Report on Florida Academic Freedom Policies Obscures a Serious Problem · 28 July 2006

By Sara Dogan--SAF--07/28/06

Executive Summary

 

A recent report from Florida's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability requested by the Florida state legislature purports to illustrate the extent of current academic freedom policies for both students and faculty at public colleges and universities in the state. But examination of the specific policies and procedures in place in Florida state colleges and universities reveals that the report is a typical bureaucratic smokescreen and no such protections exist.

 

The report claims that "All Florida public postsecondary institutions have language and policies addressing academic freedom. In general, these statements focus on faculty and their teaching rights and related freedoms. Student academic freedom policies and/or statements generally are found in the institution's student handbook or student code of conduct."

 

It further asserts that all students and faculty receive sufficient notification of academic freedom policies. "All of Florida's community colleges and public universities publish their academic freedom policies in school catalogs or faculty and student handbooks. These documents also frequently are available electronically on the schools' Internet and/or intranet sites," it states.

 

The report includes as an appendix a letter from Florida Commissioner of Education John Winn who does not hesitate to conclude that the report's findings are evidence that no further measures are necessary to protect students' academic freedom: "The report accurately reflects the commitment of Florida's community colleges to the concept of academic freedom for both faculty and students….We appreciate your research on this topic and are gratified that it validates the efficacy of the current approach to ensuring academic freedom within our public community colleges."

 

Despite these expansive claims about the report's findings, an examination of its contents along with an independent evaluation of sample state university policies in Florida reveals that such self-congratulation is far from justified. The report's claim that students are protected depends principally on blurring the distinction between the responsibilities of professors - which are indeed delineated in the report - and the rights of students which are not.

 

It is notable that the report omits any reference to specific policies that would provide students with clearly-defined academic freedom rights, or any indication of specific links where they might be found on official websites. Why isn't a single actual student policy protecting students' academic freedom in the classroom cited in the report? Why is not even a single statement clearly defining what the schools actually mean by academic freedom quoted in the report? The closest the report comes to identifying a school statement that recognizes students' academic freedom is to quote language it claims is present in the policies of nine (out of thirty-nine) public colleges and universities. This language states that "students are free to take reasonable exception to data and views presented by course instructors." While this statement is a step in the right direction, it does not explain what such exceptions might mean, nor provide redress for students who are prevented taking such (undefined) exceptions, nor does it constitutes an adequate policy regarding students' academic freedom.

 

The report, in fact concedes this, with statements like, "academic freedom statements generally do not extensively address student rights" and "faculty grievance policies are more specific to academic freedom than are student grievance policies." In other words, student grievance policies do not cover students' academic freedom rights. In short, they do not exist.

Despite its failure to cite a single comprehensive policy on students' academic freedom, media sources took the report's assertions that current academic freedom protections for students are in place at face value. "The [report] found that all Florida colleges have policies in place that protect academic freedom and include procedures for students to follow if they feel that their rights are being denied by anyone," wrote InsideHigherEd.com editor Scott Jaschik. "In terms of student complaints, the report found that very few complaints deal with the issues raised by the Academic Bill of Rights. Less than 1 percent of student grievances concern academic freedom issues, the report said."

The InsideHigherEd.com piece also quoted Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, stating that the Florida report found "absolutely no basis for the contention that faculty members violate the right of students to academic freedom in the classroom" and "calls into question the motives of those legislators who looked for evidence to justify limiting the rights of faculty in the classroom and limiting the rights of students to hear what faculty had to say."

The following response examines the report's conclusions, revealing that the policies which many have cited as protecting students' academic freedom in fact merely list faculty responsibilities and do not explicitly address student rights. In so doing, it reveals the fallacy of the conclusion reached by Commissioner Winn and assorted opponents of the Academic Bill of Rights who view the report as proof that students have access to and knowledge of academic freedom policies on their campuses and claim that the failure of students to file academic freedom grievance complaints en masse indicates that such grievances must not exist.

Analysis of the Florida Report:

The Rules of the Department of Education for the University of Florida state that:

"Consistent with the exercise of academic responsibility, a teacher must have freedom in the classroom in discussing academic subjects, selecting instructional materials and determining grades. The University student must likewise have the opportunity to study a full spectrum of ideas, opinions, and beliefs, so that the student may acquire maturity for analysis and judgment. Objective and skillful exposition of such matters is the duty of every instructor."

