The Hamline controversy and the real threat to academic freedom | Opinions

Over the past few weeks, there has been much debate about academic freedom in the United States. It stemmed from Hamline University’s decision not to renew the contract of an adjunct professor who displayed the famous 14th-century Persian painting of the Prophet Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel in art history class. hers. The decision was made after a complaint from an outraged Muslim student.

“We now find ourselves at the center of a purposeful confrontation between academic freedom and equity.” These words from Hamline University President Fayneese Miller succinctly summarize what appears to be a false dichotomy for professors around the country.

Defenders of academic freedom have condemned the failure to renew adjunct professors, while equity advocates have reiterated the importance of creating a welcoming and inclusive university environment. America’s rapidly diversifying students, including Muslims.

Skimming each other, these two camps have overlooked the real issue here: the commercialization of higher education to the detriment of students as well as faculty.

Faced with financial pressure to cut costs, even as tuition fees skyrocket, administrators at both public and private schools have replaced tenure track lines with adjustments since the years. 1970. By 2020, two out of four instructors in the United States are assistant instructors on short-term contracts with no renewal guarantee, paid only a few thousand dollars per class.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, about 25% of adjunct professors rely on government support and 40% are unable to meet basic expenses.

Compare this to 1969, when about 78 percent of faculty members on payroll or on a payroll track earned a living wage. The state budget covered more than 70 percent of public university budgets in the 1970s; today it’s down to 34 percent. Tuition currently makes up for that difference.

Meanwhile, the current generation of students see universities as providers they pay to make them happy. University administrators compel by providing high-class residence halls, elaborate food courts, and state-of-the-art entertainment centers.

Student requirements to be fully met extend into the classroom. As a result, professors are increasingly faced with administrators responding to student complaints about workload, teaching style, assigned content, class discussions or other problems. Other matters that the professor has the absolute discretion to decide.

If a university is nothing more than a consumer product company, it is not surprising that tuition-paying students feel empowered to tell professors how and what they teach.

But universities are not commercial entities, despite the disturbing trend of managers behaving like corporate executives. Teachers are not just employees.

Through decades of study and research, university lecturers are hired for their deep expertise. Thus, allowing students to decide what professors teach will erode the quality of the very education they are paying for.

Indeed, universities are said to generate important engagement on complex issues affecting society – whether it is climate change, racial justice, human rights or public health. . Exposure to diverse knowledge triggers intellectual inquiry that often creates discomfort, frustration, or even dissent. Rarely does this happen without the academic freedom to refute the interference of regulators, funders, and students.

However, without tenure, statements advocating academic freedom are not more binding on a university than a corporate public relations thesis. And the desire to keep client customers happy (and paying tuition) supersedes the best-intentioned commitments of administrators to academic freedom.

The Hamline University debate is raising alarm bells in academia, but not for the reasons that advocates of academic freedom claim.

The systematic evisceration of tenure track lines would be the death of academic freedom in America, not Muslim students expressing displeasure at the sight of a famous Persian painting. honor the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class.

The Muslim students at Hamline are doing exactly what higher education is intended to allow them to do – think critically about the course materials, including voicing their disagreements.

Students have the right to inform Hamline University administrators of the many phobias they have experienced on campus, separate from and before they encounter the picture in an online class. . Academic freedom does not permit anyone in the university to harass or demean students.

Of course, publicly available facts suggest this is not the professor’s intention in showing the Persian painting. If she is not an assistant, no manager may unilaterally decide not to renew her contract whether because of a student complaint or any other reason. If a professor is appointed, university administrators will have no choice but to treat her as an equal, rather than a subordinate in a commercial institution.

In turn, resolving student complaints can allow professors to work with administrators to turn the experience into a transformative teaching moment for students.

The Hamline University controversy is not a confrontation between academic freedom and fairness, as the two principles are not necessarily in conflict. This is the latest wake-up call that the existential crisis of academic freedom is not about students questioning content in the classroom – but systematic thinking. Appointment of university lecturers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Al Jazeera.


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