Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Academic Freedom and Proposed Policy 601

Colleagues,

At the request of various people I have looked at the draft of Policy 601 that is being considered by the Faculty Senate and wrote the following.  I will appreciate your comments.


Colleagues, 

As it stands, the draft of Policy 601 creates an unwieldy structure to meet good, ethical ends that also violates academic freedom.  As a result, the policy should be rejected and thoroughly re-conceived before continuing forward.  

The valuable ends of this policy include establishing expectations of professional conduct and of recognizing the legitimacy of some pedagogical ends, such as course accommodations based on disability and religion. 

Nevertheless how it does so makes of those ends a problem such that in many cases it puts excessive detail as a proxy which then either does not meet the requirement or changes the nature of the classroom in ways that remove the freedom of the professor to make appropriate professional determinations of content and process.

I shall not enter into all that detail, though I can, in this note.  Instead let me enter this at an analytical level by noting that the policy’s introduction (1.1) contains a telling oxymoron.

It says: “The faculty and students at Utah Valley University have the right to expect a well-managed classroom environment  that is consistent with the mission of the University and the principles of academic freedom.”

That seems fine, until looked at closely.  The words “well-managed” seem to refer to a professional stance consistent with academic freedom to determine content, but instead subvert such.  

The key is in the wording that says not faculty, i.e. individual professors, but “the faculty”, i.e. a collective noun, a category.  This is a enormous shift and makes sense when looked at the notion of right. 

Ordinarily one would expect that faculty manage classrooms and so it would seem strange that the document says that faculty have the right to a “well-managed” classroom.  This is contradictory.  How can faculty have a right to that which they produce?

Instead the right to manage a classroom is shifted from them to an environment produced through policy. 

If such management is not a product of the professors but is something produced as an environment to which they are submitted, no matter if it is called a right, such is a violation of academic freedom, specifically the right of faculty as course content specialists to determine the content and pedagogy of the courses they teach.  

As many thinkers and pedagogues have pointed out, the process of a classroom is also content.  The idea of content can not be limited simply to the ideas of the discipline imparted, but also goes to the heart of process as pedagogy.  Such things vary from discipline to discipline and, necessarily from professor to professor. 

Furthermore, as written, once it has removed course process from content and from professors, the Policy gives the power of process to managers.  The meaning of “well-managed” seems to refer to policy, as in a kind of environment requiring the excessive detail of this draft, but it also opens it to persons who control management.   This is an unacceptable change in the nature of the professors and their relations to students (and administrators). 

Having said that, I think students should have expectations (not rights) of a professionally managed classroom and that faculty are expected to behave professionally.  I also think that students have a just expectation of course modifications for disabilities.  However, it must be noted that such are in inherent tension with the professional rights of professors as course managers.  That tension is unavoidable.

I find that image of tension as a useful one for thinking through the problems of religion.  

As stands, the policy is unworkable.  The thirty days, or so, required for a full vetting of a request for accommodation is almost a third of a semester in time.  In other words by the time a request has gone through the process a semester is substantially in over, and may indeed be over.  That negates the very possibility of an accommodation. 

Instead of what we have, I would prefer general language recognizing the rights of professors as course content specialists and the rights of students to hold fully their ethical and religious stands.

(I do not use the word belief because nor all religions have beliefs, other than as an abstraction from practice and such Protestant language, i.e. belief, would force them into sectarian mis-recognition.  One should also note that ethics and religions are by no means empirically the same.  This is a mis-placement of things that are different into a set.  It is a categorical error.)

Furthermore, I would prefer general language establishing understandings and expectations of how one might proceed and what one might take into account in the case of difference and conflict.  In other words, guides for moving into the tension and working through it, but not rigid procedures. 

What is in the document at present is unworkable. 

In conclusion, as it stands this policy establishes a violation of academic freedom and should not be implemented without substantial reworking. 

Yours, 

David