 

The policies on faculty responsibility at Florida State University and the University of North Florida are similar.

 

The Faculty Handbook at Florida State University holds that:

 

"Consistent with the exercise of academic responsibility, an instructor must have freedom in the classroom to discuss academic subjects. The university student must likewise have the opportunity to study a full spectrum of ideas, opinions, and beliefs, so that the student may acquire maturity for analysis and judgment. Objective and skillful exposition of such subject matter is the duty of every instructor."

 

The Faculty Handbook at the University of North Florida similarly states that:

 

"Consistent with the exercise of academic responsibility, employees shall have freedom to present and discuss their own academic subjects, frankly and forthrightly, without fear of censorship, and to select instructional materials and determine grades in accordance with University and Board policies. Objective and skillful exposition of such subject matter, including the acknowledgment of a variety of scholarly opinions, is the duty of every such employee"

 

These three sample policies all incorporate the guidelines of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure of the American Association of University Professors which says that, "teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject." However, the policies do not include the caveat which follows in the AAUP statement that educators must also "be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." This is implicit however in the statement in all three policies that an educator's academic freedom extends only to "academic subjects" and in the case of the UNF policy, only "their own academic subjects"---that is, those subjects in which they have professional expertise.

 

All three policies also place an emphasis on the importance of presenting a diverse spectrum of scholarly viewpoints in the classroom. The UNF policy states that the "acknowledgement of a variety of scholarly opinions" is the duty of every educator and the policies at both UF and FSU hold that "The University student must likewise have the opportunity to study a full spectrum of ideas, opinions, and beliefs, so that the student may acquire maturity for analysis and judgment."

 

Thus far we have shown that the policies of several of the major state universities in Florida mirror the Academic Bill of Rights in their policies on academic freedom so far as they specify the responsibilities of the faculty in relation to their students. But the question remains whether these policies are 1) included in the student materials and student codes of conduct of these universities; and 2) whether they are formulated as student rights. An examination of the materials available to students at these universities reveals that not only are these policies not specified as student rights, but the materials available to students omit any mention of academic freedom entirely and do not guide students in how to respond if their academic freedom is violated. In short, students in these Florida universities effectively no academic freedom rights.

 

At the University of Florida, a Student Guide listed in the student section of the UFL website directs students to several different policy links including a policy on "Student Rights and Responsibilities," a "Student Grievance Procedure" and a listing of "Policies Pertaining Primarily to Individuals."

 

The rights listed in the policy on Student Rights and Responsibilities that relate to academic freedom are vague at best. They include "The right of respect for personal feelings, freedom from indignity, and to expect an education of the highest quality and "The right of freedom to hear and participate in dialogue and to examine diverse views and ideas." The policy does not specify whether these rights are to apply specifically in the classroom and they make no mention of the faculty's responsibility specifically to instruct students in diverse scholarly opinions on the subjects that they teach. They also do not caution students that their professors are expected to stick to "academic" subjects in the course of their lecturing and not lecture on controversial topics that are unrelated to their subject of study.

 

UF's Student Grievance Procedure refers only to "discrimination because of race, national origin, sex, marital status, religion, age, or disability" but makes no mention of discrimination due to political beliefs. Nor does it mention the specific obligations that academic freedom imposes on college faculty and how a grievance might be filed if faculty fail to live up to their professional responsibilities.

 

The listing of "Policies Pertaining Primarily to Individuals" is devoted mostly to the university's drug and alcohol policies. Racial and sexual harassment are each mentioned in a brief paragraph, but no mention at all is made of the university's policies on academic freedom as their pertain to students.

 

Not one of these three policies actually uses the term "academic freedom," nor is the term included as a link on the main "Student Guide" page. Given the lack of a specific policy on students' academic freedom, it is unclear how the university can claim that students are made sufficiently aware of their rights or to expect them to have the insight to file a grievance with the university when they are violated.

 

The policies at Florida State and the University of North Florida are no less vague in their expositions of students' academic freedom.

