Academic Freedom in the Age of Distance Education

Robert M. Colley*

Academic freedom has been a prominent issue in American higher education since the Civil War. Walter Metzger, in his landmark work, Academic Freedom in the Age of the University (New York: Columbia University, 1955), demonstrates how this complex and rather elusive concept has been connected to various cultural transformations of American society at large, as they inevitably affected life in the academy. The emergence of distance education has recently lent a new urgency to the contemporary debate about academic freedom. This paper offers some observations about how an appreciation of Metzger’s original analysis might alter the future direction of that debate.

As a result of several dramatic changes in American society within the past decade, the issue of the legitimacy of distance education, and its resultant impact on traditional notions of academic freedom, has come to the very forefront of the current academic debate about the future of higher education. The confluence of market demands and the availability of the new technologies have resulted in what Johns Hopkins’ President William F. Brody has termed the "loss of exclusivity": traditional universities can no longer assume that the growing market for education in the information age belongs exclusively to them. Proprietary institutions, corporate universities, commercial publishers and software providers all offer alternatives that present a serious challenge to the primacy of traditional institutions of higher learning. As traditional institutions work harder to retain their share of the education market, they sometimes find themselves in the awkward position of condemning their new technology-driven competitors while simultaneously trying to emulate them.

Many argue that the most significant result of distance education in the academy will be the paradigm shift from a professor-centered to a student-centered system of learning. The implications for the profession of teaching are far-reaching, and a new set of skills will be demanded of faculty: "a knowledge of innovative applications of technology, as well as a wide range of facilitative roles" (Gerald Van Dusen, The Virtual Campus, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, 1997, 30). Humphrey Tonkin, President of the University of Hartford, sees as inevitable the shift of faculty role from conveyer of knowledge to mediator, as the student becomes more in control of the educational delivery system. The typical faculty response to this scenario, apart from a few early adopters, has been less than enthusiastic, to say the least. Faculty critiques of distance education often involve an appeal to the time-honored concept of academic freedom, and an attempt to broaden its scope, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, to cover all the very real threats distance education poses to their autonomy and prestige. The argument, in a nutshell, is that by threatening academic freedom in various ways, distance education threatens the quality of intellectual discourse, which in turn threatens the public welfare.

In keeping with its historic role as the champion of academic freedom, it is not surprising that the American Association of University Professors has attempted to seize the initiative in this debate, reminding faculty that the organization is working on their behalf to keep abreast of events on the distance education front, and expose threats to traditional professorial prerogatives. An examination of the AAUP’s recent literature and public pronouncements on the subject affords a good overview of how the concept of academic freedom has been outfitted, if you will, for combat duty in this most modern of academic turf wars. In the Spring, 1999 issue of New York Academe, Jerry Grayson, President of the New York State AAUP chapter, warns that "the issues emanating from distance learning that relate to academic freedom are of greatest consequence to faculty." These include electronic censorship, intellectual property, and the rights of colleges to "mandate distance programs, assign faculty to teach in them, use or reuse previously created faculty work, and distribute (and possibly misuse) materials on computer networks." He closes with a promise that the AAUP "has and will continue to provide the forum in which these issues will be debated" and where distance education policy is established. (12)

Will the collusion of profit-oriented administrators and commercial software providers result in an eventual backlash against virtual education? Are faculty who resist its charms in danger of being dismissed as Luddites or, worse, mere protectors of the guild? The battle will ultimately be won by those stakeholders who can best articulate to the public at large the most comprehensive vision of academic freedom, which in turn will allow them to control the terms of the debate about whether the spread of distance education will ultimately have a positive or negative impact on the quality of higher education.

Part of the difficulty, as Metzger reminds us, lies with the vagueness of the concept of academic freedom itself. In 1915, when the AAUP founders were trying to get consensus on the term, "there was a wide diversity of opinion with respect to its principles and scope, and a wide diversity of practices with regard to its protection and aid." (Metzger, 200) As evidenced by the rhetoric involved in the current debate on distance education, there is still little consensus about whose freedoms should be included in the discussion, or how they should be rank-ordered. Where does the concept intersect with concerns about responsiveness to student and workforce needs, or with issues of quality control and access? How can the professorate play the sometimes thankless role of gatekeeper, or conservator of time-honored values, and yet not lose the public mandate so necessary to the prospering of their profession?

First, Metzger warns against the temptation to fantasize about a bygone "golden age" in which the faculty’s status was somehow more exulted, and their authority over matters of academic governance therefore unchallenged. History shows that there have always been tensions between faculty and university administrators, given their differing roles and agendas within the institution. The particular way in which the nineteenth century American University evolved, in contrast to its German predecessors, points up a troubling contradiction inherent in its mission. "As a culturally autonomous guild, the University was independent of all social groups, and stood above the clash of their interests; as a serviceable folk institution, it was the instrument of all social groups, and dared not rasp the interests of constituents." (109) Such historical perspective should not lead to docility in the face of administrative assertiveness, but can possibly help to avoid polarization of faculties’ and administrators’ positions. Faculty priorities must always be important to administrators, but cannot be the only ones taken into account—and never were, if one examines the historical record of the struggle for academic freedom.

Whatever the ultimate truth about whose interests are being served by distance education, credible voices should not leave themselves open to charges of narrowing the universe of discourse. Again, Metzger reminds us of the scope of the original German notion of academic freedom, which promoted the benefits of disinterested and unencumbered inquiry for both students and faculty. In disassociating "Lernfrieheit" from "Lehrfrieheit" in the 1890’s (123), and moving toward a definition of academic freedom that focused more on the preservation of their hard-won prerogatives, faculty may have lost sight of the historic precedents for a richer view of the concept of academic freedom that would encompass the interests of both groups. Historically, arguments for the preservation of faculty freedoms rest on the assumption that society in general will benefit. In the nineteenth century, particularly in public institutions, faculty often sought protection from coercive trustees by appealing to the support of the larger public, and the AAUP’s most current statements on academic freedom issues still make that appeal. However, there is always the danger that the public will not see in that way, and that faculty arguing against distance education on behalf of "quality" will be put in the awkward position of claiming that they really know best what is good for the rest of the population. Here, Metzger’s concerns of 50 years ago still apply: "The temptation is to make academic freedom coterminous with the security of professors in the guild." (182)

In the final analysis, the age of distance education offers faculty the opportunity to redefine the concept of academic freedom in a way that opens up new possibilities for public service. Faculty unions can move beyond protectionism, accept that the new technologies are changing the nature of academic work, and use their collective research and assessment skills to help university administrators evaluate the extent to which the technologies deliver the benefits their advocates often promise: increased efficiency, access, quality, and reduced costs. In so doing, faculty will avoid being cast as self-interested resisters of change, and exercise their historic intellectual and moral authority in the service of enhanced learning opportunities for all citizens.