A Faculty Member's Reflection on Academic Freedom

I came across a marketing advertisement on the side of a bus stop on my daily walk this morning for the college that I work for. In bold colourful letters across a cartoon image of a brain said “You can’t change the world”, and then below “Without changing your thinking”. Followed by a short paragraph stating “Employers value grads that can hit the ground running. At Sheridan, you’ll develop creative thinking combined with tangible work skills. There’s no limit to where our degrees and other programs can take you”.

As Margaret Atwood has so eloquently professed “context is all”. Had I walked by this advertisement in a different time and place, it probably would’ve resonated differently. Given that I’m currently involved in this historic job action where misperceptions are pervasive, it is imperative that we examine what is at the core of this divide.

While this advertisement grounded my faith in why I teach, it also paradoxically confirmed why we find ourselves in this contentious job action right now: How can we teach critical thinking skills if we are not given the academic freedom to do so?

Academic freedom is not only about having control over the curriculum, planning and evaluation for our courses, but at a grander level, it’s about respecting faculty’s professional judgment, expertise and commitment to student achievement and success beyond the classroom.

With the social climate changing so rapidly, it’s no surprise that the education system is as well. Now more than ever, we are seeing a shift in how to best meet the needs of our students. As an educator, I feel that responsibility and take on the challenge but not at the expense of losing the academic freedom that I have not only earned but value wholeheartedly. Academic freedom doesn’t mean that professors get to “teach whatever they want” as some or many mistakenly have attributed it to, it’s about being respected and valued as experts in our field, the very field that we feel responsible and passionate for preparing our students for.

For management/employers to take away or limit our academic freedom will not only perpetuate the business model system they have in place, but also put faculty in a position to work in an environment where what they teach is not what they preach.

The importance of academic freedom not only lies in ensuring that faculty are valued as experts in their professional domains, but that we all have a vested interest in our students’ success when they graduate.

When information and skill development is the expectation at the college level, understanding that critical thinking is key for success is really at the core of this debate. Without academic freedom, we acknowledge the former without understanding the contemporary significance of the latter.

On this 26th day of this labour dispute, I reflect back on my walk and seeing that poster. Hope is powerful, so too is the understanding of the aspired futures and success of our students. As dedicated educators our goal is to facilitate the knowledge, skills and critical thinking that will lead them to this. The current offer fails to acknowledge the integrity of the very individuals who are charged with the responsibility to making this happen. The current offer from the employers includes language that fails to protect our academic freedom.  At the end of the day, if we accept the current offer, we refuse to acknowledge that no language is neutral, particularly in situations of injustice and we give up our individual value and professional integrity.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” –Desmond Tutu.