June 19, 2005

Bits and pieces of academic freedom this week

Three academic-freedom controversies floating in the blogosphere:

The first two are deeply troubling, and I assume no one is going to question that they are violations of academic freedom if the factual claims are true. (Sadly, relatively few organizations have raised questions about sponsored research and academic freedom, whether at FIRE or the AAUP.) The issue at OSU is more complicated. I've previously commented on it and was taken a bit aback at the FIRE blog argument, that the criticism of the dissertation constituted an assault on research because of its content. As explained in the Panda's Thumb rebuttal, the relatively narrow claims at OSU are about the evasion of the dissertation policies (i.e., that the committee members did not have relevant expertise). And the delay was at the behest of Bryan Leonard's advisor. Furthermore, a dissertation defense is generally an open process at most campuses, and as Alon Leavy notes in a comment on Pharyngula (comment 5), it is supposed to introduce at least the possibility that someone might challenge the student's ideas.

Yet the argument is not absolute. OSU faculty-senate secretary Susan Fisher is wrong to claim that there is no academic freedom for students, and (in an entry otherwise filled with factual errors and distortions) David Heddle has a point that graduate students are at the mercy of their program faculty in terms of the plausibility of their projects. Where those projects strike into new territory, I'm sure there are the occasional dissertation members and advisors who block the research. A friend's sociology dissertation was stuck in the pre-proposal phase for about a year because several dissertation members did not approve of it, and I'm certain similar barriers appeared occasionally for those opening up social history in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ideally, the interaction between a student and her or his advisor (and committee) should be a dialogue, with the student getting the benefit of expert perspectives in the area the student is working in. But life is not always ideal. Swapping out committee members is the usual option for students whose projects are blocked inappropriately or, more prosaically, in situations where personalities clash or someone just isn't the best mentor for a particular student. This pragmatic need for committee fluidity is why doctoral programs need a critical mass of faculty. In the case of Bryan Leonard, OSU has five science-ed faculty with Ph.D.s in its math, science, and technology education program. For him not to have a science-ed advisor or even committee member is curious indeed.

The back-up practical solution is to have faculty who are not precisely in the area on the committee. I'm confident that's what Leonard might say (as Heddle claimed): only these faculty would give him a fair shot. And, if the relevant administrator had seen the committee's makeup in advance and approved it, I would be far more sympathetic. But I suspect that's not what happened, and the consequences show the fact that academic life does not follow the usual rule: On a campus, apologizing after the fact is not generally easier than securing permission first. In this case, advance permission would have been far easier than what happened after the graduate school discovered the makeup of the committee. Leonard's non-science-ed advisor, Paul Post, also takes blame for not having run the committee membership up the line before Leonard started the dissertation in earnest.

Side note: In a comment, Richard Hoppe points to a lesson plan on evolution that explores an active scientific controversy about evolution.

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Posted in Academic freedom on June 19, 2005 7:15 AM |