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Dispatches on academic freedom

Students and the freedom to learn

What ever happened to students’ academic freedom?


When we talk about academic freedom, we usually think about academic staff, not students, but that wasn’t always the case.

Our contemporary conception of academic freedom was the product of Prussian university reforms in the early 19th century. As part of those reforms, academic freedom was enshrined as the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn. That is, the first modern expression of academic freedom extended that freedom to both professors and students.

A century later in Argentina, it was students, not professors, who forced the Córdoba Reforms, which established universities’ independence from the state. Those reforms swept Latin America. As a consequence, Latin American conceptions of academic freedom still tend to include students. As well, there are several European bills of student rights, and in 1968 the American Association of University Professors worked with various national student and professional associations to issue a “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students,” all of which assert students’ freedom to learn.

Given this history, why don’t we generally associate students with academic freedom? I think that a big part of it is that, at least in Canada, since academic freedom protections are enshrined in collective agreements, we tend to think about academic freedom as a negotiated employment benefit. Certainly, faculty unions have been and will continue to be crucial to defending academic freedom. However, I would suggest that academic freedom is expressed in collective agreement provisions but is not constituted by them.

Put differently, academic freedom is an important principle that ought to be defended by all who value universities. The main way that principle is defended is via collective agreements. But the principle is important, quite apart from collective agreement language.

The parallel that I am drawing here between academic freedom as a principle and academic freedom as an employment benefit is a bit like the parallel between moral norms and criminal law. Murder isn’t wrong because it’s against the law. Rather, it’s against the law because it’s wrong. Similarly, academic freedom isn’t important because it is enshrined in collective agreements. Rather, it is enshrined in collective agreements because it’s important.

Still, since collective agreements are the best protection we have for academic freedom, and since most fights to defend academic freedom take the form of union grievances, it’s easy to forget that professors aren’t the only academics, and hence aren’t the only bearers of academic freedom.

I believe that all university (and, in some cases, university-adjacent) personnel engaged in the academic mission ought to have academic freedom – as a matter of principle, if not as a negotiated benefit. Since students are personnel who are engaged in the academic mission, students ought to have academic freedom.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that students and profs have, or ought to have, the same kind or degree of academic freedom. I’ll talk about that in greater detail in a future column. For now, let me say that academic freedom is not one freedom, but a cluster of freedoms – things like the freedom to teach, to learn, to decide on which research questions to inquire into and what methods to use in that inquiry, to engage in extramural communication, and to criticize the university itself. Which of each of these subsidiary freedoms an academic has and how much of it they have depends on their level of expertise and their institutional role.

Most undergraduate students do not have, and ought not to have, the freedom to teach or full freedom to decide on research methods. (As students work their way through grad school, they start to acquire those freedoms.) However, students have and ought to have the freedom to learn, freedom in extramural communication, and freedom to criticize the university.

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

The freedom to learn combines student choice (within reason) in what to learn and how to learn. A student gets to choose their own major, so long as they meet the admission standards for that major. And a student ought to have some choice in modes of instruction, assignment topics and so forth. That said, much hangs on the “within reason.” Some academic programs, for appropriate scholarly reasons, have highly regimented program requirements. (I’m looking at you, engineering.) No one can or should force a student to major in such a program, but the professors who run the program have the right and indeed the duty to design the curriculum in accordance with scholarly and professional standards. With respect to “how to learn,” a student shouldn’t be forced to argue for a particular position in a philosophy paper, but neither can they insist that they ought to be able to complete a philosophy course without any writing argumentative essays at all. So, the freedom to learn is the academic freedom that is proper to students in particular, but it is not unlimited.

By contrast, students’ freedom to engage in extramural expression and to criticize the university ought to be very robust. It is a hallmark of university education that idealistic students gather in the quad to raise their voices and their picket signs about matters of principle. Sometimes, the quad spills over into the town square. Increasingly, that “town square” is actually Reddit or Facebook. In 2017, Dalhousie University sought to discipline student leader Masuma Khan for a Facebook post. After a national media kerfuffle, they ended up withdrawing their case and apologizing to Ms. Khan.

Sometimes, the matters of principle students raise concern about something the university has (in their view) done wrong. Students used to raise those concerns in Senate meetings, and in sit-ins in the president’s office. These days, Twitter and are often their preferred platforms. In recent months, some online student campaigns of this type have included online petitions opposing the use of e-proctoring software and demanding that disciplinary action be taken against professors who use the “n-word” (See here and here.).

One of the challenges for universities in such cases is that students’ critiques of the university can quickly go viral, both prompting negative media attention and garnering support from non-students, including people who have no affiliation to the university. Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, universities sometimes react to such campaigns too quickly and with the wrong principles in mind. In one of the “n-word” cases linked above, a university spokesperson sought to quell the criticism by affirming that there is never any reason to utter the “n-word” in class. Quite appropriately, this prompted a second round of complaints – this time from Black faculty who use the word in their own teaching and research, and who objected to the chilling effect of the university’s statement on their scholarship.

Cases like this provide an important reminder that the academic mission of the university must be front and centre in its communications with the public and the media. It is important to take student critique seriously, but taking student critique seriously means respecting and learning from students’ perspective on their learning and their role in the institution. This is first and foremost an academic matter, not a public relations one.

It is worth noting too that both of the examples of student critique I provided are students asserting their freedom to learn, and in particular their freedom to choose what and how they learn. Sometimes, those freedoms clash with the scholarly choices their professors make. Some professors choose to use e-proctoring software because they regard that software as a useful tool to protect academic integrity. Some professors choose to utter slurs in class for considered scholarly reasons. Thus, while the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn are two aspects of academic freedom, they can be in tension with each other.

This is a feature, not a bug, of academic freedom. If we all agreed about everything, we would not need academic freedom protections because no one would ever try to suppress a colleague’s or a student’s view. We require academic freedom – both the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn – because that freedom permits us to engage in honest, vigourous disagreement as, in our myriad ways, we try to seek truth and advance understanding.

However, it is even more complicated than that, since academic freedom is just one of the core values that animate universities. These values too can clash. Again, this comes out in the “n-word” case, which is a clash not only of different personnel’s academic freedom, but also marks a tension between academic freedom on the one hand and the animating values of social responsibility and equitable access to education.

There is no easy way to negotiate these tensions. They are complicated, deep and difficult. But taking students’ freedom to learn – and students’ perspectives on their learning – seriously when we encounter such tensions supports universities’ accountability and students’ scholarship, agency and leadership.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Stuart Chambers / October 30, 2020 at 12:00

    And we all know that students will seek dialogue and be “reasonable,” and not dictatorial, as this example shows:

  2. John Osborne / November 4, 2020 at 13:50

    What a thoughtful piece! I agree completely, but fear that this issue will dominate academic discourse over the next decade. We must be prepared to fight very hard in support of this vital principle. To say that some subjects or word usages are forbidden, regardless of their context, is simply unacceptable in a university. Yes, we must be careful in our choices, and justify them where and when required, but in the end the choice must remain ours, and not be dictated by others, and especially by administrators or politicians. Universities have a unique position in society as a safe place for freedom of expression, and if should ever lose that, then our value in and to society will be much diminished. In the early modern era many were deeply offended by those who claimed that the earth revolved around the sun, and some who expressed that belief paid with their lives. But time has proven them correct. Anyone who claims today to have an absolute ownership of “truth” deludes themselves.

  3. stuart chambers / November 5, 2020 at 08:05

    John, you said it perfectly. No one owns words or truth, and context matters.

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