectual differences, on the other (36-43, 49-51, 86-104). Thus not even the doubts about the possibility of truth raised by deconstructionists or the ongoing debates about the relevance of the canon, cause him to question the critical importance of academic freedom and academic tenure. On the contrary, as he asserts, "Academic freedom continues to make sense because...those who attack traditional meanings of knowledge and specific beliefs and evaluations do so in the name of other meanings and beliefs and evaluations" (87, 89-90). These epistemic arguments will rage and ultimately reach resolution, only to give rise to new ones (76, 90). Universities provide the venue for this process of validation or invalidation, the foundation of and justification for academic freedom and academic tenure. To seek to halt the process implies possession of the final truth, an outcome that typically manifests or engenders something other than utopian harmony. As a famous jurist once noted, it usually entails forcible conformity of opinion, which inevitably leads to "the graveyard."

In my view, however, DeGeorge does not directly resolve the central problem that he poses. As he states so aptly, "The attacks on academic tenure that carry the most weight stem from the failures of institutions and faculty to fulfill the responsibilities that the tenure process imposes" (51). His response appears to involve a restatement of responsibilities and an eloquent appeal to fulfill them. In all likelihood, he intends a more subtle solution, one that flows from the ethical obligations of professionals. Only an internalized code, revealed through conduct, has the potential to solve the problem without subverting academic freedom as DeGeorge defines it. In the words of the comic strip character, "We have met the enemy and they are us." Only we can solve the problem, if we have the will.

Space prevents me from reviewing all the arguments, definitions, and distinctions DeGeorge brings to bear, or from commenting on the selected readings. I have attempted to provide a sense of the complexity and cohesion of his analysis and its ramifications and to suggest the need for further refinements. He also discusses hate speech and the codes to control it (72-3, 94-6), the difference between education and indoctrination (94), the incompatibility of education with sexual or racial harassment or discrimination (93, 96), and the differences between a university and a "virtual university," denying legitimacy to the latter because it does not have the development of knowledge as a goal (49, 107-10). He argues as well that the drift toward reliance upon temporary or part-time faculty reflects a lack of understanding of the intimate nexus between academic freedom and academic tenure, or latent hostility toward them (45-9). Whether we agree, each of these arguments demands our attention. In my view, Academic Freedom and Tenure deserves serious consideration by everyone within or associated with the academy specifically because the author so eloquently poses rather than solves the problem we must confront.

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