Academic Freedom and Faculty Governance

Below is the joint speech given by Christina Falci (Associate Professor of Sociology) and Kevin Hanrahan (Associate Professor of Voice and VocalPedagogy, Director of Faculty Development), the 2021 recipients of the James A. Lake Academic Freedom Award.

The award recognizes individuals whose efforts have helped the freedom to seek and communicate the truth. Recipients address the UNL Faculty Senate on issues relevant to academic freedom.

First, we would like to begin with thanking the Senate for bestowing this award upon us. We share this honor with every member of the ad hoc Bylaw committee including Julia Schleck, David Woodman, John Lindquist, Regina Werum, Kristin Blakely, and Judy Walker. The work our committee did revising the NU Regent Bylaws is truly an example of policy that is right and good for this universitythe end result incorporated a strong set of protections for all faculty.

Why is protecting the faculty important? For one, it is faculty efforts in research, teaching and service that make the most substantial contributions to the university mission. Also, while many administrators come and go and students stay with us for a short period of time, the faculty stay here long-term—often for their entire career. By protecting faculty, then we the faculty, are protecting the university.

If we want to work at a university where independent research and teaching are allowed to flourish, then all faculty must be strong protectors of and advocates for academic freedom. In our view, the administration protects academic freedom only within certain contexts. For example, several administrators spoke out against the recently failed NU Regent resolution trying to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory. We expect that the administration will continue to protect academic freedom for faculty when it comes to banning the teaching of certain subjects or prohibiting certain avenues of research, especially when it is in their best interest to do so.

Yet, when it comes to faculty "conduct", we see a different attitude and approach from administration. We all need to know, both faculty and administrators, that academic freedom protections also extend to academic due process in faculty disciplinary matters. Specifically, academic freedom guarantees that serious charges against a faculty member will be heard before a committee of one's peers. Academic due process further includes placing the burden of proof on the administration as well as informing the faculty member of their right to an academic advisor or attorneyif they choose.

Faculty oversight in these matters provides a check that disciplinary actions are appropriate to the circumstance. The faculty review ensures that sanctions are applied for faculty wrongdoing relevant to one's position. As such, it hinders arbitrary and capricious action against a faculty member, including actions taken due to political pressure. In short, faculty involvement in disciplinary matters ensures that a faculty member's academic freedom is not being violated.

In serious disciplinary matters, however, the administration will always seek advice from the General Counsel's Office, but administration does not always seek out advice from faculty. Our experience working with the NU's General Counsel on the NU Regent Bylaw revisions this past year made it painfully clear that General Counsel is only concerned with employment law it does not fully understand or care about academic freedom protections. In our view, the General Counsel's Office and employment law have a role to play in faculty disciplinary processes, however, they cannot be the only voice consulted by administration. We also need the faculty voice in all serious disciplinary situations in order to protect academic freedom.

Principles of academic freedom not only demand that we be allowed to search for truth or speak truth to power, but also that we hold each other accountable for our actions and words while we are pursuing that truth. If UNL is going to sustain itself as a strong university where teaching and research thrive, then academic freedom and academic due process for all faculty in serious disciplinary matters need to be codified into official policy. We accomplished part of this work with the recent additions to the NU Regent Bylaws pertaining to administrative leave, but there is still more work to be done.

It is we, the faculty, who have the most to lose if academic freedom is weakened at UNL. We agree with the recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that contends that the faculty are partly to blame when academic freedom is diminished. Too frequently we hear faculty leaders complain that they can't get enough faculty to participate on governance committees. As a result, important work that should be done by faculty to protect and preserve the university is increasingly being left undone or is undertaken by the administration. We need all faculty to realize the importance of service to the university. It is through service that we become privy to issues that demand faculty attention. As faculty representatives, we have the responsibility of bringing those issues and concerns to the faculty in our units that we represent.

Faculty participation in shared governance is crucial to protecting academic freedom. We must bring to our service the same attention to detail and work quality that we expect in our teaching and scholarship activities. How often have we observed ourselves or others multitasking during faculty or committee meetings, such as checking emails, writing grant reports, grading, etc.? Perhaps some of you in this room are engaged in these activities right now. Too frequently we allow ourselves to be distracted or unprepared for our service and by doing so we weaken our university and academic freedom. In addition, we must reward the service our peers provide like we appreciate their teaching and research. If we want the rest of the world to value what we do as university faculty, then WE have to value what we do, ALL OF IT, creative activity, research, AND service.

It is through service to our university and our peers that we protect academic freedom, and that we hold each other to a standard of excellence not just in creative activity, research, or scholarship, but to a standard of excellence in professional conduct. Therefore, we challenge everyone here and everyone you represent to step up and be protectors of academic freedom.

If you are unclear about what academic freedom and academic due process entails, then we urge all of you to educate yourself on these matters as well as the faculty you represent. We challenge you to increase your service to the university through serving on department, college, and campus committees. We challenge you to be active in understanding how this university works as well as its policies and procedures. By serving our university and each other faithfully and diligently, we strengthen academic freedom, and we strengthen the university now and into the future.

Relevant Works

Nelson, Cary. 2010. "Defining Academic Freedom." Inside Higher Education

Reichman, Henry. 2021. "Faculty, We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us: If we won't stand up for academic freedom, no one will." The Chronical of Higher Education