The last two issues of The Montana Professor gave extensive space to papers on academic freedom from the MSU-Northern conference. Academic freedom, unfortunately for true believers, is not a constitutional guarantee. The freedoms available to professors come partly through the largess of tacit or express permission from those who control the university, including the Board of Regents and the legislature. Academic freedom exists according to the rules of the game, and the rules may be changed according to the winds of politics or administrative necessity.
There's also another part of the story not addressed by this journal's contributors. Academic freedom depends to a great degree on those in the academy who promote its cause. Unfortunately, too often the notion of academic freedom means whatever the individual professor wants it to mean, and to hell with anybody else--administrators, colleagues, tuition-paying students, the tax paying public.
The Board of Regents will pay lip service to academic freedom as long as it doesn't cause discomfort or threaten the budget. Whether the board will go to the wall to defend the issue has yet to be really tested in the recent years. The handwriting at 2500 Broadway, however, is that academic freedom will be compromised by future accommodation to the information superhighway: lifetime professors will be dumped in favor of video-technology. Already the totally-bogus idea that "distance learning" will reach some huge, unscrubbed audience eager for knowledge but unable to make it to the campus is actively being promoted. And the profs who crave brownie-points or attention will eagerly line up to profess on camera. But so far there's a lot more "distance" than "learning" in this sweetheart deal with the electronics industry.
Will the Montana professors themselves go to the wall to protect the idea that teaching depends more on face-to-face contact with students than it does to simply giving out facts by Intel and the Internet? Not a chance. Jobs are scarce and even the most die-hard academic freedom fighter will be hard-pressed to rock the cradle of security. The administrators will call the tune, and all but a few of the most severely-demented check-cashers will dance to necessity's piper. If it means compromising on personal standards and beliefs, that's the price we pay for our freedom to meet the car payment.
The former Commissioner of Higher Education stated with approval from the Board of Regents that Montana's future university system would include fewer tenured professors and more support staff. Implied in his utopian scheme: more adjunct faculty, fewer folks on full-time salaries. Kelly Girl professors on a McDonald's work schedule. But, "What, me worry?" Nobody seems to be complaining. In Montana students don't protest and the faculty doesn't raise a ruckus. Call it Big Sky Individualism.
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