"Academic Freedom and the Curriculum: A Problem and a Proposal"
Russell A. Hunt
[as published in CAUT Bulletin 22:5 (April 1974), 4-5, 9]

It often seems as though problems of academic freedom are far removed from those of curriculum. Having said that "academic freedom includes the right within the university to decide who shall teach, who shall be taught, and what shall be studied, taught, or published' (CAUT Policy Statement on Academic Appointments and Tenure, II, 2; CAUT Handbook, 2nd Edition, p. 43,) we tend to feel that the question is settled. But it is not; we seem never to have thought through the problem of who within the university, precisely, has what rights in this situation.

In designing departmental curricula and in assigning specific courses within curricular schemes, it is possible for individuals within a department, or for the department as a whole, to discriminate against individual faculty members in such a way as to cause serious professional damage and at present there is apparently no recourse against such actions at most universities.

There are at least two ways in which the individual can be discriminated against and thereby put into an untenable position: he can be forced to teach courses whose subject matter is not within his competence, or he can be forced to teach courses with whose implied or stated methodology he is in disagreement. In either case and whatever his reaction to the situation he is likely to teach the course badly and therefore be open to charges of unsatisfactory teaching.

Unofficial Pressures

While this may not at first seem to be likely to be a very common experience after all, one would expect most departments to have more sense of their own self interest than to assign courses in such a manner my impression, from discussing this with various people, is that it happens far more often than one would expect. It is, in fact, very commonly used as one of the "unofficial" means of putting pressure on a faculty member to resign so as to avoid the inconvenient process of firing him.

It is often difficult to determine whether such tactics are in fact being employed in any specific case, however. This is largely because the entire situation with respect to curriculum design and change is a confused one. Who, finally, is responsible for the institution of a new course or the abolition of an old one, the setting up of a new relationship between existing courses -- for, in other words, all the everyday decisions relating to curricula? The individual professor? The department as a whole? The university senate? Who is responsible for seeing that courses as taught actually match up with the descriptions in the calendar, by which they are "sold" to students? (Curriculum seems, in fact, to be one of the last bastions of the principle of caveat emptor, largely because of the power vacuum inherent in the situation.)

Nor is it very easy to see how the confusion ought to be resolved. All the various parties seems to have some claim on the right to authority over curriculum, but certainly not to final authority. The most plausible claimant to that final authority is the individual teacher, and the CAUT policy statement seems at first glance to support his claim. But it surely cannot be read to say that each, individual teacher can decide what he is going to teach this fall without reference to the ongoing programme of his department or university. Such a situation might have been workable in the old German universities, where students dealt directly with individual teachers, hardly expecting courses to dovetail neatly into a system of prerequisites and sequences and distributions. But in a modern university it simply won't do. The department, and the rest of the university community as well, have a legitimate claim to some voice in my decision as to whether I will teach "Special Problems in Restoration Tragedy" or "Introductory English" this fall.

The question is not only one of subject matter; it can be, as the choices I just named suggest, one almost of morality. Faculty members in many departments may be concerned with issues such as "carrying your part of the load" of unattractive courses. Introductory language, freshman English, introductory history such courses and many others often become objects of contention, with each member of the department trying to get as few of these and as many of the more prestigious, more interesting, and often more sparsely populated classes as possible. Clearly, if the department as a whole has established the courses, they must be taught; equally clearly, if each faculty members makes an absolutely free decision as to what he is to teach, they will not be.

Questions of methodology and specific content can be equally distressing; specific courses often imply methods that are anathema to certain teachers, and various people may have wildly variant ideas as to what constitutes introductory sociology.

