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Dispatches on academic freedom

Learning to say goodbye to academic freedom

It is an adjustment when an academic becomes a senior administrator, as they don’t have the same academic freedoms they did as professors.


By the time you read this, I will have lost most of my academic freedom.

At the time of writing, I am a tenured full professor, which is to say: I have as much academic freedom as it is possible to have. However, before this post is published, I will give up some of that academic freedom as I take up my new role as a dean of arts.

For evidence that senior administrators lack academic freedom, recall the case of Professor Robert Buckingham who in his fifth year as dean of the University of Saskatchewan’s school of public health, was fired and escorted off campus by security for publicly criticizing his university. Such treatment is almost unheard-of for rank-and-file faculty, but not so for university leaders. Senior administrators are proportionally much more likely to be fired or to resign under a cloud than faculty in general are.

It may seem counter-intuitive that a job higher up the organizational chart should come with a reduction in freedom, but it makes sense when you consider the main purpose of academic freedom and the different roles that professors and senior administrators play.

The mission of the university is to seek truth and advance understanding. Professors support that mission through their research and teaching. Academic freedom protections ensure that professors are not constrained from playing their key part in the scholarly mission of the university because of what the government, industry, religious or other organizations, the media, or the public think. Academic freedom permits professors to take chances, even controversial chances, with the goal of advancing human knowledge.

Most tenure-stream or equivalent professors are assigned to spend 80 percent of their time teaching and/or engaging in research. That’s 80 percent of their job that benefits from academic freedom. The remaining 20 percent of their job is service – things like sitting on curriculum committees, advising students and taking part in collegial governance bodies. Even that work requires academic freedom – both because these jobs require colleagues who are directed toward truth and understanding and because these jobs (and the well functioning of collegial governance) require colleagues who are willing to criticize the university, funding bodies, governments, etc. in the interest of the university’s scholarly mission. Thus, whatever part of their job a professor is doing, they need academic freedom to do it to the fullest extent possible.

[A brief caveat: as I have discussed here, here, here, here and here, precariously employed scholars in general lack robust academic freedom protections. Despite this, they do a huge amount of the teaching, research and service that happens in academia, and typically they do excellent work. When I say that scholarly work requires academic freedom, I don’t mean that colleagues without academic freedom don’t do the work excellently. Rather, I mean that they are especially vulnerable when they take the intellectual risks that are at the core of the university’s mission. It is in this sense that academic freedom is needed to do the scholarly work of teaching, research and service to the fullest extent possible.]

Now, let’s compare the function of senior administrators with the function of professors. Deans do a lot of things, but my contract highlights four in particular as of central importance: leading my faculty in accordance with the university’s strategic plan, human resource management, financial management, and developing appropriate collegial relationships in support of the policies, procedures and goals of the university.

Unlike professors who perform the scholarly mission of the university, deans work in the background managing and supporting the colleagues who are doing that front-line scholarly work. If profs are the actors, deans are the stage managers. And, as stage managers, they are also of course managers. As a prof, I have often challenged university policies. But in my new management role, part of my job will be to enforce university policies.

Deans (and other senior administrators) don’t have full academic freedom because it is important that they serve their institution first and foremost. Professors have academic freedom because – in principle at least – they should serve truth, not any particular organization.

As soon as I accepted my new position, I started to rein in my public profile in subtle ways. I changed my Twitter bio to make it less provocative; I started to share different things on social media. If I thought that a link might expose my new faculty or university to risk, I didn’t share it. Concomitantly, I started to share more links promoting the institution. None of these choices were forced; I still had full academic freedom. Still, my communication choices since the spring have increasingly been guided by prudential concern for my new institution and its members. On September 1 when I took up my new role, that prudential concern became not just my choice but my job.

You might wonder why someone like me who is passionate about academic freedom and who has often used her own academic freedom to take intellectual chances and to call out the folks in power would give it up to take on an administrative job. The short answer is: collegial governance depends on it.

Of course I don’t mean that collegial governance depends on me in particular becoming a dean. It’s not about me. Rather, collegial governance requires that the academic administration of universities is led by scholars who are themselves chosen by other scholars to take on that role.

This model is very different from the managerial approach that one finds in industry. It isn’t expected that managers of automotive companies are necessarily experts on cars. And having managed an automotive company presents no real impediment to taking a subsequent position managing a soft drink company. This is because managers in this sense are thought to specialize in managing, not in the domain being managed.

By contrast, academia is run like a trade guild. Professors are the expert craftsfolk who decide who gets admitted to their guilds, who ensure quality control and good professional conduct, and who have the power to remove members from the guild when they run seriously afoul of those standards. Just as medieval guilds were organized around certain locales, guilds of scholars are centred on particular universities. Each university has its own as-it-were guild of scholars charged with regulating matters over which those scholars are experts — which is to say, scholarly matters.

It is an important feature of Canadian collegially governed postsecondary institutions that their senior academic administrators have typically themselves “come up” through the guild system and been appointed into their roles through a collegial process. These processes vary from university to university and some search processes are more participatory and more public than others. Irrespective of these differences, the norm is that professors make up a large portion of the search committees that appoint department chairs/heads, deans, vice-presidents research and academic, and other such positions.

By contrast, many U.S. colleges are increasingly governed by external bodies that are populated not by scholars but political appointees. And increasingly, such bodies are appointing not scholars but former business executives and politicians to university leadership positions. According to the American Council on Education’s 2017 American College President Study, 15 percent of university presidents in the U.S. come from outside of academe.

If we want Canadian universities to continue to be collegially governed by scholars organized around the pursuit of truth, then it is crucial that scholars themselves are willing to assume university leadership roles. But the nature of those roles is such that the professors who assume them relinquish some of their academic freedom.

That said, they need not relinquish it forever. When professors are appointed to senior administrative positions, they typically retain positions in the professoriate and the protection of tenure. That means that while they can be fired from their administrative positions for speaking out against their employers, they cannot be fired from their faculty positions. In Professor Buckingham’s case, U of S did at first just flat out fire him, but a few days later they admitted that this was a blunder. They reinstated Professor Buckingham in his professorial position, but not in his role as dean.

Like Professor Buckingham, I assume my new role with a “shadow” position of professor in the background. But from now on, in my communications I must be cognizant that I write from the dean’s office. That won’t limit the kind of scholarship I do, but it will constrain what I have to say in public venues like University Affairs – and so it should.

So, goodbye (for now) to full academic freedom. In the coming months, I’ll share with you what I learn from the other side.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Jennifer / March 3, 2023 at 09:38

    I’m a student who is doing a paper on academic freedom right now and came across your article. Thank you for your honesty. I hope your Deanship (is that even a word) is going well.