Saturday, September 13, 2014

Freedom vs. responsibility

There is a raging debate among the faculty on my campus.  Coalitions are forming, email debate is at an all-time high, and tempers are flaring.  The committee that provided a recommendation is being challenged in sidewalk conversations, meeting sidebars, and faculty lounges.  The topic?  Faculty responsibilities when students have excused absences from class.

Yes, you are reading that correctly.  The faculty at large is up in arms over fair and equitable treatment of students who miss classes, with the emphasis on those students who have university-sanctioned or other legitimate reasons for their absence.  To be perfectly clear, the concern is not whether we are being fair or how to be fair, but over whether faculty can be held to any consistent expectations regarding their behavior and their policies in the classroom.

The recent hullabaloo is over a proposed addition to existing policies and, in the process of voicing strong objections to the proposed addition, most faculty are taking issue not with the proposal, but with the existing and unchanged policies.  As these policies have been in place since (according to faculty who've been here far longer than I) 1999 and are publicly available online, this puzzles me.

What I have learned from observing this process is that most faculty (regardless of how many years they have been teaching or whether or not they are tenured, tenure-track, or the all-encompassing-and-convenient other) are unaware that (1) the university has a written attendance policy, (2) the university has a policy regarding university-sanctioned absences, and (3) none of this is about academic freedom.

What alarms me is the lack of understanding by people who hold the privileged status of tenure about the nature and the limits of their privilege.  We are a publicly-funded university. Our state board of education determines the number of hours required for a degree, the funding allocated to our institution, and policies about the number of classroom hours required for an online versus a face-to-face class.  Everyone who teaches for the university is expected to adhere to policies regarding travel, expenditures, and the academic calendar.

Faculty discussion, debate, and disagreement about policy are signs of an engaged and thoughtful faculty. Using the argument of academic freedom to be exempt from those policies is not one of those signs.