Academic freedom is one of the most prized assets of American higher education. Yet despite the flowery rhetoric, U.S. higher education has a tenuous history with academic freedom, largely due to its governance structure. Unlike countries whose higher education institutions follow the Humboldt model, where the faculty control most areas of governance (as was detailed in last week’s readings), U.S. higher education has always concentrated power towards the administrative leadership, such as the university president and chancellor. This power dynamic has occasionally challenged the integrity of academic freedom. From McCarthyism to the adjunctification of the teaching force, there have constantly been limits to academic freedom in U.S. higher education.

The issue of protecting the integrity of academic freedom becomes even more complicated when applied to an international context, as this week’s ACE/CIGE reading shows. While the reading glosses over the domestic limits of academic freedom, there is still much more academic freedom in the U.S. than many other countries. Because of this, the American Association of Universities developed its Principles and Guidelines for Establishing Joint Academic Programs and Campuses Abroad. A notable passage includes: “When establishing campuses abroad or joint academic programs, agreements between universities and foreign partners should strive to include a commitment to commonly accepted principles of academic freedom. Members of the academic community should be able to ask questions and engage in discussion, and write and publish without the fear of punishment of intrusion by governments or authorities holding public, private, or institutional power” (ACE/CIGE, 2014, pp. 31).

While these are important guidelines, they are difficult to enforce, especially in countries with different political and cultural histories. “Even if a partner institution is supportive of academic freedom in theory, encouraging or allowing discussion of certain topics could lead to considerable problems for the institution, as well as the individual faculty and students involved” (ACE/CIGE, 2014, pp. 32).

This made me think about the newly-launched Schwarzman Scholars program that I wrote about briefly a few weeks ago. The program, funded by U.S. businessman Stephen Schwarzmann, consists of fully-funded master’s degrees in Public Policy, Economics and Business, or International Studies in China. Its inaugural class will begin their coursework this upcoming fall and consists of 45% Americans, 20% Chinese, and 35% international students. While it is hosted by Tsinghua University in Beijing, courses will be held on Schwarzman College, which is a subset of the larger university. Since classes will be conducted on a U.S. campus within a foreign university, I imagine that academic freedom will be more prevalent than in other Chinese universities. However, I imagine this could prove to be a tricky aspect to overcome when trying to sell this program to top-U.S. students, who might also pursue their degrees in the U.S. or other western countries with a more traditional understanding of academic freedom.

One program that the report deemed a success between two countries with very different cultures and values was the partnership between Kabul University in Afghanistan and Boston College/Hunter College in the U.S. This partnership, “funded by UNICEF through a grant administered by the Afghan government (ACE/CIGE, 2014, pp. 28)”, set out to develop a social work program at Kabul University. The project included two phases: “the development of standards and curricula, then implementation of Afghanistan’s first bachelor’s level social work program at Kabul University” (28). While the project was only funded through the first initiative, overall it was a success because faculty from each institution were able to stay in contact with one another when the program was finally ready to be implemented.

Frankly, I was surprised to read about this kind of success given the rocky political relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan. My intuition tells me that academic partnerships and initiatives in the hard sciences will have more success than those with a more liberal arts/socio-political component, like social work, since there tends to be much more cultural, religious, and political debate around those disciplines than the hard sciences. It was encouraging to read that is not always the case, and that some degree of academic freedom can exist between countries with very different political and cultural histories.


3 thoughts on “W 6: The limits of academic freedom

  1. I was also interested in the academic freedom concept of this week’s reading as it relates to international partnerships. The idea of any compromise to academic freedom is a serious one in American higher education and is indeed an underpinning of much of the legal jurisprudence around US higher education, in general. I know my own institution considers any threat to academic freedom a deal breaker when considering international partnerships because it would simply not get any faculty buy in for exchange programs that do not first underscore academic freedom. For me, the use of MOUs to assure academic freedom by Wellesley College was demonstration of strong commitment to the concept by an American higher education institution and also a powerful example of the use of legal documents and structures to protect American educational goals and principles within and international context of growth and collaboration. It would be useful to know if the successful partnership between the US and Afghanistan you reference used tools such as MOUs and partnership agreements and to what degree.

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for your post and pointing out the success between Kabul University in Afghanistan and Boston College/Hunter College in the U.S. I believe these partnerships are the purpose of internationalization and it’s great to hear of its success. We also need to acknowledge that true educators in Afghanistan are not consumed by the political issues going around in their country. I also think the reason it worked so well was because it tackled the issues of “society” through social work which I believe globally should have one definition which is to provide support to the society.

  3. I find the partnership between U.S Colleges and Kabul University very interesting as well considering the turmoil between the two countries. This can also set precedent for countries who have had a history of disagreements to move forward with education. Higher education can be the stepping stone to help relationships among different countries heal, especially those that are considered third world and do not have the resources to do it on their own. It is true though that with off shore campuses at host universities, we may not always have the cultural and political freedom to teach programs that we want. We also have to think about plans of action if the host countries do encounter turmoil or moments of war. How will we protect our students? Will they loose out on classes or the semester? As much as it is nice to create these partnerships we also need to look at the appeal they have for American students compared to staying in the U.S. or in other countries.

    Melissa Fernandez

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