In Defense against Academic Freedom

In the August 27th, 1966 edition of Saturday Review, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and the revered American Historian, Henry Steele Commager, both authored distinct editorials defining the concept of academic freedom and its acceptable applications in higher education, at that time a more respectable American institution.[1] Both men write passionately, their missives void of artifice, exhorting officials to permit students to freely exercise their political viewpoints on college campuses during the Vietnam-era, when heightened scrutiny of one’s political leanings in public forums was at a fever pitch.

As to public college[2] professors, however, both men cautioned the university in granting them expressive latitude pursuant to their contractual duties on its premises. Nixon acknowledged the natural right of these educators to hold political viewpoints but advised them to exercise self-restraint so as not to unduly inflame or influence students to adopt anti-American sentiments. To him, America held its scholars to different, higher standards of conduct after having granted them full autonomy to direct their specialized knowledge and flex their prestige within a powerful American institution. Commager couched his apprehensions in the context of an enduring legacy of higher education: “…to act as the critic and the conscience of society. Society has indeed created it [higher education] to play this role.”[3] However, he defers to the unspoken social contract insisting professors be demure toward politics while in the college’s employ: “We require you, therefore, if you would not betray your historic function, to avoid all that is merely parochial, all that is interested, all that is prejudiced.”[4]

These narratives are the table stakes in discussions on the purpose of public higher education and, by extension, the standards of its faculty. A far less commonly addressed issue, however, centers on a more discreet means that some public college educators use to advance their political leanings:  curriculum development, specifically course creation, whose content and delivery are as parochial and mediocre as the teacher’s politics are prejudiced and uninformed. Some niche courses, like Cornell’s “Tree Climbing” or San Diego State’s “Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond,” are wondrously apolitical but questionably relevant in any way, further underscoring the deficiencies in undergraduate education nationwide.

Liberal arts and social sciences are the primary culprits, amending course catalogs with such apolitical novelties including “American Degenerates,” “Whiteness:  The Other Side of Racism,” “Cyberfeminism,” and “The Lucifer Effect:  How Good People Turn Evil.” Present in all tiers of higher education, this tactic is thickest among Ph.Ds. at four-year public institutions that have historically emphasized professional research accomplishments over effective instructional practices for over a century. Many of these doctorates are neither short on bluff nor bluster, and conveniently rationalize their pet political projects as “fun” or “more engaging” for students when all likelihood, little credence will be given to pedagogical matters.[5] Department heads rarely will follow up with an evaluation, trusting that the initial sales pitch that sounded sweet in person and read persuasively on paper will transfer just as successfully when applied in the classroom. Philosopher William James even criticized the university’s chronic tendency to conflate the conferment of a Ph.D. with the presence of sound pedagogy, leading the prominent social scientist to tersely quip, “Will any one [sic] pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? … his moral, social and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever.”[6]

Instructionally, niche professors largely default to lecture with a smattering of “loaded” discussion, whereby a class forum marches to preemptive questions basted heavily with partisanship. Student spontaneity can be hushed altogether, manipulated to favor a different view, or retailed as the opposition to then be ridiculed and condemned. Objectivity is summarily jailed while revisionism runs amok, purging tradition and vandalizing truth, replaced with fanciful interpretations of timeworn themes of power and control.

Nixon’s last of his “Four Academic Freedoms”—an intentional play on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s influential, “Four Freedoms,” decades before—preserves “the freedom of the student from tyranny by the faculty…”[7] (emphasis mine). Many niche courses represent a valid form of academic tyranny, not freedom. They are often cocktails of entitlement and fraud, blended by niche instructors and force-fed to students who experience nothing short of an academic “bait-and-switch.” Like activist judges who manipulate American jurisprudence in the name of democracy, these professors engineer clever ways to spin gold from straw in the name of education.

This strain of academic freedom runs amok of faculty’s obligations to instruct undergraduate students in a more pragmatic, essentialist manner in accordance with economic demand and unencumbered by novelty or postmodernism. Moreover, the politicization or aimlessness of a course further risks dispossessing minority viewpoints in favor of a mob majority, a tactic running aground to the inclusivity and democratization that many of niche professors preach but ironically fail to practice.

