The University Record, October 3, 1994

Accountability required to maintain academic freedom

Editor’s Note: The complete text of Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker’s Sept. 26 speech to Senate Assembly is on pages 5–6.

By Mary Jo Frank

Academic freedom is one of the preconditions for a university to perform its social function: pursuing knowledge, Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr. told Senate Assembly members at their September meeting.

“When that social function is not performed adequately, it can be, and often is, curtailed by the society around it,” he warned.

Citing growing concerns on the part of “patrons” or supporters of higher education about accountability, Whitaker said “these concerns arise from perceived conflicts of interest, conflicts of commitment, and failures to hold ourselves to high standards in those activities for which we accept or seek societal support such as scholarship and undergraduate education.”

Speaking about “Intellectual Independence in an Era of Accountability,”

Whitaker said although academic freedom is important to members of the Univer-sity community, it is little understood or supported outside the University.

“The freedom to challenge ‘received wisdom’ or ‘common sense’ is often not welcome, yet it is that freedom that leads to new discoveries, to new knowledge, and to the improvement of current ways of doing things,” Whitaker noted.

Academic freedom is not a right that is lodged in an individual faculty member but “is a set of arrangements that are derived from the university’s obligation to society.”

University administrators nationwide spend considerable energy explaining the merits of academic freedom and the importance of what universities do to patrons of higher education, he said. Just as important is the need to explain to scholars the demands for accountability that come from university patrons.

“I believe that broader faculty awareness of the reasons behind the calls for accountability from those we serve is essential for restoring the confidence of our patrons in the value and the quality of our work.”

Saying “trust me” to persons outside the university is not enough, according to Whitaker. “We must, in fact, confront the challenges that we face by affirming to ourselves and the outside world that we are serious and that we accept responsibility for self-governance in the fullest sense.”

While many dedicated faculty members labor long and hard on behalf of their students, Whitaker said, “we have a few colleagues who do not meet their teaching obligation as adequately as one would like.”

He cited letters from parents who complain that their upper-class son or daughter can’t find a faculty member to guide an honors thesis.

“I have received complaints from graduate students about faculty members who have kept their dissertation chapters for 18 months or more.

“I have had to meet with a colleague who was only willing to teach class on a single day of the week, a day of his own choosing.

“I have been informed of a colleague who opted not to assign any written work or examinations in a course but gave all his students A’s.”

Noting that such behavior is not appropriate or responsible, Whitaker said, “Tenure was never intended to protect faculty who were not meeting their responsibilities. If we allow our colleagues to use tenure in this way, we run the risk of losing one of our most precious assets.”

Unless faculty and administrators devote attention to the issues of accountability, Whitaker predicted, “we will lose more and more of the intellectual freedom that is the heart and soul of our scholarship.”

Failure to accept responsibilities that come with academic freedom and tenure already has resulted in higher education’s loss in national standing, Whitaker said.

“If we don’t monitor our own activities more appropriately, our cherished autonomy may be threatened as well,” he added.

Physics Prof. Jens C. Zorn said faculty know when colleagues are behaving inappropriately. Peer pressure is one of the most effective ways to correct such behavior, he said, “if we are willing to lean on colleagues.”

Whitaker agreed that peers and socialization of faculty within the units—rather than rule books—are the best ways to foster accountability.