chapter  3
16 Pages

Student academic freedom and the changing student/university relationships

ByRomulo F. Magsino

I INTRODUCTION Somewhere in his ‘Adventure of Ideas,’ Alfred North Whitehead observes that ‘Great ideas often enter reality in strange guises and with disgusting alliances.’ This observation might be made, perhaps without much hesitation, by one who has studied the contemporary development of the idea of student academic freedom. If one grants that this idea-at least in the field of education-approximates the significance of the essential equality of men which Whitehead was alluding to, student academic freedom might indeed be shown to have entered the world of the university in ‘strange guises and with disgusting alliances.’ It came with ragged clothes and long hair, rough manners and coarse language, open six, and defiance of authority. But further, it came initially not as a moral cause under which student rebels rallied. Rather, it appeared, in the words of Sidney Hook, ‘adventitiously in the wake of other student demands that required an ex post facto rationale.’ (1)

The active, sometimes violent, energy that forced the idea of student academic freedom into our consciousness seems to have petered out. If recent accounts of student mood on campuses are not mistaken, we have now the ‘selfcentered generation’ concerned mainly with preparing themselves for lucrative and satisfying jobs and divorced from the political activism and revolutionary fervor of the not too distant past. (2)

Nevertheless, student academic freedom has arrived. As is true of powerful ideas, it will very likely continue to influence developments in the university. In England, the Commission on Academic Freedom and the Law, formed by the National Union of Students and the National Council for Civil Liberties (NUS-NCCL) and charged with considering all aspects of academic freedom and the law as they affect students, has suggested radical changes in the student-university relationships. (3) In Canada, the report of the Commission on the Government of the University of Toronto came out as an affirmation of the principles called for by the current conceptions of student academic freedom. Thus the report, entitled ‘Toward Community in University Government,’ endorses the principle of staff-student parity at all levels of university government and the principle of student participation in matters of faculty appointment, promotion, tenure, dismissal and in matters of research policy. The idea of student academic freedom seems to require all these, as former University of Toronto President Claude Bissell himself professes:

Unfortunately, the students’ claim to academic freedom sounds perplexing, if not disturbing. Nowhere in federal or state constitutions, statutes or legal cases do we find provisions for student academic freedom. University bylaws or charters, if they say anything at all, confirm the broad powers of the institution over students. (5) Educational tradition in most countries, moreover, does not indicate any student entitlement to academic freedom. Thus, in the USA, for example, it is only during the 1960s that educators seriously considered extending academic freedom to students. (6) The historical fact seems to be that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, American educators trained in Germany brought with them to North America a rich German concept of student academic freedom. This concept embraced specific freedoms relating to students’ determination of the course of their study and of their personal and social lives within the university. Unfortunately these educators failed to transform the concept into reality. (7) Consequently, a student claiming academic freedom in the present time cannot assert that there is a presumption in favor of his enjoying this freedom-a presumption which, incidentally, his faculty counterpart seems to enjoy despite recent blows on the idea of tenure in the university. (8)

That in most places today we do not find educational tradition granting students academic freedom that could protect them from arbitrary university action is indeed to be regretted. However, from another perspective-that of the university educators-it is also a matter of serious concern that the claim to an amorphous, vaguelydefined principle is presented to justify a reversal of roles within the university community, specifically those of the student. Naturally we can listen with empathic, understanding to insistent student demands. Wisdom, not only prudence, would enjoin us to consider such demands, a typical example of which runs as follows:

Carried out consistently, such demands could result in profound changes within the university, particularly in relation to the roles of the students and the faculty. As Dewey pointed out about thirty years ago, liberty or freedom is power-effective power to do specific things. Now the possession of such power is always a matter of the distribution of power that exists at the time. Demand for increased power at one point means demands for change in the distribution of powers, that is for less power somewhere else. (10) Thus to grant students the academic freedom they demand is to diminish the university (faculty and administrative) power to determine much of what is being done in the institution, including, of course, the conduct of academic affairs. Surely, such a serious complication as this requires our close scrutiny. We would need to ask the question: Does student academic freedom justify the wide-ranging, specific freedoms demanded by students?