The Office of Rights and Responsibilities at Florida State seems concerned only with students' judicial rights when they are charged with a violation of the Code of Conduct-an important matter to be sure, but unhelpful in instances where students' academic freedom is being violated.

The online student handbook (only the 2003-2004 version appeared to be available online) also makes no mention of "academic freedom" or similar issues.

Alongside the link to the handbook is a list of "Codes and Policies," some of which touch on issues of academic freedom. A policy on "Values and Moral Standards at FSU" states that "The University is a place of both assent and dissent and is committed to academic freedom and civil dialogue. In a free and vigorous academic community an ongoing clash of ideas is to be expected and encouraged. The University has a special obligation to see that all have an opportunity to be heard."

This policy statement does not bother to define academic freedom, nor to discuss the specific obligations it places on both students and faculty. The statement on academic freedom is directly followed by a clause citing FSU's commitment to "nondiscrimination in matters of race, creed, color, sex, national origin, age, and disability," which notably does not mention discrimination due to political beliefs.

Another policy titled "Students' Freedom of Expression Rights and Responsibilities" recognizes "The right of all students to seek knowledge, debate ideas, form opinions and freely express their views is recognized" but the items which follow make clear that this policy refers to the right of students to hold public demonstrations on campus-and not to any rights that students may hold within the context of the classroom.

At UNF neither the page highlighted for the use of "Current Students" nor the "Student Resources" link on that page reveal any mention of the term "academic freedom." UNF's "Student Conduct Code" recognizes "The right of all students to seek knowledge, debate ideas, form opinions and freely express their ideas" but the "Student Rights section of the code again details only the rights of students accused of conduct violations. If policies directly specifying students' academic freedom are in fact in existence at these universities, they are not to be easily found.

 

UNF's Student Handbook mentions academic freedom in a section on the Academic Integrity Code, stating that "the University of North Florida expects all members of the academic community to respect the principle of academic freedom" but does not define the term. The section is concerned chiefly with plagiarism.

 

A later section of the Handbook on "Appealing an Academic Decision" states that "The University of North Florida operates on the commitment that all members of its community should be treated fairly in regard to their rights and responsibilities and in accordance with the UNF Constitution, the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, and the United Faculty of Florida/Florida Board of Regents Contract. These documents uphold a faculty member's right to control the content of the syllabus and reading material, to determine the content of examinations, and right to free speech. These rights constitute the faculty member's guarantee of academic freedom." The section goes on to describe how a student can challenge a grade which they believe to be unfair, though it does not specifically mention the example of a grade being unfairly assigned due to the professor's disagreement with a student's political or religious views.

 

While this section does describe the concept of academic freedom in more detail, it is stunning that in this, the Student Handbook, the concept is still phrased entirely in terms of the faculty's rights. The principle that students also are entitled to academic freedom is apparently not considered worthy of mention.

 

Additionally, the policy in the student handbook fails to relate the concurrent faculty responsibilities that accompany their academic freedom. The UNF Faculty Handbook, by contrast, describes these responsibilities in great detail, stating that "Objective and skillful exposition of such subject matter, including the acknowledgment of a variety of scholarly opinions, is the duty of every such employee" and limiting the faculty member's right to free speech in the classroom to "present and discuss their own academic subjects." (emphasis added). The contrast between the faculty handbook (which lists both faculty rights and responsibility) and the student handbook (which lists only faculty rights, but without noting the correlating responsibilities) seems designed to prevent challenges to professorial authority or the filing of grievance when students' academic freedom is abused.

 

Another section of the handbook on Disruptive Behavior outlaws "Deliberate interference with academic freedom and freedom of speech of any member or guest of the University" but this is hardly instructive for students when academic freedom has already been defined only as a right of the faculty. These three above citations are the only mentions of "academic freedom" in the UNF Student Handbook.

 

In summary, the conclusion that opponents of our academic freedom campaign have drawn from the OPPAGA report-that Florida's public universities have sufficient policies protecting the academic freedom of both students and faculty, and that such policies are easily accessible-is shown to be unwarranted. If the students don't know what their rights are (or what their expectations of professors' behavior in the classroom should be) how can they know that they have the right to protest when these standards of conduct are violated? This report can only be classified as an attempt to whitewash a serious problem.