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Academic Freedom: Whistleblower Protection?
June 14, 2011 - 9:45pm

Every month, I receive an email from Mary Churchill letting me know that my University of Venus post is about to go live. And each month, I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: maybe this month is the month that I’ve gone too far and my writing will come back and bite me in the ass professionally. Each month, after about a week, I exhale, once again feeling like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Academic freedom is a hot topic in my house. The debate centers around two very different understandings of the concept. On one hand, academic freedom could be understood as protecting a scholar’s ability to write, teach, and investigate within their field. On the other, academic freedom extends beyond a narrow discipline but instead encompasses all elements of an academic’s career: scholarship, shared governance, and community service. Complicating matters is that we both work for a public university, making us government employees.

And is academic freedom only for those who have tenure? Shouldn’t those on the tenure-track enjoy the same freedoms within the classroom and their research? Why hire new faculty when they will keep teaching and writing the same old things? What about the academic freedom of the 75% of faculty teaching off the tenure-track? How we can we ensure a vibrant higher education sector when a large majority of scholars are one unpopular class or publication away from being dismissed?

But, let’s extend the idea of academic freedom beyond the narrowly understood roles of an academic, teaching and research. Whether it is true or not today, the idea of higher education is one based on shared governance. It is then imperative that academics enjoy the freedom to be able to critique not just the current system, but their own individual systems. People such as Professor Margaret Soltan, blogging at University Diaries or the bloggers at Remaking the University, provide an important voice that challenges the status quo, but faculty need to be more proactive and not fear reprisal. Not to mention that those 25% that enjoy the right and privilege of participating in official university governance speak for the 75% who can’t.

It becomes much trickier when the person paying your salary is an elected official, and thus an academic’s work to change higher education and challenge the status quo begins to resemble political action. It is hard to encourage and nurture academic freedom in a politicized environment, knowing that your words can be used against you in the next round of budget cuts. I think this is where those who are off the tenure-track can have the most impact: we need to speak up and break the public and politician’s perspective that we live pampered lives with summers off.

But, as my husband always points out to me, there is no job in the world, public or private, that allows you to badmouth your boss without getting demoted or fired. But, there are often whistleblower laws that protect employees that bring legitimate complaints and corruption to light. We need academic freedom or some sort of other protection to allow faculty, on and off the tenure track, to have a meaningful voice in the future direction of the university.

I know that there are thousands of voices that have rationally chosen silence. I know that one month, I will go too far. Maybe it will be this month.

Kentucky in the USA

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a regular contributor at University of Venus.

 

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