A caricature thus emerges from this brand of academic freedom—that of the college professor, pontificating ad nauseum to scores of impressionable or oblivious students, an academic sideshow further rendering American undergraduate education as the circus it risks becoming.





[1] This piece targets educators who routinely disguise their lackluster or poor teaching abilities with niche courses whose relevance to a program’s stated outcomes and objectives is tenuous at best, deceptive at worst. This is not condemning any instructor who has created what could be considered a niche course, nor is this ridiculing Ph.Ds who do exhibit best teaching practices.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “college” is synonymous with all levels of public higher education in this paper. Also, “professor” is used interchangeably with non-Ph.D. representatives for convenience and to underscore my belief that a terminal degree rarely correlates positively to effective instructional methods. Often, there is a negative correlation, owing to the overemphasis on research at the expense of undergraduate education.

[3] Nixon, R. and H.S. Steele. (1966 Aug 27). “What do we mean by academic freedom?” Saturday Review, p. 37.

[4] Ibid, p. 37.

[5] Kevin Carey’s The End of College (2015) and Cathy Davidson’s The New Education (2017) aptly highlight the shoddy quality of undergraduate education in American colleges and universities.

[6] As cited in Carey (2015), p. 32.

[7] Nixon, R. and H.S. Steele. (1966 Aug 27). “What do we mean by academic freedom?” Saturday Review, p. 12.

The Change Colleges Need?

Goucher College’s New Curriculum and those alike have taken a revolutionary step forward in reforming what are commonly known as general education requirements. The traditional distributive method of checking boxes next to courses under distinct groupings with specific conditions to meet has fallen into disrepute at not only Goucher College, but also at The College of William and Mary (integrative, domain-based) and Arizona State University (sectors with minimal, open distributive requirements). Among all are similar numbers of available courses within each domain (or representative thereof) at around a half-dozen, significantly fewer than most traditional distributive general education requirements.

But after viewing clips on Goucher College’s website of college President Jose Antonio Bowen explaining its revolutionary approach beginning Fall 2018, I am hesitant on how applicable and successful this approach will be compared to the more alluring—and potentially damning—theory behind its presumptive success. Put differently, the gulf between theory and application appears prohibitively wider here.

I hope I stand wrong, however. The waters that Goucher and others have waded into are in desperate need a new dominance hierarchy, especially in the historically bungled pursuit of establishing a respectable undergraduate education in America.

On Goucher College’s website, specifically in the section addressing this new curriculum, President Bowen narrates a series of clips to explain this new approach to students’ first year at college. Below are a series of Bowen’s statements followed by my evaluation.

“Most of what you need to know in terms of content we cannot actually teach you because it hasn’t yet been discovered.”

This dovetails nicely with the oft-trumpeted presumption that what students are training for or being educated in now relates to jobs that do not yet exist. YouTube has a cache of mesmerizing videos that animate bewildering facts about the present and future that are more extreme than previous years’ clips, including presumed facts that further mystify this future economy. This clever marketing deepens the mystery of our immediate economic fate while simultaneously stoking the fears of students missing out on acquiring these skills that will command new roles, fields, and perhaps industries, all of which we are not yet fully aware.

Whatever mysteries that will exist, colleges are not the reasonable places to discover and demystify them. Not in their current version, anyway, even when factoring in renovated general education requirements. Business and industry are the proper places, notably those responsible for or directly impacted by the disruptions endemic to economic upheaval, good or bad. (I advocate for a more pronounced business-academia partnership in an upcoming post.)

Colleges can equip students with basic skill sets that somehow escaped so many an earlier age, but it shan’t require so many years. Nor should any current undergraduate college education in its present form, save for the rigors of STEM-related fields and industries. Not all college majors or programs are equal in economic value and reasonably so. I would never demand my literature and English credentials receive equal pay as an engineer with similar degree credentials would in the open market; collegiate programs should be treated just as accordingly.

“The most important thing in college is to learn about your own thinking, what we call being a ‘self-directed learner.’”

