Monday, October 13, 2008

Article Note: Overview of Academic Freedom and Academic Librarians

Citation for the article:

Danner, Richard A. and Barbara Bintliff, "Academic Freedom Issues for Academic Librarian." Legal Reference Services Quarterly 25.4 (2006): 13-35.

Read via Interlibrary Loan request. However, it turns out that it is available online from Duke's Law Faculty Scholarship Repository. Article link here.

This article provides a pretty good overview of academic freedom and how it applies to academic librarians. I will say that it does have a bit of an embellished view of tenure in academia (i.e. the article is very favorable, probably reflective of the fact the authors are tenured folks). Otherwise, the article does raise some very good points, and I think it should be read by academic librarians everywhere, regardless of whether they themselves have tenure or not. Personally, when it comes to academic freedom, I kind of walk a thin line. For starters, I am not tenured or find myself on a tenure line. I am considered professional staff. And as I am constantly reminded, I "serve at the pleasure of the president." In theory, I have some freedom of expression, but academic freedom per se is not defined for folks like me. Faculty here have it clearly defined in Chapter 3 of the university's Handbook of Operating Procedures. There is no similar definition for staff, let alone librarians, even though, in the case of librarians, we certainly teach and serve the educational mission of the university. The closest would be the mention of freedom of expression in university's Manual of Policies and Procedures for Student Affairs, where, in Chapter 6 there is a mention of the staff along with the students and faculty.

Like many libraries and librarians, we usually worry more about intellectual freedom in our collection development policies. In our particular case, we simply say the following:

"The Library promotes intellectual freedom, cultural diversity, and avoids any form of censorship in accordance with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights:" (from our Collection Development Policy).

Danner and Bintliff address some of this in their article. They write that "in librarianship, statements on intellectual freedom often focus more exclusively on rights of access to information than freedom of expression" (20). They argue that regardless of your status as a librarian, you still should be aware of the definitions that apply to the faculty and how those definitions have an impact on their work. Now why did I bother to look at my campus and my condition? Because as I was reading the article, I found myself wondering where do I fit in? And the answer is that I am barely hanging by a thread so to speak. There is nothing in writing as far as I can ascertain that guarantees me academic freedom (at least as defined by the AAUP, which is the definition that Danner and Bintliff draw upon). Now, some would argue that I would have no need for academic freedom since I do not do research, and I do not teach classes for credit. However, I do a pretty good amount of teaching as do my colleagues. Anyhow, the more I think about, the less comfortable I feel. And given that Tyler is pretty much a small town (in what is often labeled the most conservative part of Texas; even the rest of Texas complains about East Texas in that regard), with all the idiosyncrasies and prejudices small towns usually have, I have to pretty much watch what I say. I might not displease the president, but if I displease someone who knows someone, my boss will eventually hear about it. This is Texas: land of at will employment. I think readers get the idea. Now, when I am blogging I don't care too much. This is certainly not connected to my employment, but at work, yes, I do watch my back. This article kind of made me a bit more aware of that, and I think it might make some librarians (especially those not tenured) a bit more aware as well.

Danner and Brintliff provide the necessary definitions for concepts like academic freedom and freedom of speech. Do note that while those two concepts are related, they are not the same thing. The first is a privilege granted by your campus. Contrary to what many may think, it is not granted automatically. Plus, if you work for a private or religiously affiliated campus, the rules can vary as well. The second is your constitutional right. The authors then move on to show how academic freedom applies to various situations. This is what makes the article useful as you can see it is more than just tenure. Some issues to consider:

  • What happens when there are attacks on academic freedom on campus? For example, when an organization like Students for Academic Freedom shows up on your campus (or state legislature) pushing their "Academic Bill of Rights," which in theory sounds very good, but in reality it is a tool to suppress academic freedom.
  • Issues of privacy and confidentiality. This should be a given for librarians, but many libraries still lack documents with policies for patron privacy and confidentiality of their records. The authors write, "confidentiality of library records is a matter of concern to academic freedom, as well as to intellectual freedom" (23). This is not just about the PATRIOT Act and the men in dark glasses with badges. This can be of concern for something as simple as creating social spaces or applications on a library's website that could draw on patron records to do something like recommend new books of interest to a patron based on what they may have checked out before.
  • Impacts on research such as when foreign scholars are denied entry to the United States to work and do research.
  • The corporatization of academia.
This is one of those articles that every academic librarian should look at. I will even go so far as saying that it should be read by library school students, especially those who want to go work in academic libraries. One of the flaws of library schools is that they do not make all of the possible requirements and expectations of academia clear to students who may end up working on campus. The only reason I knew of academia is because I had prior experience, which served me well in library school and in the workplace. So, if you are interested in issues of academic freedom, and you are a librarian, read this article. It does not matter if you are tenured or not; read it. And by the way, given that we just celebrated Banned Books Week, reading this was very timely for me.

P.S. By the way, as I was reading this, I was also reminded of a piece from Inside Higher Ed entitled "Tolerant Faculty, Intolerant Students." Groups like Students for Academic Freedom often wish to portray faculty as intolerant and as indoctrinating. Well, according to a survey done by the University of Georgia System, "the results suggest that there may well be a problem with lack of tolerance of political views of others. But according to students (the supposed victims of intolerant professors, according to those who say there is no intellectual diversity), the problem isn’t professors, but fellow students." In other words, it could be that the professors may have to worry more about having intolerant students in their classes. A bit more food for thought, and another reason to show why academic freedom remains important.

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