Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jerry G. Gaff, Senior Scholar, Association of American Colleges and Universities: Is it Time to Revisit the 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure?

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have written about the very useful program presented at the annual conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) (see here, and here). For this post I wanted to consider the very powerful presentation made at the conference by Jerry G. Gaff, Senior Scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Dr. Gaff received a Ph.D. in psychology from Syracuse University. He served on the faculties of five institutions and was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and acting president of Hamline University. He authored numerous books including Toward Faculty Renewal (1975), General Education Today (1983), and New Life for the College Curriculum (1991) and co-edited the Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum.

His remarks, presented June 12, 2015 and entitled, "Academic Freedom for a New Age," suggests that the great changes that have engulfed higher education since the last great set of glosses to of the last third of the 20th century now have set the stage for a necessary reconsideration of one of the great foundational document of modern university education--the 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure. This post considers his argument (all citations are to Dr. Gaff's remarks).

Gaff starts with a reminder of the close cooperation between two organizations that sometimes appear to represent adverse interests, the AAUP and the AAC&U) which produced the 1940 Statement after a many years long conversation between these organizations. He reminds us that
The power of these principles resides in the fact not that they were developed by the AAUP but rather that they gained traction and standing across higher education. This decision of AAUP to collaborate with associations representing administrators was suggested as early as 1917 by its long-serving secretary, MIT mathematics professor Harry Walter Tyler, who urged the AAUP president to “win a campaign instead of a battle [Tiede, H.G. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: It’s History and Continued Relevance. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting, Association of American Colleges and Universities, January, 2015].” This was a bold and controversial position at the time, because there was little trust between faculty members, administrations, and trustees. Given the eventual widespread agreement of these principles by a host of academic organizations, they became normative throughout American higher education in all types of institutions.
Indeed, the power of the 1940 Statement, Gaff reminds us, was precisely that, whatever marginal differences in interpretation among them, administrators, boards of trustees, faculty and to some extent the courts adopted, defended and applied the 1940 Statement in the United States, and the 1940 Statement eventually became the global standard for defining academic freedom.  This Gaff reminds us, sprung from the patient collaboration of organizations that were able to see the value of working together to advance both of their more specific interests.

But the world that gave rise to the 1940 Statement no longer exists. And the institutions that carry on the work of university education do so within social, economic, cultural, political and civil realities substantially different from that on which the 1940 Statement was created.
In dealing with rapid social change in general, I believe it is necessary to revise social structures developed in an earlier time to preserve the central values in a new era. In regard to academic freedom, I suggest that it is necessary to take a new, critical look at the 1940 principles and adapt them to new realities. I do this in hopes of securing renewed commitment from the academic community to preserve academic freedom and to firmly root it in structures more appropriate for today.
However, Gaff notes the difficulties, perhaps fatal difficulties, that now make the 1940 Statement less relevant and thus more in need of reworking.  He offers five specific areas where the 1940 Statement  may require revision.

First, Gaff argues that tenure is itself no longer an adequate guarantee of academic freedom for the majority of people the contemporary university now engages as faculty.
The data are very clear. Data from the U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics from Fall 2011 (Cited on the website of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success shows that among non-profit institutions part-time faculty are 51.2 percent of all faculty; full-time non-tenure track faculty are 19.1 percent; and tenured or faculty on tenure-track positions number only 29.9 percent. That is, roughly 70 percent of the faculty today do not enjoy tenure, and virtually none of them has any prospect of ever receiving tenure.
For Gaff the logic of the data leads to an important conclusion--that changes by the university on the composition of its faculty, by engorging itself with employees not covered by the 1940 Statement, have created a situation where the protections of tenure are being effectively avoided by creating categories of employees who perform functionally as faculty but who do not have the benefit of the 1940 Statement's protections. Gaff suggests that the solution is clear--an extension of the principles of the 1940 Statement to all individuals who function as faculty irrespective of their formal rank or title. Otherwise, the university will be able to extinguish academic freedom even as it adheres precisely to the framework fo the 1940 Statement.
Like it or not, we must recognize that the academic labor market is in the midst of fundamental and far-reaching change. University and college budgets have built in salaries for part-time and non-tenure track employees, and given the weak economy described as the “new normal,” economists tell us that these conditions are unlikely to change anytime soon. Even if public budgets do grow as a result of a significant improvement in the economy, higher education funding at all levels is unlikely to increase significantly because of the high cost of tuition and resulting high levels of student debt and of competing demands of other priorities (e.g. support for infrastructure, entitlements, environment, and early childhood education, among others).
Indeed, the transformation of the faculty role in university education has been as profound as the transformation of society in the years since 1940. Though university faculty retain their authority as the most important experts in teaching and research, increasingly the techniques of teaching, the economics of research, and the relationship of education to labor markets and civic engagement no longer resembles any of these even a quarter century ago.