If students entering college do not know how they “think best” from the previous 13 years of schooling, the first two years in higher education will do little but reinforce to certain students how poor their senses of prioritization and judgment are, at least for the first year. Many students are convinced their methods of learning work, and perhaps that is true. Other students simply do not care to try something new out of a comfortable sense of complacency. (This trait complements today’s students’ collective aversion to risk-taking, including “risks” that are actually obligations, like attendance and deadlines.)

Put simply, discovery is a desire, and like confidence, it cannot be readily taught. It is far more inherent, at least in an actionable sense, which is the sense that matters most. Simply feeling inspired without capitalizing on it yields nothing productive in return. The process of discovery is not new and does not warrant the number of approaches that allegedly work this process best, especially considering young humans’ penchant for being stubbornly mercurial.

I do have to comment on Mr. Bowen’s presentation at this point in this video segment. Here, he assumes a supplicative tone when addressing the kind of traditional courses incoming students must take, such as “a little bit of” chemistry, philosophy, math, “but not everyone needs calculus.” He mitigates students responsibility to take seriously these courses and to heed essential information that without it, would render even the savviest of students useless. He grovels to students, conceding they will have to exhibit “some ability and some comfort level with” required course content. Rather than be straightforward, his tone folds into a slight shame, as how a pushover adult may act when trying to calm a group of disgruntled children. He unwittingly concludes, “so it’s really more about how you think and how you learn rather than what you learn.”

Any layperson with a lick of understanding that education in America is unforgivably substandard may find this approach so novel, so refreshing, that they would miss what experienced educators as myself find troubling:  relegating content to the peripherals of education in favor for time-consuming, trendy meta-learning theories that upend the centrality of content in any learning theory, including inquiry-based.

You should pick a major based on your desire for learning and your passion and your ability to change your mind.”

When discussing how Goucher prepares students for the future, Mr. Bowen downplays valid economic predictions as to which  industries will grow and dominate and which will wither and potentially perish. (Perhaps these are the same predictions conveniently thrown aside in favor of marketing the unknown future of careers in order to increase enrollment.)

He advises students to pursue their passions regardless of their sustainability in a rather merciless career market. “You’re going to be learning new things your entire life,” he declares. But this is immaterial. Furthermore, I do not fathom many students choosing something they anticipate hating but pursue it anyway, at least not to a degree that warrants this kind of response and subsequent curricular action. And pursuing a career that a student, now as an employee, would hate does not imply that learning new things is not a possibility. That misery deadens the ability to learn. And even if so, then that is on the student.

In all, too much emphasis on colleges employing novel strategies believing they would work regardless of the composition of the student body. There needs to be a frank conversation in literature on how significant cultural differences among student bodies, especially those enrolled in community colleges, affect curricular changes on such a large scale. Put differently, it is critical to track and analyze the success of applied educational policy on students among different geographical pockets and could provide a more accurate analysis of how to best cater to an array of student populations that cannot be reduced to a few oversimplified national statistics.

And finally, the “jobs that do not yet exist” rhetoric needs to be tempered in general and avoided altogether in education, specifically. No matter how innovate general education requirements may be, they still consume an unforgivable amount of students’ time that would be better spent immediately shadowing an industry representative before interning to further hone that student’s desirable skill sets. And from my professional experiences, many students desire to be pigeonholed in a particular career and not waste two years’ time allegedly becoming “a more well-rounded citizen,” as is the common refrain.

New roles will erupt in existing industries, true, but there will always exist enduring practices and careers requiring not only a human presence, but also human ingenuity. Problem-solving skills are critical, as are communication skills. Markets are not going to change so drastically within four – five years (or two – three for community college students) for institutions to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward traditional learning and an emphasis on content—the stuff of thought, the basis for informed decision making, the foundation of all inquiry.

I look forward to Mr. Bowen and other brave administrators and executives proving me wrong.

Missed Accountability

Missing (again) the Point

Community college is a ship dead in the water.

