January message from the BFA chair: Academic Freedom: Reality or Myth

January 26, 2014

“We can, perhaps, afford to play politics with many things, but not with education.” Former University of Colorado President George Norlin provides us with this quote that is as relevant today as it was eight decades ago. Education is the core of a great society. Education provides individuals the opportunity to realize their goals as well as preparing them to become valued members of that society. However, education is not a homogenous process. Rather, education is an artifact of many influences including political, societal, professional, and personal. It is this montage that creates the dynamic debates and discussions around the role of education and educators in our society. However, this dynamic environment also leads to vagueness and disagreement around the rights and responsibilities in the relationships of these entities including amongst others between teacher and student, administrator and teacher, and community and university.

The lack of clarity in rights and responsibilities often leads to the politicization that George Norlin warned about many years ago. Rather than focusing on what education means to individuals, the players turn to the political definitions of rights and responsibilities. Inevitably, this discussion brings in the questions of academic freedom and ownership of curriculum. Recently, events at CU and other institutions have added to this debate by bringing the questions of teaching effectiveness, learning environments, and course popularity into the mosaic of the conversation. Unfortunately, rather than prompting informed and restrained debate, these topics often lead to defensive and rhetorical positions. In my opinion, we must not only pull back from these positions, but we should use this opportunity to demonstrate to the country and to the world that our community embraces the chance to have an informed discussion regarding Rights and Responsibilities.

As a start to this discussion, I am calling on all members of the university community to join together to organize and participate in a symposium on Rights and Responsibilities in the Academy. As faculty, administrators, staff, and students, we must engage in an academic forum that addresses the key issues that we as a community are facing; academic freedom, rights and responsibilities of all members of the community, teaching effectiveness, learning outcomes, and course popularity. The University of Colorado-Boulder houses some of the leading educators and educational centers studying these issues. Entities such as the Center for Stem Learning, the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program, and the Presidential Teaching Scholars are only a few of the resources that we are fortunate to have as part of our community. I am calling on this expertise, along with outside experts, to lead us in this discussion.

We cannot afford to hide behind clichés and words any longer. We cannot afford to keep playing politics with society’s future. It is our responsibility as an education community to build the cornerstone of a great society. Paraphrasing and borrowing from Hillel the Elder, if not us, then whom, and if not now, then when?

 

The views expressed in this letter are those of the writer and do not reflect official positions of the Boulder Faculty Assembly.

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