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'Academic Freedom' holds faculty to standards

May 12, 2010
Bill Greer
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
May 15, 2001

Bill Greer, Dean College of Business Administration

Perhaps you will permit me, as outgoing dean of UNI's College of Business Administration, to comment on a couple of threads that have appeared in the news of late. One is the recent flap about "Academic Freedom" (Courier, May 2). The other is Dennis Clayson's attack on undue attention being paid to faculty research productivity (Courier, May 6).

The stance of some within the academy is that "Academic Freedom" entitles a faculty member to do anything he or she wants. My argument is that there are, and should be, limits. Let me explain by giving the reader a bit of background about the debate currently under way.

Roughly a third of the schools of business in this country have met pre-established quality standards which allow them to earn accreditation by The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). I am proud to say UNI's College of Business Administration is among those so distinguished.

We all agree that teaching quality is a difficult thing to quantify. The approach AACSB follows is to ask accredited colleges to define the learning outcome objectives of their courses and programs and to have an assessment system which can measure the level of achievement students actually attain. During the last couple of years, our faculty spent considerable time and thought devising a system to measure achievement and to use the results for continuous improvement of our programs.

We began by developing learning outcome objectives for core courses--that is, by specifying just what we expect students to know when they have successfully completed a course. Then each department constructed a set of test questions that would enable us to determine whether the student had, in fact, learned what we expect. Furthermore, we agreed that a small portion of the final exam in each course should consist of some of those questions, and that the results would be used for course improvement. Please note that the results are NOT being used to evaluate faculty performance.

It is this process that some faculty consider to be a violation of "Academic Freedom." I would prefer to think of it as some form of accountability to the good citizens of Iowa who pay us to teach the next generation. If it were left to me, I would also use the results from outcome assessments to evaluate faculty (in addition to using student-generated assessments). After all, we are being paid because the people of Iowa believe we can meet the challenge of teaching. Why should demonstrating we are successful, and continually striving to be even better, be so threatening?

Now let me turn to the question of research. Published research accomplishes three things: it helps to roll forward the frontiers of knowledge; it increases the visibility of the institution; it demonstrates that faculty are keeping current in their discipline. Among those three, it is my belief that the third, keeping current, is by far the most important.

Faculty members should not be permitted to learn a fixed store of knowledge during his or her PhD program and then to teach only that storehouse during a 30-plus year career. We must continue to discover, to learn, to keep on top of our academic field.

The kind of research that leads to publication in scholarly journals can be done only by faculty who are constantly learning, who are scratching at the frontiers. Therefore, if faculty members are publishing in selective journals, we know those faculty members are current; and our presumption is that what goes on in their classrooms is current, too. This is true even though the public rarely reads research journals.

Now, of course, it would be possible for faculty members to keep up with their disciplines without publishing; but there would be a burden of proof issue. We do have some excellent professors who seldom publish, but they are the exception to the rule.