September 26, 2007

Academic freedom and administrators

Dean Dad has an important dissent from the oft-expressed views that administrators ain't got no academic freedom, as Stanley Fish might claim. DD points out the legitimate restrictions on what administrators can say:

  • Confidentiality: What the rumor mill paints as “the administration knows about this, but is covering it up” is often really “the administration knows this rumor is crap, but can't reveal why it's crap without violating confidentiality” (the best sentence of the post).
  • Institutional discretion: ...the 'ambassador' or 'public face' function of administrators...To the extent that there's an argument in there, I think, it's that it can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works..
Of those limits, the first is far clearer than the second. If something doesn't fall within the bounds of confidentiality imposed by one's role, an administrator should be free from that type of institutional restraint. The second question is trickier. I have a first slice at it, but not having been an administrator, this may not be realistic: if the issue concerns the welfare of the institution in a specific context, and if someone higher in the bureaucratic food chain has the authority to speak for the institution, then there is some obligation to refrain from speaking for the institution about an issue... and an implied obligation not to contradict the institution's position.

That first slice implies that institutional discretion requires a few components:

  • The question of a specific institutional interest: So while deans and chairs are bound not to contradict an institution's president when speaking publicly about things like state budget allocations for universities, someone is perfectly free to talk about all sorts of general issues with state budgeting.
  • The question of what constitutes "speaking for the institution." I suspect there are different methods to finesse a way out of saying, "I think my university president was bonkers to take this position," generally consisting of acknowledging internal debate and also ways of confirming the right of an institution's leadership to make decisions.

So what about whistleblowing? Regardless of legal issues (which vary by state and which I'm not competent to discuss), the following is my gut sense about institutions with even a modicum of shared governance: the administrator who resigns on a matter of deep principle will eventually return to administration, because institutions need people with conscience and because a critical mass of faculty will usually respect administrators who stand on principle even if individual decisions are matters of disagreement.


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Posted in Academic freedom on September 26, 2007 7:31 AM |