Fortunately, California has legislated a solution to its two-year colleges’ collective failure at graduating their students satisfactorily, meaning in less time and in greater numbers:  Any college failing to improve its student outcomes and its services to what UC Berkeley Graduate Professor David Kirp considers, “poor students,”[1] will incur a 40 percent deduction in state funding as a penalty.

It is an astonishingly asinine piece of legislation, but one that faithfully accords to a lineage of similar fiats threatening economic ruin to schools failing to achieve well-intended—but predictably misapplied—academic standards. No Child Left Behind reduced learning to the selecting of a response from a litany of established choices, under prompts written with as much acquaintance to critical thinking as its  legislation’s authors and supporters were to effective pedagogy. These proponents, including those  authors, then-President George W. Bush and the late Ted Kennedy (D-MA), conflated quick assessment with effective learning. And then they enacted it into legislation, codifying it for nearly a decade, during which NCLB’s nearsightedness became clear, exposing evermore the federal government’s ineptitude addressing an institution it has no constitutional business interfering with, let alone governing, in the first place.

But now the community college is under a microscope after having enjoyed years of much-ado national attention, previously languishing since time immemorial in the ivory shadows of four-year institutions. Many junior college’s faculty and staff enjoy a loose belief that their particular academic bubble is recession-proof. The 12-month span between 2007 – 2008 surely validated it when two-year colleges suddenly were thrust into the role of savior for the U.S. economy. Thanks to then-President Obama’s tenure, education’s forgotten middle child finally could extol its open-admissions policies and its pragmatism. Two-year institutions sported their signature low costs, inviting atmosphere, and personal accessibility.

The public cheered.

Above all else, an in-demand degree took half the time to earn.

The public flocked. Enrollments flourished. It helps tremendously that community colleges are recession-proof. Allegedly, anyway.

But such virtues have failed in practice in California. Allegedly, anyhow.

Back to David Kirp. He responds to this punitive legislation nobly by outlining three undertakings each publicly-funded community college must accomplish, lest a considerable chunk of taxpayer-provided dollars vanishes to the ether, along with the education of a significant diaspora of predominantly in-state students:  creating momentum, fixing remedial education, and providing [students] a road map to graduation. Mr. Kirp is resigned to this punitive legislation, as everyone ought to be. But he is proactively responding to avoid its overreach, as everyone ought to be.

But more concerning than the prohibitive legislation is the conspicuous absence in Kirp’s commentary—and in other similar editorials—of student accountability, especially within the framework of the two primary goals pursuant to his state’s legislation:  improving student outcomes and services to the poor, both of which are the exclusive burdens of the college, ultimately settling largely on faculty who regularly serve as students’ first, and often most accessible, contact.

Make no mistake:  faculty commiserate frequently—and colorfully—about students needing to be held more consistently and proportionally accountable. Significantly so. Administration is firmly aware of this issue, but notwithstanding any consensus behind closed doors, its official policy is to further mire itself in the profitable-but-unsustainable business of remediating students’ college experience to a cut-rate extension of high school, operated by the mid-level managerial equivalent of a meddling mother. Many administrations embrace it because marketing what amounts to a welfare state spoils system translates to easy money. Add in a compromised curriculum for good measure, and—voila!—acquiring state funding is less problematic. But now a significant morale issue engulfs administration and faculty concerning the essence of the college. Conflicts metes out over the precarious balance between academic rigor and student retention that trumpets from either side of the same official mouthpiece. The latter of the two chiefly falls under administration’s purview while the former under faculty’s. What is commonly at odds goes beyond the discrepancy in the nuanced meanings of quantity and quality; it cuts to both camps’ philosophical differences, reducible to the reason for the permanent philosophical disconnect: the dearth of college-level teaching experience present among administrators and executives.[2]

It is difficult to imagine an educator-turned-administrator would green-light staff to interrupt in-session classes, pluck students currently unregistered for the following semester, and then literally walk them down to an academic advising office, where each student will sit and wait before observing representative register their classes for them. It is problematic to believe this reformed educator would contractually obligate faculty to cold-call potential students over dinner hour (of all times) to lure them to a campus that more of them will opt out of than express even tepid interest. (It does not help when caller ID devices list incoming college employee office calls as, “unlisted,” further invalidating this tone-deaf recruitment method.) And it be disingenuous of this new executive to pull on a faculty member’s heartstrings to coax her into overlooking a student’s poor academic standing, and then to permit some exception to that member’s course policy. There have occurred the same situations but involving outright direct insubordination of the teacher, ranging from obscenities to threats. But these are apparently the effects of poorly enacted student outcomes or half-baked attempts at helping poor students and stopping a half-step short of holding students’ hands throughout the majority of their first two years of adult independence is sound practice.

