Guest commentary: Academic freedom at root of professors’ selection of materials

Editor’s note: The Daily News’ editorial board, following up on the Oct. 24 story about a student claiming “leftist abuse” from a required course on community involvement, put these questions to Florida Gulf Coast University Chief of Staff Susan Evans: “Shouldn’t a mandatory class present a mix or balance of political views, or is the idea that at the college level students should be able to compare and contrast for themselves? What is the FGCU policy?”

She referred our questions to Ronald Toll, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Here is his response:

First, there is no FGCU policy regarding how material should be presented. One of the most valued central tenets in higher education is academic freedom. I believe that most scholars of higher education would include as part of their practical application of this term the understanding of and appreciation for faculty members’ liberty to conduct research, publish the results of their scholarly efforts and to select materials and information to be included within their course syllabus.

Further, they may choose from among a wide variety of pedagogical approaches in order to best support students’ acquisition of knowledge and learning.

Therefore, the principle of academic freedom stands at the core of teaching and learning in a free society such as ours.

That said, the inclusion of divergent beliefs, opinions and points of view can be accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, it is standard educational practice for faculty to ask their students to self report with regard to their opinions on controversial topics, for example, the immigration debate, and then to assign students to take and defend the position held by the ‘other side’ of that debate.

Some might see this as an unjust requirement to defend a belief that the individual finds objectionable. Others would see this as an important pedagogical tool that requires students to use logic and argument. This type of assignment might result in some people questioning their initial belief or, to the contrary, it could cause them to hold to their initial belief even more tenaciously. Either outcome is equally fine. Both outcomes achieve the same learning goals.

Our faculty here at FGCU, and I would suggest those at the vast majority of all institutions of higher learning, are bound by other tenets of our profession to provide the so-called “level playing field,” wherein students are encouraged to express their beliefs freely and without fear of retaliation or condemnation. I believe that faculty take this responsibility seriously and do provide for this type of exchange. Over my years as an academic administrator, I have seen many instances of students’ feedback to various courses in which they mention specifically that they received a very high grade even though it was clear to them that their opinion was in the minority within that class. However, I have also seen instances where students were concerned about expressing their views that might differ from others more commonly held. While the playing field can be made level, some students may not always feel comfortable using the opportunities available to them. That is unfortunate, but I accept it as a reality.

Finally, the presentation by a faculty member of a particular point of view, whether it is the belief of that faculty member, or perhaps the exact opposite of their belief, or the selection of a learning text that holds one point of view as compared to multiple, is well within the purview of the faculty member, based on their academic freedom. The initial presentation of what appears to be only one-sided or indicative of just one point of view, can and hopefully does lead to a vigorous, perhaps even emotionally charged, but always civil, discourse. The important component here is that the fundamental intellectual basis of the debate is respected by all participants. The intent is not to cause a person to change his or her mind. In those many cases, when no person is ultimately swayed by the debate to change their point of view, the vigor and rigor of the conversation is the substance of the learning experience.

You have asked an important question regarding how learning takes place. After decades and centuries, we have learned that there are many ways that learning takes place and that different people learn in different ways. At the proverbial “end of the day” the most important goal for us as educators is that the sum total of our students’ learning opportunities were varied, divergent, rigorous, intellectually sound and grounded in outcomes.

I hope that this information is of some value to you.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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