Second, though faculty may retain their authority as experts in education and research, they appear to have lost their social authority. The transformation of university education and its relation to labor markets and civic institutions has also transformed the role of the faculty in the public eye. As a consequence, and in a society obsessed with the connection between labor markets and education,  faculty has been transformed form a learned profession into "labor", a factor in the production of education.  In that context, academic freedom loses its importance in public perception, and is reduced to nothing more than a condition of employment, a perk, like wages and benefits.  It would follow that such wages and working conditions might be negotiated away.  Gaff argues that this is a tragic misunderstanding of a relationship between faculty, the university and society, that remains robust--and goes to the public mission of universities.
This is a misinterpretation, of course. But it is a misinterpretation that we will need to work proactively to engage and change. In reality, academic freedom is part of what Neil Hamilton . . . has called a “bargain with society.” This bargain requires that faculty members be given an unusual degree of freedom as a necessary condition of doing their scholarly work in exchange for serving transcendent values of creating new knowledge and providing effective education for students. But this bargain is not simply a quid pro quo. Rather, faculty need the freedom to pursue the quest for knowledge without fear of political consequences. That rationale has been widely discussed and largely accepted. [citing Hamilton, N.H. Proactively Justifying the Academic Profession’s Social Contract. In The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2009, 1-18]
But there is more to it than that.  Gaff argues that the principles of the 1940 Statement are essential  if the core mission of university education is to be preserved.  That mission, centered on training students to think for themselves, critical thinking, analytical inquiry and rigorous analysis, is central to the production of individuals who can maximize their value to the labor markets into which they will be inserted, and for some small number of them, for those students who will rise to positions of great authority in civic, business, social and religious institutions.
Students need their professors to help them learn to identify propaganda and self-serving claims, to think critically about ideas, and to form their own evidence-based judgments and conclusions in ways that engage a full array of competing views and not just one or another reigning orthodoxy. Consider the alternative: a state of affairs, which I fear already exists, in which faculty who lack the protections of academic freedom hesitate to bring up topics that may be out of favor in the wider society. Don’t students deserve the opportunity to explore what may turn out to be inconvenient truths rather than to adopt politically safe utterances from their teachers who may be fearful of losing their jobs?
Of course, university administrators, government regulators and faculty are sometimes their own worst enemies ion the attainment of these goals.  Reducing the university to a site for commercial transactions, components for markets in training, creates a culture in which critical thinking is usually the first victim.  Students sometimes tend to want to be taught what they think important, employers want students trained in ways that reduce their employee intake costs and maximizes their ability to capture efficiency gains from student hires, faculty want ot keep their jobs or misapply ideology, and government officials tend to pander to mass demands that may affect either budgets or election objectives.  These market and social forces are precisely what a next generation statement on academic freedom and tenure must be able to resist in a principled, neutral and fair way.

Third, Gaff argues that the 1940 Statement no longer provides adequate remedial structures.  Indeed, the growing gulf between administration, faculty, students, and state have produced a remedial structure which cannot avoid the sense of partisanship and conflict of interest. Worse, remedial mechanisms are tricky, consume substantial resources and time, and no longer carry the "sting" they once did. Gaff notes this problem as especially important in the context of the AAUP's enforcement framework, which requires an initial report to the AAUP, reference to Committee A after initial review, the investigation and then review. 
First, no single professional association has the resources to study and enforce findings of all possible charges. Second, AAUP is not exactly a disinterested observer in such matters, and its findings—regardless of how diligently individuals conduct the review—are often considered suspect. Third, if there is a finding that there has been a violation of a professor’s academic freedom, merely placing the institution on a list of violators is no longer an effective deterrent in a labor market in which there are many applicants for a single job. The academic labor market simply overwhelms the stigma of being on a so-called “black list.”
Gaff suggests two alternatives.  The first is to condition accreditation on an assurance of academic freedom, giving accrediting agencies investigative authority when faculty lodge complaints. the second is to create an aut0nomnous agency to investigate student and faculty complaints of interference with academic freedom. "At the very least, " Gaff argues, "we need a broad-based exploration of the enduring importance of academic freedom to the academy’s core missions across all sectors of the academy, public and private, elite and broad access. This exploration should probe both the principles that support academic freedom and mechanisms for ensuring that its protections are extended to all faculty members."

