Commentary

University of Alaska administration proposal would weaken academic freedom

August 26, 2022 6:13 pm
One of the outdoor sculptures at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus is integrated into a fountain, pictured here on May 16. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

One of the outdoor sculptures at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus is integrated into a fountain, pictured here on May 16. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Academic freedom and the tenure system are central to the University of Alaska, but the principles are not widely understood. 

Academic freedom is about finding the truth–wading through noise and opinions–and getting to the facts. It gives teachers, researchers and artists at the top of their field the freedom to express their views publicly and in what they teach, without fear of reprisal or dismissal–even when expressing unpopular positions. Tenure provides faculty the additional job security needed to thrive in the search for truth and getting to the facts. Academic freedom and tenure should not be a bargaining chip at any university interested in growing world-class research and education.

Unfortunately, in faculty negotiations over the past year, the UA administration’s team tried to remove a crucial part of the academic freedom and responsibility article of the faculty collective bargaining agreement. Section 6.3 includes a joint (United Academics-university) endorsement of foundational documents issued by the American Association of University Professors, upon which American universities are built. A more recent administration proposal keeps the section. But it adds language that could cause confusion and make it easier for the university to violate principles of academic freedom. On the surface, the administration is finally agreeing to what should have been agreed upon on day one. However, at the same time, it seeks to functionally create an out that would allow it to not follow the principles of academic freedom and to not include the faculty in sharing how the university is governed. Altering this defining language would put faculty and thus education in our state in a weaker, unprotected position.

Faculty have a uniquely central role at a university: We teach, we develop research, we create art, we set curriculum, we govern and we are mentors training the workforce and future leaders of our state. Our tenure system for vetting faculty is rigorous and ongoing. 

The academy is where people learn how to think critically, logically and analytically–ideally to produce a balanced output. Academia is the place where the free exchange of ideas is continuous, with the goal of synthesizing opinions, diverging ideas and fact-finding experiments. While free speech usually means everyone has an opinion and can freely state it, academic freedom has the greater responsibility of civil discourse. Without this freedom of exchange, members of society are more likely to regurgitate whatever those currently in power want to hear. 

If you and I can’t talk about things freely, then we can’t think about them freely, and our thoughts can be manipulated by those who set policies or write headlines. Disinformation and conflicting narratives continually flood our society, but university faculty are uniquely positioned to help others see the false reports and think critically. That is the power of education. That is the power of academic freedom and tenure.

In fact, a University of Alaska Board of Regents policy affirms academic freedom: “Nothing contained in Regents’ Policy or University Regulation will be construed to limit or abridge any person’s right to free speech or to infringe the academic freedom of any member of the university community.” Though excellent, this blanket statement does not define academic freedom; it only asserts its centrality.

We must define and protect academic freedom, according to the principles of AAUP, in the CBA  to demonstrate the faculty and administration’s shared commitment and understanding that the university exists for the common good. It is where the continuous exchange of ideas should not be subject to political trends. Sometimes this is inconvenient for policymakers with conflicting agendas, but if we want to attract and keep world-class educators, researchers, artists and students, we must agree and fully endorse these principles. I hope to see a final collective bargaining agreement that recognizes how foundational academic freedom and tenure are to the faculty role at the University of Alaska. 

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Jennifer Ward
Jennifer Ward

Jennifer Ward is an associate professor and Faculty Senate president at University of Alaska Southeast, and a librarian at Egan Library. She is also a member of United Academics, the faculty union. She lives in Juneau.

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