The Subtle Erosion of Academic Freedom

President Trump’s recent executive order requiring that colleges protect free speech takes attention away from the three stronger forces weakening academic freedom, Johann N. Neem argues.

April 16, 2019
 
 
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Across the world today, academic freedom is endangered. Political leaders in Brazil, India, Poland and Turkey have all recently threatened professors. Two of the world’s most powerful states, China and Russia, are famous for monitoring what universities teach. Authoritarian-minded leaders attack professors because such scholars are experts in their domains of knowledge and because, by their profession, they are committed to seeking and sharing truth -- even when they are challenging political and economic power and thus risking their lives and livelihoods.

In the United States, such explicit efforts to undermine academics are less common. Instead, the erosion of academic freedom has occurred more subtly. Much press has been devoted to President Trump’s recent executive order requiring that colleges and universities protect free speech. The executive order no doubt reflects the president’s constituents’ concerns that college campuses are limiting the expression of conservative ideas. Yet even for those who believe (as I do) that we need more conservative voices on campus, the president’s order is worrisome. It implies that he believes that the federal government should perhaps police the content of speech and thought on campuses.

Meanwhile, the president’s executive order takes attention away from the three stronger forces weakening academic freedom in the United States: the erosion of tenure and shared governance, the emergence of “universities” that deny students access to professors, and the expansion of Advanced Placement and other forms of earning college credit in high schools. What all these forces have in common is that, by offering college credit in contexts without academic freedom, they limit professors’ and students’ freedom of thought.

The most obvious and well-known threat to academic freedom is the decline of tenure and shared governance at many established institutions. Adjunct faculty members lack the protections, and thus the influence, that tenure offers. But even tenured faculty are losing power and authority as administrators, responding to legislators’ demands for faster and more vocational degrees, exert significant pressure to revise the curriculum. Moreover, legislators themselves are increasingly willing to meddle in academic institutions to tailor them to their interests. In the past, they respected the freedom of the academy to seek truth by deferring to administrators’ and professors’ determinations about how to organize teaching and research. Today, that’s less often the case.

The two other threats are less obvious than either Trump’s executive order or the erosion of tenure and shared governance. The first is the establishment of new institutions that offer college degrees but do not require professors to teach the courses. Some, like the growing number of for-profit institutions, pursue revenue, not truth. Their employees lack academic freedom because programmatic decisions are made on the basis of economic, not intellectual, criteria. For-profits, however, are not the only threat. Equally dangerous are new nonprofit “universities” like Western Governors University or Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

Western Governors and College for America are nonprofit and claim to serve the needs of working Americans in need of degrees. But such institutions are not universities. A small group of experts designs their curricula. In some cases, curricular development is taken out of teachers’ hands and outsourced to companies like Pearson. Students themselves do not interact directly with professors but with standardized online modules and learning “coaches” and “mentors” hired to implement a pre-existing curriculum.

A recent U.S. Department of Education review, for example, discovered that students at Western Governors have insufficient interaction with instructors. Rather than improve the institution, the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has recently sought to lower its standards to allow “teams” to count as instructors, thus making it easier for organizations to create mass-produced curricula and to deny students access to professors. Under a proposed rule change, according to journalist Derek Newton writing in Forbes, “a team could include people such as course mentors, advisers, course designers, even other students.” Instead of ensuring that students have access to professors, institutions “under the proposed rule … won’t have to hire teachers at all.” In other words, institutions like Western Governors or College for America are designed to provide degrees without professors empowered, through academic freedom, to seek truth.

A third threat to academic freedom is the growing number of students who earn college credit outside of colleges, especially through Advanced Placement courses taught by high school teachers. Unlike college professors, most high school teachers do not have graduate degrees in the disciplines that they teach; instead, they have teaching degrees from education schools. Moreover, few high school teachers are given time to pursue their scholarship. In short, they are expert teachers but do not have the disciplinary expertise expected of college professors. In addition, high schools do not protect their teachers’ academic freedom. Teachers are not allowed the same opportunity to design their own curricula and assessments that college professors are. And, finally, college credit is often given for those courses that are the least like college: Advanced Placement.

Pressure from policy makers and others to give college credit for AP and other courses is significant and growing. A bill in the Washington State Legislature, for example, stated that students with certain scores on AP and International Baccalaureate exams “deserve to receive undergraduate college credit.” New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has pushed to expand access to AP courses so that high school students can “earn college credit for their future.”

These efforts are spurred by the rising cost of tuition, lobbying by the College Board (which designs and earns revenue from the AP program), and declining support for general education in the liberal arts and sciences. Why not get these courses out of the way, many legislators and parents ask, so that students can save money and move quickly into their vocational degree programs?

Yet a moment’s thought makes it clear that AP courses are nothing like college classes. They may be rigorous, but that does not make a course worthy of college credit. A college course is defined by the presence of a professor who is an expert in their subject and the freedom of that professor to pursue truth in the classroom and in scholarship. AP advocates argue that their courses are as difficult as college classes, but what defines a college course is freedom to seek truth far more than how hard a class is. Employees of a powerful corporation design AP courses, which are standardized rather than crafted by individual teachers. And high school teachers, who lack the expertise and autonomy to offer college-level instruction, teach such courses.

In other words, AP courses, even if more rigorous, are less like college courses than even traditional high school courses because AP teachers must teach to a predesigned test with predetermined assessments. Ultimately, AP’s approach is similar to how Western Governors or College for America designs and implements its curriculum, except that the AP relies on high school teachers instead of learning coaches.

Taken together, an increasing number of American students are receiving college credit in contexts where those delivering the material lack academic freedom. Colleges and universities, however, are intended to be places where the search for truth predominates. Their very foundation is freedom of thought. In philosopher Tal Brewer’s words, colleges campuses are places “devoted to discussion and thought unfolding under its own inter­nal demands.” Institutions that lack tenure and shared governance, or where a standardized curriculum is developed by a small group and administered by nonexperts, lack the freedoms that are fundamental to the academy.

In the United States, where liberal norms are stronger than in many other countries, our leaders do not want to be seen as attacking academic freedom directly. Instead, the erosion of the freedom of the academy has been subtler. It has been couched behind the language of cost-efficiency and access.

But in an era when we need more truth about the human and natural worlds, Americans should be strengthening the intellectual freedom of professors. Professors and students need opportunities to grapple with difficult questions together. Instead of providing students college credit for noncollegiate experiences and forms of knowledge production, we should offer students the support that they need to go to college. Instead of looking for ways to award college credit for courses without professors, we should be looking for ways to increase the number of professors with tenure.

Authoritarian leaders seek to control the truth, but a democracy depends on higher education institutions with professors and students who seek it. As more students earn college credit in high schools or attend institutions without professors, the freedom of the mind itself is circumscribed.

Bio

Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and the author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017) and What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, to be published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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