Office of the Provost

Statement on Academic Freedom--Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom

June 4, 2003

The contemporary concept of academic freedom is rooted in the mediaeval model of the university as a self-governing association of academics with the prerogative of self-definition (through determination of the nature and mission of the institution), of institutional self-perpetuation (through election to the faculty), and of self-administration. These rights and privileges evolved to protect universities from direction by the church and the state, and were endorsed by society because they enhanced the ability of universities to fulfill their responsibility to generate understanding, transmit knowledge across the generations, and disseminate higher learning and professional arts throughout society; enabling universities to achieve excellence in these missions remains the core of society's support for academic freedom.

The collective commitment of the academic community to the principles of academic freedom played an important role in shaping the major American universities of the twentieth century, including our own. This commitment is most famously embodied in the "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom" of the American Association of University Professors, first put forward in 1940 and subsequently amended and referred to or incorporated into a variety of documents, including the 1966 "Statement on Professional Ethics" and the 1970 "Statement on Freedom and Responsibility"; over the past sixty years these statements have been subscribed to by almost all the major academic scholarly and professional societies in the United States. More locally, commitment to academic freedom is embedded in the University of Pittsburgh Bylaws and safeguarded by the rights and obligations of faculty to participate in governance at the University, especially in the determination of the curriculum, the development of policies, and the selection of the faculty and of the academic leadership of the University.

As society changes, academic freedom faces new challenges. In recent years, these have included the pressures associated with the value placed on accreditation, the potential strictures on dissemination of knowledge imposed by external public and private financial sponsorship of research and teaching, legal and regulatory constraints, and the conflicts generated when instruction involves practice of a profession in the world beyond the Academy.

Within the University, the Committee has examined with particular care the prevalence and funding of instructional programs that take instruction out of the classroom, laboratory, and library, and has been struck by how common and well established such programs are. Schools as disparate as Medicine, Education, Law, Social Work, Nursing, Arts and Sciences, Information Sciences, and Engineering all have clinic, placement, practicum, internship, and coop programs that are important, and in some cases central, to professional or graduate education, and as the Committee explored the implications of what were initially referred to as non-traditional programs, the members rapidly came to appreciate that these programs typically embody well-established instructional practices within the professions involved. They are perhaps better regarded as traditional pedagogical practices that take the academy into society in a manner that is essential and appropriate for education in many professions.

Academic programs that situate instruction within the broader society have the potential to give rise to many conflicts between the priorities and values of the Academy and those of other elements of society. The Committee noted in particular that the programs can give rise to circumstances that demand that a clear distinction be made between interactions with students that involve the supervision of a professional practice and interactions that involve instruction and, especially, pedagogical evaluation; faculty administrators in the areas in which this is an issue exhibited in general a clear understanding of the need to resolve the resulting conflicts of interest, and had excellent policies and practices to deal with these issues. The Committee also noted that when faculty offer instruction under circumstances in which a profession is simultaneously practiced and taught, it is important to distinguish constraints on professional practice from the responsibility of faculty to offer instruction that represents their best professional judgment; in the Committee's review of programs at the University of Pittsburgh faculty in the disciplines exhibited a good understanding of these issues, and it was clear, for example, that clinical faculty whose prescription options might be constrained by insurance reimbursement limits would not be similarly constrained in the instruction that they would offer students on the relative merits of various drugs. Finally, faculty administrators in professions with strong ethical codes governing professional behavior (law and social work, for example) typically made clear distinctions between actions that are governed by professional ethics (especially advocacy roles) and those that are governed by academic ethics and could therefore claim the protections of academic freedom.

Funding mechanisms are a major potential source of conflict for instruction located within the practice of a profession, which is often partially or wholly funded by revenue streams other than the Educational and General budget of the University. Such funds include clinical revenue, corporate support for internships, University of Pittsburgh endowment support, and foundation support for internships in not-for-profit organizations. In many cases, growth of the programs has been shaped by the scale and availability of these resources.

The development and implementation of instructional programs located within the practice of a profession is routinely reviewed and endorsed by shared governance structures that accord faculty as individuals and as collective groups (departmental- and school-level curriculum committees, planning and budget committees, etc.) their traditional prerogatives with regard to curricula. The Committee did not, however, perceive that all schools had practices and cultures that adequately protected those prerogatives in circumstances in which the reduction or loss of external funding threatened the ability of faculty to deliver existing curricula. The Committee strongly recommends that when changes in the availability of external funding might reduce or eliminate a faculty approved course or curriculum the relevant faculty committees should be consulted by academic administrators regarding the prioritization of such a program with regard to other programs from which support could be reallocated.

After its review of the particular context and priorities of the University of Pittsburgh at this time, the Committee affirms that, at its most fundamental, the academic freedom of all members of the University centers on the right of individual scholars to use their professional expertise to select and pursue lines of enquiry, to come to conclusions and to formulate scholarly opinions on the questions that they study, and to translate their knowledge and understanding into effective instruction appropriately grounded in principles and practices of disciplines and professions. It is the responsibility of the University to support individuals in the exercise of these rights within the bounds of available resources, the conflicting demands put on those resources, and the constraints of shared governance.

Within the complex structure of a modern university, academic freedom is a prerogative of the university as a whole, of constituent academic units, and of the individual faculty members who make up the body of the university. At each level, the privileges of academic freedom are exercised in relation to academic purposes and within the bounds established by custom and the general practice of the academic community. These include bounds of expertise-it is the privilege of faculty members acting as a collective group to establish curricula (in accord with established governance procedures) and of individual faculty members to determine how they will articulate their discipline within the curricular structure established by their Department or School, but a faculty member cannot change curricula by redefining one subject as another and one unit cannot legislate curricula for another.

Our ability to assert the rights and privileges of academic freedom depends on our willingness to accept concomitant responsibilities at each of the levels at which academic freedom is exercised. These include the responsibility to meet the highest scholarly standards in work that is carried out under the protection of academic freedom, the responsibility to respect the academic rights of others, and the responsibility to participate constructively in collective processes through which these rights are exercised. Most especially, it implies the responsibility to treat all members of the community of scholars that constitutes the university, including students as scholars under instruction, with the dignity that respects all honestly held opinions and all cogently articulated arguments.

Within the University, there exist well-established structures and procedures based on the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee of the University Senate that have passionately and effectively explored circumstances that threaten the academic freedom of individuals and advocated actions to address such circumstances, but when external circumstances arise that actually or potentially threaten the academic freedom of departments, schools, or the University as a whole, the Provost may benefit from the advice of a broader group with a role complementary to that of the Senate TAFC. The Committee accordingly adopted the following recommendation on an advisory structure to the Provost on issues of academic freedom:

Whereas, the ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom believes that, as society changes, the exercise of academic freedom by the University as a whole, by the constituent academic units, and by the individual faculty members who make up the body of the University, faces new challenges and that these challenges must be addressed in a manner informed by a broad range of academic and administrative expertise.

Resolved, the Committee recommends that the Provost establish an advisory structure based on a small standing committee with expertise that includes that of faculty members, faculty administrators, and Senate TAFC, to provide reflection and continuity (grounded in established principles and informed by experience at the University of Pittsburgh) on issues of academic freedom as they pertain to the University and to work with the Provost when deemed appropriate to establish, at short notice, ad hoc subcommittees with the expertise to address particular issues on which the Provost needs advice.

N. John Cooper
Chair, Provost's ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom


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