College Ranking Metrics Should Include Academic Freedom

Isn’t academic freedom a serious enough principle, Richard Ashford, Shampa Biswas and Mohan J. Dutta ask, for its violations to be reflected in some manner in those metrics?

November 6, 2019
 
 
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Does the standing of your college or university have anything to do with the state of academic freedom on your campus? The global ascendance of the metrics industry -- which is primarily based on the collection and aggregation of data to create rankings -- has increasingly led to conditions where select performance indicators drive college and university administrators’ decisions and actions. Yet those indicators are systematically disengaged from the question of academic freedom, the foundational cornerstone of college life.

Consider a recent prominent example. In late summer 2014, the University of Illinois retracted a job contract from American studies professor Steven Salaita -- one both he and the institution had already signed -- after tweets that he posted critiquing the atrocities perpetuated by Israel in Gaza generated considerable donor pressure on the institution. As Salaita fought the university’s decision, academics throughout higher education institutions in the United States and abroad mounted a massive campaign to support him and the principle of academic freedom. Petitions circulated. The university’s decision to unhire Salaita became the cornerstone of this campaign.

Soon enough, an informal boycott of the university began. Prominent guest speakers canceled their scheduled speaking engagements, and more than 1,200 scholars said they refused to speak or lecture on the campus if asked. The start of the academic year saw protests and rancor among faculty members and students. In June 2015, the American Association of University Professors censured the university for violating the principles of shared governance, due process and academic freedom. (That censure was eventually and controversially lifted two years later in light of some measures the university took to protect academic freedom.)

That period from 2014 to 2016 should be considered a moment of crisis in the academic life of the University of Illinois, with obvious negative effects on faculty morale and student learning. Yet none of the turmoil influenced the university’s standing in the metrics widely used by many to gauge the quality of an academic institution. For instance, its position in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of Best National Universities stayed in the top 50. In fact, The University of Illinois’ place in the rankings actually improved from No. 42 in the 2015 list (this list published in 2014 when the crisis was still unfolding) to No. 41 in the 2016 list (published in 2015 when the crisis had already attracted substantial national attention).

But shouldn’t the university’s standing in the rankings have changed to reflect the above turmoil on campus and beyond about the state of academic freedom at the institution? Isn’t academic freedom a serious enough principle for its violations to be reflected in some manner in the metrics used to determine the ranking of institutions of higher education?

A Lightning Rod

With the expanding presence of social media, the question of the relationship of “extramural speech” to academic freedom has increasingly become a lightning rod on college campuses. In a number of cases, right-wing interest groups have mobilized to attack professors who’ve made controversial political statements on Facebook or Twitter, and then put pressure on administrators to respond. As a result, those professors have faced not only intense personal harassment but also disciplinary action.

For instance, posts on Facebook interrogating racist violence in America by Johnny Eric Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, and on Twitter by George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, brought successful efforts by Campus Reform and Breitbart, respectively, to discredit and impugn them. Both institutions put the professors on leave, raising serious concerns about academic freedom at those institutions.

We’ve seen similar heavy-handed action and/or significant harassment over statements and practices within the classroom, public speeches at colleges and even research publications that are deemed controversial. For example, Patricia Adler resigned from the University of Colorado at Boulder after university administrators asked her to stop delivering her lecture on prostitution in her popular sociology class on deviance because her use of role-playing as a pedagogic technique might make some students uncomfortable. Princeton University assistant professor of African American studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s criticism of President Trump’s commencement speech at Hampshire College attracted the ire of Campus Reform, generating death threats against her that led to her canceling all subsequent scheduled public talks. Campus Reform also helped generate attacks and online threats against one of University of Iowa classics professor Sarah Bond’s published essays about Greek statuary based on a racialized misreading of her work.

In all, it’s indisputable that concerns about academic freedom violations and threats to speech are proliferating across academe, with potentially chilling effects on the free exchange of ideas and debates that are the hallmark of a robust educational environment. Yet academic ranking metrics remain unresponsive to those violations.

