Academic Freedom, Political Correctness, and Ethics

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Because it is believed to be necessary for an unflattered pursuit of knowledge, academic freedom is a treasured, almost sacred, tenet and expectation in post-secondary education institutions in North America. With this freedom, however, come a number of responsibilities. In addition to these responsibilities psychologists have an obligation to conduct their academic affairs within ethical boundaries. Underlying most ethical constructs is the principle of avoiding harm to others. Unfortunately, "Political Correctness" has become a pejorative label -- even when used to describe acts of courtesy, respect, fairness, openness, sensitivity to diversity, and responsibility for the consequences of one's behaviour. These characteristics represent ethical values that should promote, rather than stifle, open inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge without resulting in an erosion of standards of excellence in favour of special interest groups. It is argued that academic freedom carries ethical responsibilities compatible with the pursuit of knowledge, that the ethical pursuit of knowledge involves integrity in relationships as well as responsibility to society, and that academics are not harmed by what some label "politically correct" behaviour.

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is a very precious -- if somewhat illusory -- concept, vital to effective functioning within the hallowed halls of academe (Stark-Adamec, 1992). It is something we do not have: if we work for industry and conduct our research in that context; if we work for a hospital without an academic appointment; if we work for government; if we work as an independent scholar; or if we do contract research. That is, in each of these instances we may have some freedom to ask whatever research questions we want, and perhaps even to conclude whatever we want; but we do not have the freedom to tell anyone else about it. In fact, in those environments we can get in serious trouble if we "go public" with the results of our honest search for knowledge.

But, in academia, we are protected from dismissal procedures that are initiated solely on the basis that we hold and voice dissenting, controversial, outlandish, or near-psychotic views. We are protected by academic freedom, as first articulated in the United States at the turn of the century (Malloch, 1987), popularized in the 1940s (Poch, 1993), and as defined by the Canadian Association of University Teachers as the freedom "to teach, investigate and speculate without deference to prescribed doctrinal'.

On the face of it, this principle is easy to endorse, to espouse, and to defend. As with most simple statements, it is rather more complex when you get down to specifics and their application. As a result, there may be some misunderstanding regarding the entitlements associated with academic freedom. It does not mean that we can do whatever we want and say whatever we want and write whatever we want whenever we want.

Limits on academic freedom

As Malloch (1987) has pointed out, there are "... factors which condition the exercise of academic freedom, and in conditioning its exercise, they necessarily impose limits" (p. 10). For instance:

the university, as corporate institution, is not free to conduct experiments in governance which violate the terms of the appropriate university act or charter; the professor is not free to offer a course of instruction within the university which has not been approved by the appropriate academic bodies; students are not free to pursue studies in programs to which they have not been admitted. (Malloch, 1987, pp. 10-11)

Furthermore, "the individual faculty member's academic freedom will... be conditioned by the immediate context of the academic unit in which he or she holds appointment" (Malloch, 1987, p. 10). So, for instance, our freedom is conditioned by the nature of our teaching assignments: the subject matter of our courses; the size of the enrollment; regulations concerning evaluation; duration of the semester; timetable and so on. …


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