Freedom to teach


The world of academia is increasingly fraught with regulation and bureaucracy. Alanna O’Malley asks whether we need to revert to our ivory towers to consider this problem.

The basis on which the idea of universities, as centres of excellence and learning, were founded may have a long, rich history but the third-level education system of today is increasingly commercial, bureaucratic, and fraught with tensions between academics and those who seek to regulate them.

Although the basic principle of academic freedom has remained intact, it has recently come under fire in the case of US Professor, Denis Rancourt, who faces dismissal from his post at the University of Ottawa for turning a physics course into one on political movements and awarding automatic A-grades to his students on the first day of term.

In the debate which has ensued on the validity and legitimacy of Rancourt’s actions, the issue which has come most to the fore is the question of whether or not academics are free to conduct their work as they see fit, or to what extent they are forced to abide by the rules of the institution.

Though clearly Rancourt’s actions are an extreme example of outlandish academic behaviour, UCD’s academics have been known to have their charming eccentricities too. With stories ranging from the most brazen; standing on tables in the middle of a lecture, recommending attendance to religious workshops to the more sedate; involving provocative statements designed to get reactions, and the treatment of the lectern as a pulpit for outrageously controversial declarations, oftentimes reminiscent of the ideals of times past.

The point to bear in mind here is that lecturing is commonly viewed as a performance and those who manage to be entertaining as well as informative bask in the reflected admiration from their students. Though there are varying interpretations of what constitutes an entertaining personality, lecture halls around the world may remain the last unregulated place of free expression and debate. If the chair of that debate wishes to conduct his duties in accordance with his particular eccentricities, this should be embraced, rather than repressed by faceless bureaurocrats seeking to control how we learn and teach.

“those who manage to be entertaining as well as informative bask in the reflected admiration from their students”

The issue which must be put front and centre here is that not only should we be protecting collective social and educational freedom, we should also resist any efforts to clamp down on individual expression. Though of course the conduct of the individual in any sphere is subject to social norms, universities are one of the few remaining places where institutional rules are open to a certain amount of interpretation and institutionalisation occurs only infrequently.

However, the increasing focus on the commercialisation of education would seek to hold academics more and more to a common standard of practice that would indirectly influence their ability to act and teach freely.

There are two problems that emerge here; the first is whether or not we legitimise social and educational norms by enforcing a stricter code of practice in terms of teaching and learning. Though this might lend structure and consistency to the process of learning across different disciplines, it would also lead to the homogenisation of the learning process which creates even less space for professional expression and interpretation.

Secondly, if we legitimate these procedures, not only is it a reflection of the declining ability of universities to assert their own agenda against that of the creeping corporate influence, it also points to the declining role of universities in terms of impacting upon national consciousness and maintaining significance in areas of policy.

Trying to define an appropriate level of self-expression for students and lecturers alike is not only an impossible task; it takes third-level education in the wrong direction. Though it is important to depart from the traditional conception of an academic ‘holier than thou’ exceptionalism, attempting to define the direction of our collective redefinition runs against the grain of the original image of universities as free spaces for all forms of expression

Academics the world over are increasingly finding themselves held to standards regarding production and work ethic that would have made Plato squirm. This debate over academic freedom should be harnessed as both an act of opposition to the denigration of our educational standards and to prevent the further retrenchment of our values along with our opportunities.

If we are to reach the levels of abstraction achieved by Plato, academics should be allowed to interpret and express as freely as they like. We are all in the ivory tower now, in one way or another, it is time to defend it.