Academic Freedom and Alt-Acs

Risk, writing, and tenure.

May 13, 2019

"You completely lost me when you said you would be more courageous and your work would be braver and more authentic were you tenured. You lost me even though a lot of statistics indicate that a lot of non-tenured folks feel as you do. Personally, I can't imagine my non-tenured status affecting how I do my work. I couldn't live with myself.”

Comment by 000skiff on my 5/12/19 post What Percent of Your (Academic) Salary Would You Trade for Tenure?

How much academic freedom do you have?

If you are an alternative-academic, what are the ways that you practice self-censorship?

To what degree might your continued employment at your university be at risk as a result of something that you write?

I don’t know about you, but every time that I engage in public writing, I think about these questions.

The question of academic freedom for alt-acs is particularly salient, as it is in non-traditional (and non-tenured) academic communities that some of the most critical thinking about higher education is occurring.

Our industry hasn’t quite gotten its head around this trend, but the contours of academic employment have been radically altered over the past couple of decades. The line between faculty and staff has started to erode.

Nowadays, those academics outside of traditional tenure-track lines are engaged in critical scholarship and commentary on the future of higher education.

There exists a critical mass of non-faculty academics, working in such areas as instructional design and faculty development and online learning, who are thinking and writing about the structure of higher education.

These non-traditional academics share their ideas and scholarship through both traditional and emerging academic communication platforms.  Alt-acs will write peer-reviewed articles and books, as well as engage in public scholarship through op-eds and blog posts and tweets.

The norms of academic freedom protect none of this alt-ac scholarly output and communication.  An alt-ac can lose their job for writing critically about higher education.

In the research community that I’m a part of, the focus is on how universities align (or don’t) their organizational structures to the science of learning.  This community of scholars is made up almost entirely of non-traditional (and non-tenured) academics.  This group is drawn from the ranks of people building careers in centers for teaching and learning, academic computing units, and online learning organizations.

This community - what we believe is an emerging scholarly discipline that we are calling learning innovation - tends to work in a way that obscures the distinction between service and scholarship.

To give one example, this community of learning innovation scholars is heavily involved in the discussion around the online program management (OPM) industry, and the growth of non-profit/corporate partnerships in the online learning space.

What will it mean if the scholarship on the OPM industry is centered in non-traditional academic communities?

Can we imagine a scenario where the writing of alt-acs on OPM’s conflicts with the policies of the universities in which the alt-ac works?

How significant a risk does a lack of academic freedom place upon alternative academics?

What can we do to gauge the amount of alt-ac self-censorship that is occurring among those who write about potentially controversial subjects such as the future of higher ed?

Are there policies that we can imagine that would separate academic freedom from traditional tenure systems, extending some measure of protection for unpopular and challenging ideas to those outside of the tenure track?

What are you reluctant to write about?


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