Indeed, what President of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Hank Dunn, testifies to the need for more student accountability rings true:  the college’s overemphasis on its own best practices to ensure student success does not empower students to change their behavior. Back to Dunn: “we came to the conclusion that indeed we were doing things ‘to’ a student and not fundamentally changing the students’ [sic] behavior.”[3] Squandered in this morass is any credibility among disingenuous faculty and pandering administrations in firmly and consistently holding students accountable for their choices in college.

Choice. Its positivity infuses policy rhetoric. Choice is student-centeredness. Choice means for students autonomy, control, and comfort—a trinity that every newly-minted 18-year-old demands. Choice is democratic. American, even. Choice is also marketable. Choice is savvy. But without equivocation, with that brand of choice should naturally come for each student absolute responsibility and accountability. A college’s function is to legislate these and adjudicate them within the same parameters as the choices it supplies students.

Accountability does exist in community colleges. All faculty, personnel, staff, and administration—the collective institution, from custodians to the president—is continuously accountable for student success. California’s legislature agrees. The general public agrees. Mr. Kirp agrees. I agree.

But that should not the point. It is a deflection—a shrewd, political sleight-of-hand that maintains the veneer of accountability while disguising its original intent. Such misdirection preserves the integrity of the college and surely cements votes for the state suits because these approaches imply that students need never fear repercussions proportionate (or at all) to the infraction, whether it is related to academics, athletics, or campus life. In my experiences, this implication converts to actuality once college is in session and students’ desire to play more than work goes unchecked.

Serious discourse on this issue lags compared to how California’s state legislature defines “accountability” that, like its equally ambiguous brethren “equality,” becomes a presumptuously misapplied, highly politicized term. Its intensity and significance ebbs and wanes with as much predictable inconsistency as the stock market. In most literature, accountability focuses predominantly on how colleges should be more culpable for student success, meaning mildly praised when it occurs or mercilessly condemned when it does not. What literature does spotlight student accountability often tins with either caricature-like sanctimony or unenlightened persuasion on students’ natural capability to self-motivate, prioritize, and assuredly conquer their futures with aplomb, when in actuality, few further truths can be had considering the vast majority, populated in large part by Kirp’s “poor students,” among others, typically fail to meet the entrance standards of four-year public institutions because they lacked proper accountability at crucial times in the not-so-distant past, and not because they are cognitively deficient, victims of discrimination, or bearers of bad luck.

“We must work with what we have.” This is a common refrain in a professional’s college tenure from all levels of administration toward a litany of perennial issues. In campus-wide welcome-back speeches, it is a preemptive reminder whose mild firmness hardens by mid-term’s separate division pep talks. Buried in the words lay that third-rail issue of student accountability, strewn thickly with ominous statistics on declining enrollments and state budget cuts, punctuated with renewed vigor on retaining students to combat increased tuition costs and declining job wages.

And what of academic rigor, of the college-level work naturally resulting from the menu of the many desirable, empowering choices marketed to attract and retain as many warm bodies as possible? It is there, I am sure, lurking in still waters, waiting for an act of Nature to steer it again toward relevance. But it might take an act of Congress to legislate it out of the headwinds of oblivion, replete with ruinous consequences for all.

[1] “California to community colleges:  graduate more students or lose your funding,” LA Times, 8/22/18,

[2] Educational administrative theory, a business acumen, or non-educational leadership experience qualify for executive or administrative positions in a type of college that markets its exclusive focus on best-practices instruction to exploit the most potential from students.

[3] “POV: Time to hold students accountable for their own success,” Community College Week, 3/18/2018,