Balancing academic rights and responsibilities

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost Knowledge for Social Change co-author Ira Harkavy’s recent article that appeared in University of World News, an abridged version of a keynote address he delivered earlier this year.

In my judgment, there are two core purposes of higher education in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. They are education for democratic citizenship and the creation of knowledge to advance the human condition, which significantly involves developing and maintaining a democratic society. These purposes can be powerfully achieved through university-community partnerships.

After a long period of disengagement, higher education leadership across the United States has increasingly recognized that colleges and universities cannot hold themselves aloof from their neighbors. The fate of the university and its local environment are intertwined. Given their resources, particularly their human capital (idealistic and able faculty, staff and students), higher education institutions can make significant contributions to the quality of life in their communities and cities.

The academic benefits of engagement have been illustrated in practice – and the intellectual case for engagement effectively made by leading scholars and educators. That case, simply stated, is that higher education institutions would better fulfill their core academic functions, including advancing knowledge, teaching and learning, if they focused on improving conditions in their societies, particularly their local communities.

Service-learning, engaged scholarship, community-based participatory research, volunteer projects and community economic development initiatives are some of the means used to create mutually beneficial partnerships designed to make a positive difference in the community and on the campus.

More broadly, a burgeoning higher education democratic civic and community engagement movement has developed across the United States to better educate students for democratic citizenship and to improve schooling and the quality of life.

Turning out informed democratic citizens

Given the current development of ‘illiberal democracy’, claims of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ and attacks on science and knowledge itself, universities have an increased and pressing responsibility to contribute to both the education of informed democratic citizens and the advancement of knowledge for the continuous betterment of the human condition. For this to occur, academic freedom and institutional autonomy must be maintained and strengthened.

Stated directly, significant levels of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are necessary for intellectual creativity, free inquiry and progress. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy, moreover, are intertwined with academic and institutional responsibility.

In her speech at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 2019 annual conference, Joan W Scott, former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, emphasized that academic freedom and institutional autonomy were needed to advance “the common good.”

She said: “The common good will not survive – and for that matter neither will individuals survive – without medical knowledge, knowledge of climate change, knowledge of history, knowledge of how structures of discrimination work at the economic, social, political and psychic levels to perpetuate inequalities of race, gender, sex and religion. Academic freedom protects the production and dissemination of that knowledge.

“It is that knowledge that nourishes and advances the common good. The future of the common good and of academic freedom are bound up together; the one cannot survive without the other.”

Threats to academic values

The interconnection of academic freedom and institutional autonomy with academic and institutional responsibility as well as the democratic purposes of higher education have been increasingly recognized across the world.

For example, in June 2019 a Global Forum was held in Strasbourg on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy, and the Future of Democracy (co-organised by the Council of Europe, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, the Organization of American States, the International Association of Universities, and the Magna Charta Observatory), involving participants from 41 countries across Europe, North America, Latin America, Australia, Asia and the Middle East.

The immediate background for this Global Forum was increasing concern that the values we have come to take for granted are now under threat in ways Europe and North America have not seen for at least three decades, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. While democracy has never been without potential for improvement, its basic premises are now questioned in Europe through nationalism and populism and attempts to advance ‘illiberal democracy’. Analogous developments are occurring in the United States.

There are, of course, differences. For example, the focus in the United States has largely been on academic freedom and its relationship to the right to free speech on campus.

In Europe, the focus has been largely on institutional autonomy. The traditional European emphasis on institutional autonomy concerns the legal relationship between public authorities and higher education institutions.

The different emphases in the United States and Europe should not be overstated however. The commonalities are much greater.

The interference of both the state and national governments in university affairs has increased significantly in the United States in recent years. The University of Wisconsin board of regents, for example, approved a policy mandating that students who disrupt speakers twice be suspended and those who disrupt three times be expelled.

Similar policies and legislation, while less punitive than those proposed (it was not approved by the governor) in Wisconsin have been passed in approximately 17 states.

Both houses of Congress have introduced similar bills that would apply to all public colleges and universities. The right-leaning Goldwater Institute has proposed and advocated for model legislation that has served as the basis of these bills requiring disciplinary policies for disruptions.

In a similar vein, President Donald Trump signed an executive order last March connecting federal funding to how colleges and universities enforce the right of free inquiry.

Needless to say, the instances cited represent increased governmental interference in university affairs, significantly affecting institutional autonomy and academic freedom. They also represent the weaponization of free speech for political and ideological purposes, which resonates with the use of laws in some European countries to limit academic freedom to support the ideology of the state.

Threats to academic freedom and institutional autonomy, of course, come from many sources, not just government. Private funding has been given with specified conditions that have influenced the content of study and the hiring of faculty.

Equally troubling is funding from private sources that subvert the core values of the university. With the rise of the so-called neoliberal entrepreneurial university, profit for the sake of profit too often appears to be the primary purpose of institutions of higher education. This, of course, has negative impacts on both research and education for the public good.

Rights and responsibilities

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are mediated rights that come with responsibilities. Working with and contributing to their local communities are essential if colleges and universities are to function as responsible institutions. In my judgment, it is also an institutional responsibility for universities to work in democratic partnership with their community, demonstrating openness, transparency, responsiveness and accountability.

One of the best ways to practice academic freedom and institutional autonomy as well as academic and institutional responsibility is to engage locally. Local participatory democracy is necessary for the development of a democratic culture that goes beyond the crucial act of voting and extends to all areas of life.

The benefits of a local community focus for colleges and universities are manifold. Ongoing, continuous interaction is facilitated through work in an easily accessible location. Relationships of trust, so essential for effective partnerships and effective learning, are also built through day-to-day work on problems and issues of mutual concern.

In addition, the local community provides a convenient setting in which service-learning courses, community-based research courses and related courses in different disciplines can work together on a complex problem to produce substantive results. Sustained local partnerships of this kind foster the civic development of university students while advancing their academic learning and knowledge.

The local community is also a democratic real-world learning site in which community members, academics and students can pragmatically determine whether the work is making a real difference and whether both the neighborhood and the institution are better as a result of common efforts.

As colleges and universities work collaboratively with their neighbors on locally manifested universal problems, such as poverty, poor schooling, inadequate health care, environmental degradation and climate change, I believe they will be better able to advance knowledge, learning and democracy.

In so doing, they will also satisfy the critical performance test proposed in 1994 by the president of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, William R Greiner – namely, that “the great universities of the 21st century will be judged by their ability to help solve our most urgent social problems”.

Higher education should, indeed must, stand for core universal values, including tolerance, diversity and inclusivity, open inquiry, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy as well as academic and institutional responsibility are necessary for universities to realize these values and to contribute to developing and sustaining fair, decent and just democratic societies for all.

Ira Harkavy is associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States and Chair of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy. This is an edited version of his keynote to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation International Quality Group Annual Meeting: A Global Quality Forum on 30 January.

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