Part of the reason for the continuing confusion in this area is our persistent tendency to think of subject areas as "areas," or as solid blocks, divisible neatly by straight lines into courses. But there are, after all, really no fields at all in which this is an accurate sort of analogy. Two people teaching undergraduate Shakespeare or undergraduate sociology may well be teaching courses as different from each other as from any other courses in their department: Even areas which would appear to be as clearly sequential as introductory language or mathematics can be taught in wildly different ways, ways which may well render French 100 and French 200 almost totally unrelated, or Mathematics 100 a course which might as well follow as precede Mathematics 200. Until the language of course descriptions becomes more precise and course descriptions begin referring not only to subject matter but also to pedagogical methods, to hypotheses and assumptions and theses, such confusion is likely to persist. In other words, it is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Question of Morality

But a result of such confusions could be the following situation. Professor A, hired by a department of Spanish to teach modern Spanish literature and Latin American literature, is suddenly asked to carry his part of the load of introductory Spanish. But, in fundamental disagreement with the department's audiolingual methods of teaching introductory Spanish, he indicates his unwillingness. He is assigned the course in any case, does a lamentable job of teaching it, and occasions widespread student complaints that Professor A's Spanish 100 was not an adequate preparation for Spanish 200.

The question of whether Professor A's academic freedom has been infringed upon, and the question of whether the department's motives were ulterior or entirely straightforward, are at the very least difficult ones. Combine this with a couple of related considerations that in large, highly democratized departments curriculum is commonly the least democratic of major decisions, and that in small, personal and informal departments it is hardly unusual for one member to be out of favor and for the rest to command a pretty overwhelming majority. It's not a very entrancing situation.

Moreover, it's one that seems likely to lead to other, more complex problems, problems which could conceivably be avoided if the situation were cleared up at this point. But it is not an easy situation to clear up. The fundamental issue is the conflict between two legitimate claims to authority. Obviously it would be difficult to enunciate a principle which would apply in all cases; equally obviously, however, it is not a good idea to allow decisions to continue to be made on an ad hoc basis. Being perfectly realistic, we must admit that it is very likely that when problems involving this principle arise, they will involve precisely the people least likely to get a fair hearing in their university. This is always the problem with matters of academic freedom, and is a fundamental argument in favor of some kind of written guide, as opposed to reliance on ad hoc notions of justice.

Here, then, is a proposal for a guideline which might, endorsed and publicized by CAUT, alleviate some of these problems.

I. There are three parties who have a rightful interest in decisions regarding curriculum. They are the department, the students, and the individual professor. The interests, responsibilities and rights of all three can be defined.

A. The department is responsible both for the Intellectual quality and consistency of its offerings and for the accuracy of its statements about courses and curricula. Its primary way of fulfilling its obligations in both these areas is through its hiring policies and practices, through Its decisions with regard to reappointment, promotion, and especially tenure. More directly, it has power in these areas through its decisions with respect to curriculum.

B. Students have the right not to be deceived by calendar or other descriptive statements, not to be misled by systems of prerequisites or requirements, and not to be penalized for having been so deceived or misled.

C. The individual faculty member has the final responsibility for the intellectual quality and integrity of his courses, with respect to both content and the pedagogical methods employed. He also has a responsibility to teach courses in accordance with their descriptions in official university publications. Moreover, he also has a responsibility to teach his share of the departmental "load" whether service courses undertaken by the whole department, or other courses which, though perhaps only marginally related to his area of specialization, have been determined to be necessary to the proper functioning of the curriculum as a whole by the rest of the department. Certain fundamental rights follow almost as a logical consequence of these responsibilities. The professor must not be forced to teach courses which he is genuinely not competent to teach, nor may he be forced to use methods with which he has fundamental disagreements.

II. in order to balance these rights and responsibilities, certain precepts should be followed. .
A. Decisions regarding curricular changes or course changes should be participated in by as widely representative a group as possible, and should be made in the most democratic possible way.

B. Decisions of majorities should not abridge the rights of individuals, whether teachers or students.

C. Procedures should be instituted whereby meaningful ap peals against course assignments can be lodged, preferably with a body outside the department entirely. This body should make its decisions by balancing the rights of the three parties, but remembering in cases such as these the final arbiter of competence is the individual professor himself.

D. In cases where it can be established both that the course assignments have been democratically arrived at and reflect the genuine needs of the departmental curriculum, and that the individual professor is in fact not competent to teach the courses involved, there are only two possible resolutions of the problem. Either the department must revise its curricular structure so as to make it possible for the professor in question to teach appropriate courses, or the institution should take steps to terminate the employment of the professor involved.