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Disincentivizing Academic Freedom: The Cost of College

At some point in time a college student will be faced with a question that is quite obvious, yet seldom yields a proper response: Why are you here?

The answer differs from person to person; many state that college is a stepping stone into a career, that they wanted to continue their education, or that they didn’t know what else to do after high school. However, despite these responses, one fact remains clear: The cost of not going to college has dramatically risen, reshaping the culture of college campuses. College is therefore no longer an option, but rather, a virtual imperative.

The consumerization of higher education is pervasive, and has shifted the way students imagine their time at school. To learn for the sake of learning is no longer the paramount incentive for students to attend college; rather, they are “investing” in their futures, in their careers. This shift is exemplified through the importance of collecting good grades and the increasing popularity of grade inflation, whereby at the end of the last decade, As and Bs represented 73 percent of all grades in public colleges and universities and 86 percent of grades in private colleges and universities. Needless to say, it is not only students that are buying into this mindset but also university administrators and even some professors.

In a recent article titled “What’s the Point of a Professor?,” Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein expresses the frustrations of the transactional nature of college classrooms:

When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. … You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill. Only our assistance with assignments matters. When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.

Bauerlein's critique on this ideological paradigm reveals the problems consumption culture poses for education in the most literal sense. It is impossible for students to learn the value of critical thinking when the classes they take do not encourage such thought. Reflexively, the situation is disadvantageous for professors as well, for it poses a very blatant threat to their academic freedom.

Additionally, an article published by Vox, titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Students Terrify Me,” has gained much attention. Describing an increasingly consumerist mindset among students as well as the increasing pressure to teach content students are comfortable with, pseudonymous professor Edward Schlosser reveals the threats to academic freedom posed by these trends:

This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don't get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I'm not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they're paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?

In response to Schlosser, Amanda Taub, adjunct professor of international law and human rights at Fordham University, also wrote for Vox, likewise identifying the student-as-customer model, but also arguing it is not the students to blame for the problem but the universities themselves:

If adjuncts and tenure-track professors are disempowered in relation to their students, the solution isn't to attack students, as the professor did, sneering at undergraduates with too many feelings or an unsuspecting woman who had the misfortune of tweeting about the biases of scientific research and discourse. Rather, it's to focus on a university system that treats students as customers and faculty as the interchangeable means of production. If you care about academic freedom, care about that.

Both articles acknowledge that academic freedom is threatened but disagree over the source: one points the finger at students, the other points to professors and administration. However, despite egregious threats to academic freedom catching wind in the media, many students remain indifferent to the matter. In a culture where professors are the means of production and students are simply seeking a credential, students may feel little regard for their professors’ long-term academic freedom once their diploma is in hand.

The indifference students feel towards academic freedom is a symptom of a much larger problem: the corporatization of higher education. This is perhaps best embodied by the swelling in the ranks of non-academic administrators, which has far outpaced the growth of faculty and researchers. Where students adopt the attitude of “the customer is always right,” university administrations have become more liable to censoring students and faculty in the name of protecting their “brand.” The recent attempts to restrict Laura Kipnis’ academic freedom through Title IX complaints exemplifies university obligations to act as a corporate structure, heavily interested in student opinions no matter how unfounded the complaints are. This has added up to the straitjacketing of academia, and accordingly, the dissolution of a truly free marketplace of ideas. Through regulation of what ideas and topics are and are not allowed to be explored in class, students are taught to shy away from opinions that are unpopular, which is counterproductive to their education.

Moreover, when professors are increasingly punished for their academic work or teaching, it is not unreasonable to think the same could happen to a student. In fact, students are and continue to be punished for expressing differing opinions, which has been covered by FIRE time and time again. However, when the indifference to freedom of thought and expression extends to regulating each other's behavior, there is plenty of reason for alarm. Manifesting itself as a contentious issue on my own campus, microaggression policing campaigns represent a blatant example of students censoring students, limiting peer expression to only what is acceptable. Instead of engaging in discourse with each other and exploring the merits of one’s argument, students choose to pursue a culture of speech policing.

At the root of it all, the value of maintaining an open flow of ideas without fear of retaliation should be evident, and this discourse should be protected on our campuses. But administrators, students, and professors alike are too often unable to recognize that they are all parties affecting the college ecosystem, and the current shift results in an adventitious situation that hurts the university as a whole. This takes us back to the essential question posed in the beginning of the article: Why are you here? This question need not be exclusive to students, but should also be answered by professors and administrators. Perhaps by acknowledging the incentives of each party and the harm caused to one another, a more productive shift in higher education can be catalyzed.

Michele Hau is a FIRE summer intern.

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