High Academic Quality Protects Students’ Freedom to Learn

header_audience_students_parentsThe efforts of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) to protect academic freedom intersect with and draw strength from our efforts to maintain high academic quality on America’s college campuses. These issues are closely related, and our Free to Teach, Free to Learn guide highlights the potential challenges universities and their trustees face to ensure that freedom to learn is indeed firmly reflected in academic practices and the curriculum.

The notion that academic freedom requires faculty to have complete control of university curricula in simply incorrect. Such a position forgets that academic freedom entails both professors’ freedom to research and teach as well as students’ freedom and ability to receive a quality education.

There is ample evidence that far too many college students fail to learn very much during their time at college. For example, ACTA’s 2012-13 What Will They Learn?™ survey shows that less than 20% of colleges and universities require a basic survey course in U.S. history. Only two out of five require a college-level math course. In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrated that many students fail to show any meaningful learning gains after four years in school.

Too often, basic survey courses in history, math or economics are taught by adjuncts or graduate students, if they are taught at all. This is what happens when academic freedom is interpreted as giving professors the right not simply to conduct research and present classroom material according to their professional judgment, but to teach increasingly narrow niche courses without ever providing students the foundational knowledge they need to be educated citizens. And while faddish new programs burgeon, crucial disciplines like constitutional history and military history are rapidly disappearing from higher education.

As we have previously noted here at the Brandeis Center blog, at the dawn of the 20th century, the greatest threats to academic freedom were perceived to come from outside the university. There was a great deal of worry that “bodies not composed of members of the academic profession,” such as a school’s board of trustees, would interfere with the ability of professors to teach and conduct research freely. Among many within the ivory tower, this worry still exists today, and it lies at the heart of several conflicts that have occurred over the nature of college curricula.

For example, in one of Free to Teach’s case studies, we describe a conflict at George Mason University over the adoption of a new set of general education requirements by the Board of Visitors. The curriculum adopted by the board was, for the most part, designed by a faculty committee and approved by the Faculty Senate. It included tougher requirements in writing and computer skills as well as a requirement to take courses in U.S. history and Western civilization.

Soon after the board adopted the new academic requirements, the Faculty Senate condemned the board’s actions by an overwhelming vote, criticizing the requirements as “academically inferior.”

Something similar happened at the State University of New York (SUNY). In the wake of a study showing that students at SUNY could graduate without studying math, science, composition, history or a wide variety of other subjects, the SUNY Board of Trustees adopted stronger general education requirements. Again, this change prompted “sharp opposition from faculty leaders,” who criticized the board for interfering in an area they deemed to be solely subject to faculty discretion.

There have been reported incidents of professors canceling class in order to join campus demonstrations, encouraging their students to protest rather than engage in the learning and discussion that takes place in the classroom. Apparently some in the university believe academic freedom means they don’t have to show up and teach their students at all.

Just as university trustees need to stand up and fight the politicization of the classroom, they also need to serve as guardians of academic quality. Trustees must not challenge the judgment of faculty to teach their assigned courses, but they must be actively engaged in monitoring the curricula at their schools to ensure that students will have their freedom to pursue a thorough and balanced education. They ought not to fear faculty who make dubious claims about the privileges academic freedom awards them. Boards who do so are not violating academic freedom, but protecting it by fighting for students’ freedom to learn.

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