Monday, April 3, 2017

Academic Freedom Should Be Used

By: Marybeth Gasman, PhD
Professor of Higher Education
Director, Center for Minority Serving Institutions
University of Pennsylvania

Academic freedom is an idea and right that I deeply cherish.  Full academic freedom – the kind that comes with tenure – is vitally important to the future of colleges and universities. And, I firmly believe that we must use our academic freedom to move the academy forward.

Academic freedom is involved in many aspects of being a professor – from what we teach to what we research, and to what we say publicly and within our institutions.  As faculty, academic freedom gives us immense privilege that most individuals do not have, and we have responsibilities that are tied to this privilege.

In recent years, more than likely due to the intensity of the world around us, I have grown weary of faculty members who chose not to use their academic freedom in meaningful ways and instead horde it to protect themselves and their own agendas.  I think we have an obligation, especially within the sub-field of higher education, given its applied nature, to use our research and voices to advance a justice and equity-oriented agenda.

When I glance at the titles and abstracts of papers and sessions hosted at this year’s AERA annual meeting, I’m struck, once again, by the number of papers that speak to issues of equity, access, equality, diversity, and inclusion.  Yet, I wonder if the faculty presenting these papers act on these ideas in their day–to-day lives as professors.  Are we teaching in inclusive ways that empowers all students or in ways that make our lives easier and more efficient? Are we collaborative and inclusive in the ways we approach our research and our research teams or do we always need to be in control and in the lead? Do we speak up in faculty meetings when we see systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression – the way we suggest others do in our research – or do we sit in silence hoping someone else will do it, or, perhaps, doing nothing because these systems protect us?  Do we use our academic freedom to push our institutions to take stands on justice issues or do we wait for others to do this?

I give a lot of talks around the nation pertaining to faculty diversity and inclusion, as well as on faculty members using their voices to make change.  Inevitably during the question and answer part of the talk, a faculty member (with tenure, usually White) in the audience will ask me how to be brave around issues of diversity or in general within the academy.  My response is always, ‘What makes you afraid to speak up when you hold the power?’  Often the faculty member’s response is one of shame that they have not had the courage to speak up and stand up for the rights of others. I wonder if their shame turns into action.

I urge tenured faculty and those seeking to be tenured faculty to think about the connections between their research and teaching and how they act in their day-to-day lives in the academy. We often fail to realize and act on the power that we have. We often act as if we are being forced to do things by administration, but faculty have much more power to make change than we acknowledge.  We often criticize the systems within the academy without realizing that we create and enforce those systems and that they can change if we have the will.

Academic freedom in all its forms and manifestations should be nurtured, cherished and used in profound and meaningful ways as faculty move throughout their careers. Failing to do so is academic malpractice.

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