Fourth, Gaff reminds us that academic freedom has always been understood as an assurance of freedom from constraint.  It did not include a positive obligation to assure quality with respect to the teaching and research protected by academic freedom. But Gaff argues that this disjunction does not serve the faculty, the institution, or academic freedom.  Tying the freedom from constraint with a positive obligation to ensure quality produces a stronger case for academic freedom, especially within the changed environment of the university. This requires, for example, tying curricula, programs (e.g., general education), assessment and the like to academic freedom protections.
But too often faculty members do not take the responsibility to ensure that their departmental programs and individual courses intentionally address the very goals they have approved for the institution as a whole. Indeed, some throw up the bogus argument that their academic freedom allows them to teach whatever they want in their own courses. Any significant re-working of academic freedom must explicitly state that faculty members have the responsibility for the educational program as a whole and the duty to work collaboratively with their colleagues to assure that their students are actually practicing and developing the capacities that the institution judges to be essential.
Gaff makes a strong point here, and a necessary one.  But ironically, it is as likely to run into opposition from administrators and boards as from faculty.  Academic freedom has been eroded, in part, as a consequence of the erosion of shared governance.  That erosion has been most noticeable in the increasing assertion of control by administration over course programs, and on program assessment. To vest faculty with the responsibility to assure program quality and program relevance, is to diminish administrative authority over both.  That will not come easy.  Yet the discussion of the demarcation of negative and positive rights is central to the reworking of the 1940 Statement in the current state of university operation.  

Fifth, Gaff argues that generations of faculty complacency has contributed to the erosion of academic freedom, and of the relevance of the 1940 Statement.
Early framers of academic freedom and shared governance assumed that successor generations of professors surely would be eager to learn about academic professionalism, in particular academic freedom, shared governance, and peer review in order to explain the rationale for these practices and to defend them against criticism. These were such hard-won victories that future generations could be expected to preserve them. But decades later graduate students planning to become faculty members still pursue their studies with little study of academic freedom, no necessary preparation as a teacher of diverse students, little knowledge of the professional literature on teaching and learning, little knowledge of the differences among institutions that may be their professional homes, and little attention to academic ethics. 

Gaff recalls the value of projects like Preparing Future Faculty with which he was involved.  These programs sought to better prepare doctoral students for their roles as academics.  It served as an important site for socialization and for transmitting the norms and values of universities and university culture.  Gaff argues that any "significant re-thinking of academic freedom must include an emphasis on the graduate preparation of future faculty who must become knowledgeable about the concept of academic freedom in order to defend it."

Gaff concedes that, like the elaboration of the principles that became the 1940 Statement, any revision will involve a long term process of collaborative dialog.  He urges the same sort of long term commitment by AAUP and AAC&U "with close coordination between the Chairs and the association leaders. It also would probably involve periodic joint meetings of both groups just as it did in the years leading up to the 1940 Statement."  But he concludes, and quite correctly, that "there is nothing that would signal their continued vitality more than to adapt their historic statement on academic freedom for the new realities that define the contemporary academy. Yes, we can and should celebrate our past achievements, and the best way of doing that is to take positive steps to assure that academic freedom is adequately protected in the future." 

Gaff makes the essential point that the 1940 Statement ought to retain its vitality, but that this vitality is only possible by reshaping the 1940 Statement to make it more relevant for the times.  Currently the 1940 Statement suffers from an increasing problem of relevance.  Increasing numbers of faculty are no longer subject to its protections. The public mission of education is all too often subordinated to the increasing power of narrow training for student insertions into labor markets with the least costs to employers and the greatest efficiency to the labor markets that universities increasingly serve.  The remedial structures attached to the 1940 Statement no longer provide effective protection for faculty or effective assurance to administrators of fair administration of the principles contained in the 1940 Statement. Faculty may find that they are only able to regain their authority over education and research if they are willing to incorporate an assurance of quality as part of their rights to freedom of constraint in teaching and research.  That balance of right and obligation would not just revitalize academic freedom as a principle, but also re-shift power back into the balance it enjoyed in the aftermath of the adoption of the 1940 Statement.  Lastly, faculty complacency has eroded both their knowledge of and their socialization in the principles of academic freedom; ignorance makes it easier to reshape and erode academic freedom. 

Taken together, Dr. Gaff has made a powerful argument for drafting a new statement of academic freedom and tenure. He makes a strong case for the principle areas that ought to be covered in any new statement--ensuring that all faculty are subject to its protections irrespective of rank or title or tenure status, that the public mission of university education and research be protected, that appropriate remedial structures be strengthened, that faculty rights and obligations be appropriately balanced and that faculty reinforce their socialization into the principles that preserve their role within the academy.  One can only hope that those with authority over these matters, in government, within the AAUP, the AAC&U, other organizations and the state, come to similar conclusions and invest in the long term discourse, in good faith, necessary to revitalize the 1940 Statement for our times.  

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