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Redefining Academic Freedom

April 2, 2007

The modern concept of academic freedom is built around the idea – from 19th century German universities -- of Lehrfreiheit -- or freedom to teach. Broadly defined, it was intended to protect the right of professors, in their teaching and research, to follow their ideas wherever they led them. In the United States, this idea led to the founding of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, and the organization's statement on principles of academic freedom, which was designed to protect professors from political firings and to assure their meaningful role in the governance of colleges.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 160,000 faculty members, academic employees and graduate students in the United States, wants to restate the values of academic freedom -- and to make them more relevant to the realities of academic life in the 21st century. There’s not much if anything in the original document that the AFT objects to. But in discussions this weekend in Portland, Ore., at the AFT’s annual meeting of higher education union leaders, and in a draft of a new statement on academic freedom distributed at the meeting, the AFT is acknowledging that relying on the tenure system to protect professors’ academic freedom doesn’t work when more and more faculty members don’t have, and may never have, tenure.

“The greatest threat to academic freedom today is the subtle removal of many faculty positions from the tenure track and from engagement with institutional power through shared governance structures like faculty senates,” says a background paper the AFT produced to explain the idea of drafting a new statement of principles on academic freedom. “The mechanisms of tenure (or similar protections against arbitrary treatment), peer review and shared governance are vital to the maintenance of academic freedom.”

In the draft statement and in sessions for program participants, the AFT was operating on dual tracks. There was plenty of discussion of the importance of creating more tenure-track positions, and plenty of strong rhetoric attacking administrators who like the flexibility and savings institutions may achieve with a large adjunct teaching pool.

But much of the emphasis was on getting more rights for people who are not on the tenure track. The draft statement on academic freedom repeatedly refers to “all” faculty members and states explicitly areas in which non-tenure-track faculty members should have full participation in decision making. Packed rooms of union leaders were briefed on contracts for adjuncts that have won non-tenure track faculty members “continuous employment status” (not identical to tenure, but much closer to tenure than the typical semester-to-semester employment status of a typical adjunct). And discussion of the AFT’s Faculty and College Excellence Campaign -- which seeks to add more tenure-track positions and also to improve the working conditions of adjuncts -- always included mention of both of those goals. (The campaign, which started in a few states in the fall,  has now led to legislation being introduced in 10 states, officials said.)

Joe Berry, chair of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, said that with so many professors working off the tenure track, it can be “a little scary and degrading” to admit how little protection most of them have. But it’s time, he said, to make the link between academic freedom and tenure status explicit. “There is no real job security for people without job security,” he said.

The draft policy on academic freedom of the AFT says that non-tenure track faculty members should have:

  • Identical freedom to that of tenured faculty members with regard for what they teach or study.
  • Participation in selecting instructional materials, defining course content and determining grades. (The statement calls for such decisions to typically rest with a faculty member teaching a particular course, but in cases where a committee of professors makes a decision for a course with many sections, “the principle of participation in such decisions should not be withheld from any faculty members.”
  • Full participation in college governance, including eligibility to serve on various committees on a range of topics.
  • Full intellectual property rights for materials that they develop.

Much of the draft document is similar in substance to the AAUP and other statements on academic freedom, talking about the importance of protection academe from political intrusion, the value of allowing professors to espouse unpopular views, and the importance of freedom of thought in the classroom.

But the AFT's draft statement makes the treatment of non-tenure-track professors much more central to these questions.

The draft notes that “the protections and rigorous evaluations of the tenure system” have historically been crucial for academic freedom. “For contingent faculty (full-time as well as part-time/adjunct), either the tenure system has to be adapted or a similar set of protections has to be put in place,” the report says. “These freedoms are, of course, not absolute, but are grounded in the mutual social contract among educators, administrators and society -- past, present and future. This social contract must confer special authority and responsibility to faculty and academic staff as critical and independent thinkers who collectively set the standards by which knowledge and evidence are evaluated. Although contingent faculty were historically excluded from this mutual social contract, they must become an explicit party to it.”

On the topic of “a similar set of protections,” there was considerable interest in contract provisions that would seek to do this.

“I do not think tenure is the answer for most contingent faculty members,” said Elaine Bobrove, president of the Camden County College Adjuncts Faculty Federation. “For most of us, it isn’t going to happen.”

Bobrove encouraged fellow adjuncts to push for more involvement in college governance, to volunteer to serve on committees, to seek to have peer review used in evaluating part-timers, and to look for “other methods of job security” besides tenure.

When Roberta Elins, vice president of the United College Employees of the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York reviewed all the rights non-tenure-track faculty members there can earn (seniority, layoff protection, full participation in governance), one union leader in the audience said that FIT “sounded like paradise.” Elins noted that FIT was particularly receptive to helping non-tenure track faculty members because of the institute’s historic ties to the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. But she and others stressed the possibility of gaining real protections for professors off the tenure track.

The lecturers in the University of California system are currently enjoying the results of a 2003 contract that created the status of continuing employment. Lecturers go through what Karen Sawislak, executive director of University of California AFT, called a “tenure review for teaching” to earn the status. After five years of work as a lecturer, a department is asked to certify that there will be a continuing need for someone to teach the courses the lecturer is handling. This isn’t typically hard to obtain, Sawislak said, because those tend to be courses that tenure-track faculty members don’t want to teach.

Once need is certified, lecturers go through an “excellence review,” in which their teaching is evaluated, a department makes a recommendation, and the candidate moves up through the hierarchy and, if successful, is granted continuous employment status. This makes the person entitled to a better salary scale with regular reviews for merit raises, a longer notice period on whether courses will be offered for the person to teach, layoff protection, “bumping rights” for teaching courses taught by those with less seniority, and due process procedures in the case of any push for dismissal.

Because lecturers were given credit for time already worked when the contract took effect, Sawislak said that people are already coming up for these reviews, with 30 to 40 people a year going through the process “and most of them are getting it,” she said.

Sawislak said that a major focus of this effort was obviously to help the individuals receiving this designation. But she said that creating this status also served a broader purpose: showing the entire university that lecturers are long-term faculty members and are thus entitled to meaningful participation in university life, not just the right to teach freshmen. “This is an effort to change the culture of the university,” she said.

While the emphasis on getting more rights for non-tenure track faculty members was generally applauded at the meeting, there were sometimes tensions evident over how to balance the sometimes conflicting rights of faculty members with different status in higher education. For instance, Sawislak acknowledged in response to a question that her union members still wouldn’t earn nearly as much as tenure-track faculty members at the university.

And at one session, an adjunct faculty member said that professors themselves share responsibility for the treatment of adjuncts. He said that to really deal with these issues, professors needed to confront the “surplus issue,” and rethink graduate school admissions. Law schools and the legal profession don’t let the market for lawyers get flooded, he said, but professors keep letting more people into Ph.D. programs than there are jobs, he said.

Others in the audience disputed this view, saying that if states appropriated funded universities, there would be plenty of jobs -- and that the problem is lack of sufficient funds, not too many Ph.D.’s.

But this adjunct held his ground, with several in the audience nodding in agreement as he said that “it’s easy for administrators” to keep adjunct wages and benefits low “when we keep flooding the market.”

Still, there was an upbeat mood among many about the prospect of using contracts to improve the situation of those off the tenure track, rather than just lamenting the lack of tenure-track jobs. At the session where the FIT and California contracts were reviewed, a show of hands in the audience found only a few who had similar provisions in their contracts, but a room full of raised hands when asked if they were attending to learn how to get contracts like those.

 

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