“Academic freedom” would be much clearer if it were understood to be an aspect of ACADEMIC INTEGRITY.
Integrity is consistency between thought and practice. One has integrity when one’s actions align with one’s principles. Teachers have integrity when they teach what they understand to be true based on the most comprehensive and valid research about the subject matter. Academic truth involves a measure of trust: “Trust but verify.” Integrity is also about responsibility.
Academic freedom is a narrower matter of the right to investigate and report conclusions. Academic freedom is based on the process of asking questions, collecting evidence, proceeding down promising lines of inquiry, and narrowing answers down to the fewest and best conclusions. Then the academic researcher proposes how that corresponds to the body of knowledge of which those conclusions are a part. Most of the time the research confirms as well as challenges previous knowledge. The effect is to nudge stakeholders of a body of knowledge toward or away from change, and to suggest matters that need more research. In rare instances the research may signify utter clarity – conclusive and final proof about an issue.
HOW ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND INTEGRITY WORK
Teachers also need academic freedom in order to have integrity. There is a social contract between teachers and students. Essentially, teachers instruct students about how to learn. Learning is a process of gaining access to information, retaining the information so it can be synthesized into the student’s knowledge as a whole, so that it can then be a resource for various purposes as needed. This knowledge collection begins with acquiring skills and competence in ways to gain access to stored knowledge, namely, languages and technical thought processes.
Then a student can proceed to study a subject. That begins with study of what the whole subject is about, its basic principles, history of previous conceptualizations and productions, and current applications. A teacher’s role is to organize and direct this study. Ordinarily this involves selecting resources, topics, and methods to be used so students can accomplish the educational objective implied (or explicated) in the learning contract. For example: “Biology 101. We are going to help you learn what life science of plants and animals is all about. We will do this through 3 one-hour lectures and 2 one-and-a-half hour lab sessions a week for 15 weeks. Your success will be evaluated by a mid-semester exam and a final exam as well as 10 lab practicals.”
As study advances, smaller segments of the subject field are provided as courses. For example, “Medieval Islamic Art,” “The Cantatas of J.S. Bach,” “Laws about the Amazon Rain Forest.”
At the highest level, students investigate issues that have not been studied before, or issues that appear to merit a new approach. The instructor serves as a mentor as the student proceeds to select tools, to collect data, and then to compose conclusions to be available for review and use by others.
To do their job with integrity teachers need to have academic freedom. But that freedom is never unlimited. This is where controversy arises. All stakeholders have a voice and vote at some point.
At the tertiary level (college or university) if degrees are to be granted (rather than tutorial instruction [which is normal for musicians, for example]), the stakeholders include the institution, the instructor, the students, the students’ parents or sponsors, and the future employer or educational institution which the student will attempt to enter. Sometimes valid stakeholders are also community organizations, professional associations, and governmental units.
Each of these must have integrity – i.e. congruence between aims and endeavors. Something will go missing if any party shirks or is duplicitous, even if that is unintentional. Integrity implies forthright intentions in concert with all other concerned parties.
After a teacher is hired by an institution and the student is enrolled in a course, the contract is functionally between the three of them. The institution, however, may operate in such a way that academic freedom and responsibility resides with a faculty of the university and with an academic department.
From experience, it is obvious to me that the educational contract can break down at any point. If that happens the most productive discussion will be about “where was integrity compromised, and why?” It will not be most helpful to cite some subsidiary cause.
Over the past few months and during the very recent past an increasing number of controversies have resulted in conflict, sometimes leading to people being penalized or even mob violence. The media tend to brand these as incidents of infringed academic freedom, insensitivity to community standards, failure to perform as required, or some other indictment. When the charge is not basic enough (i.e. when it does not highlight the core issue of integrity), a satisfactory resolution will be difficult or will be deferred.
THE CASE OF HAMLINE UNIVERSITY
The case that prompted this essay involved Hamline University.
On October 6, 2022, Adjunct Professor Erika Lopez Prater included a picture of the Prophet Mohammed in her online lecture on Islamic art, which was part of a course on world art. She chose a depiction of the angel Gabriel delivering the Prophet’s first revelation. The source of the painting was a manuscript copy of Rashid-al-Din’s “Compendium of Chronicles” made in Persia (Iran) in the early 14th century. She posted a warning for two minutes before showing the image, so that any viewers would know what was to follow, since the subject was sensitive, and certain sects of Islam are forbidden to view depictions of the Prophet.
Aram Wedatalla, a student who remained online, then complained to the school officials that the image “blindsided” her and made her feel marginalized.
Hamline then cancelled the teacher’s employment, when other people joined in the protest. They said that the class was undeniably Islamophobic. Far from being undeniable, an Islamic history professor, Amna Khalid of neighboring Carlton College, responded, “…I am offended. In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most conservative point of view. Their insistence that figurative representations of Muhammad are forbidden to look upon runs counter to historical and contemporary evidence.” She and many other art historians denied the picture was Islamophobic, on the grounds that the picture portrayed the Prophet with face veiled and with flames of glory as a halo, which was the Persian way of signifying a supreme being. Her position was endorsed by more than 8,000 academicians and art historians.
In short, Hamline was accused of ignoring historical facts, as well as failing to include Professor Prater in the meetings that fired her, and also of pandering to a vocal student minority. What Hamline did, in words of a university spokesman, was to yield to the students, because “it was important that our Muslim students, as well as other students, feel safe, supported, and respected.”
A SINGLE FRAME OF REFERENCE
In this case the issues are “what was the right thing to do?” by the teacher, by the student, and by the institution. Each agent did what they thought was best. The teacher “needed” to show images representing Islamic art from diverse Islamic subcultures, and posted a warning she thought to be sufficient. The student felt duty-bound to protest an offense against her branch of faith, in accordance with actions currently being taken by her fellow-believers whenever the offence is committed, especially since she was a first-hand witness and felt victimized. The school prudently chose to respond to their Muslim clients rather than their adjunct (temporary) employee. In other words, all three were acting with integrity. Their actions and convictions were consistent.
The trouble was the three were responding to different frames of reference. The teacher thought it was about course content, academic integrity. The student thought it was about blasphemy, religious integrity. The university insisted it was about student safety, how the university operates, a matter of institutional integrity.
When a discussion is not in agreement about a frame of reference, there can be no resolution. The disputants will go on disagreeing about what is disagreeable.
A CONCLUDING REFLECTION
Before simply concluding that this has happened in many other cases and it gives a window onto the state of discourse during the ongoing culture war, I paused to think about what I would do if I were told to design an online course on “American Novels, 1850-1900.” There are three novels that would have to be on the required reading list. A course would be irresponsible without Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. No matter how I presented the course, it would have content that some students in 2023 might find intruding upon their right to feel safe, respected, and supported. My choices would be two: to decline to teach the course because the content cannot be academically covered without the risk of offending Black American and/or Southern White students – as long as it is the institution’s policy to protect students from having their core values, heritages, and identities challenged. Or I could give the institution and students warning that agreeing to have me provide this course will require an agreement to endure a measure of inevitable discomfort in order for the course to have academic integrity.
Realistically, however, institutions are more apt to respond to academic problems after they have occurred, than to anticipate them. Even when an educational institution foresees a potential objection, its action is less likely to be to protect academic integrity than to protect the institution’s esteem. When trouble erupts the least powerful stakeholder and the easiest scapegoat to target is the instructor.
These are difficult times for academic integrity, and for higher education. But the educational contribution any civilization cannot do without is wisdom produced with academic integrity.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.