There are other threats to the centrality of academic freedom to the educational mission, as well. Attacks on the system of tenure have contributed to the rising reliance on exploited adjunct labor in higher education, which has meant a professoriate that has far fewer protections and is much more fearful about courting controversy. The diminution of shared governance has also led to more administrative heavy-handedness in university decision making and more concern with public reputation over academic integrity. Finally, with the increasing presence and power of for-profit educational institutions, revenue streams and economic considerations may be increasingly taking precedence over truth seeking and intellectual pursuits within higher ed.

The American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure still remains the most robust defense of, and argument for, the centrality of academic freedom to the mission of higher education. The statement acknowledges the responsibilities of academics to not introduce gratuitous incendiary material into the classroom, as well as their obligations to exercise requisite restraint in speaking publicly on matters of import. But the statement recognizes that “freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth” and that academic freedom is absolutely necessary to protect “the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.”

In other words, academic freedom protects not just the ability of professors to pursue and publish research without fear of retribution from those whose interests are ill served by the exposure of truth. It also allows teachers to discuss controversial subject matter in the classroom and students to engage with a variety of perspectives -- especially those that challenge dominant narratives and worldviews. Provocation and controversy may be essential to the kind of teaching that pushes students to examine their deeply held assumptions and prejudices and to push their intellectual boundaries. The quality of education that students receive at any college or university is impaired when faculty members and students find themselves treading lightly, looking over their shoulders or worrying about pursuing knowledge that will generate attempts at silencing.

Attacks on academic freedom thus inhibit free inquiry, creative practice and innovative thinking -- the hallmarks of sound education on any campus. Hence, any ranking system that measures the quality of education of colleges and universities must find a way to evaluate the state of academic freedom at those institutions. Including academic freedom considerations in calculations of rankings would provide not just a better gauge of the robustness of academic inquiry within any particular institution but also help bolster the principle of academic freedom itself.

Rethinking the Metrics

Accounting for academic freedom would require a serious rethinking of the metrics used to create rankings, presumably with input from faculty members, faculty leaders, academic professional organizations and the AAUP. The overall ranking of an institution in, say, U.S. News & World Report is determined by a number of criteria including “expert opinion,” which is primarily based on a survey completed by “top academics” -- including presidents, provosts and deans -- who are asked to rate universities with which they are familiar. One could speculate that this “peer-assessment survey” could generate responses that consider the embattled state of academic freedom at any particular institution. But it’s not clear how familiar high-level administrators actually are with all universities or what criteria each respondent uses to rank them. More important, it is questionable whether upper-level administrators -- who are often more concerned about the public reputations of institutions and worry about the potential negative fundraising impact of academic freedom controversies -- value academic freedom in quite the same ways that the AAUP statement of principles envisions.

Indeed, without an explicit framework of academic freedom, it is impossible to evaluate whether academic freedom is indeed even paid attention to as a consideration. Input from faculty representatives, the existence of institutional statements of academic freedom and robust policies on responding to alleged violations of it, the presence of active AAUP chapters that are integrated into shared governance mechanisms -- these all might all be useful tools to gauge the institutional commitment to academic freedom.

In countries such as Singapore that are known to place limits on academic freedom, rankings are often used as tools to delegitimize arguments about academic freedom. With the global rise of authoritarianism, the protection of academic freedom is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of university life, and using university ranking systems is one of the most effective ways to ensure that.

It may, in fact, be the case that rankings of higher educational institutions are not just about capturing the overall quality of education. The popularity of rankings such as Forbes’s America’s Best Value Colleges or the existence of metrics such as Princeton Review’s “Happiest College Students List” suggest that such rankings increasingly operate like market signals. In a context of rising college prices and a serious student-debt crisis, they communicate to potential customers -- parents and prospective students -- within an increasingly corporatized academy a very different vision of a higher education than one embraced by many educators.

Thus, any defense of the goal of academic freedom, and its valuation within a university ranking system, has to occur along with a systematic defense of education as a public good. Conversely, any reclaiming of this public function and the value of higher education will require a strong defense of the principle of academic freedom. And that means that as long as university ranking systems continue to exist as important determinants of academic value, academic freedom should be included in the metrics.

Bio

Richard Ashford is a senior research associate at Whitman College. Shampa Biswas is Paul Garrett Professor of Political Science at Whitman College. Mohan J. Dutta is Dean’s Chair Professor and director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation at Massey University.

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