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Dispatches on academic freedom

Academic freedom in the time of coronavirus

As universities respond to COVID-19, they must be guided by their core values of social responsibility, accountability and equitable access – all of which support suspending on-campus teaching and learning.

BY SHANNON DEA | MAR 13 2020

In Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, the love-smitten protagonist Florentino orders the captain of the ship on which Florentino and his beloved are sailing to raise the flag of cholera to prevent other passengers from coming aboard. None of those on board the ship have cholera, but they fly the flag because doing so allows the lovers to suspend social norms and pursue their affair without scrutiny by other passengers.

Today, by contrast, the plague is real. The WHO has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Parliament has recessed, Ontario schools and Québec daycares have closed, the NBA, the NHL and Broadway have closed up shop until further notice. In short, we have raised the cholera flag.

As universities one by one respond to this rapidly evolving situation, colleagues and senior administrators are debating which of our guiding norms should be temporarily suspended and which should continue to be defended. In particular, some faculty associations have raised concerns that universities’ announcements regarding class cancellations, transitions to online teaching, and alterations to final examination arrangements are too unilateral and disregard instructors’ academic freedom to conduct learning activities and assessments as they judge best.

I think that three considerations bear upon the question of “academic freedom in the time of cholera”: the circumstances in which we are teaching, the core values we must balance and when to raise the cholera flag. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Under the circumstances

The instructions universities are rolling out about social distancing and its effects on teaching and learning all explicitly or implicitly invoke the notion that the changes to course delivery are the right thing to do “under the circumstances.”

It is worth noticing that we always adapt our teaching to the circumstances. How I teach a course depends on whether it is a class of 200 students who are mostly taking the course as an elective or a class of 20 majors in my own discipline. Other things that we take into account in our instructional design are the physical space of the classroom (are the desks fixed or moveable?), the time the class is scheduled (is it a night class?), and various considerations about our own and our students’ capacities. That is: as instructors, we are in the business of deciding how to teach under the circumstances.

Now that the circumstances have changed, it is only responsible to make corresponding changes to our instructional design. While instructors retain both the duty and the right to make responsible pedagogical choices, we must make those choices in light of the need to “flatten the curve” of contagion, and in light of the unavoidable organizational and technological challenges that flow from the shift.

I have heard from colleagues at various universities that the institutions should provide ready-to-go seamless support for the transition that thousands of us are now making to online course delivery. That would be great, but it’s not a reasonable expectation. Like instructors, university administrators are having to adapt quickly to a dynamic situation. Unlike instructors, who are focused only on their own courses, administrators are also making tough decisions about every aspect of the institution that is affected by the new normal. I don’t agree with all of the decisions university administrators have taken so far about COVID-19, but I know that all of them are working around the clock under tense and difficult conditions.

Teaching responsibly under the circumstances includes sensibly calibrating our expectations both of university administrators and of ourselves. What that means is that we can’t expect the universities to have a well-developed suite of supports ready for instructors. Nor should we expect that our quickly-adapted teaching methods are going to be the model of technology-mediated learning. We are just trying to get our students across the finish line under tough conditions. We have the academic freedom to do that as well as we can under the circumstances.

Balancing values

Let’s be frank, though: academic freedom simply isn’t the most important principle to defend right now. I say that as someone who is passionate about academic freedom and deeply committed to defending it well. However, I think that part of defending academic freedom well is understanding the core values to which it is connected.

Academic freedom is just one of the principles animating a responsible, well-functioning university. Academic freedom is essential to the university’s mission, but so are such values as social responsibility, institutional autonomy, accountability and equitable access.

These values sometimes conflict with each other. When they do, we need to make careful decisions about how to adjudicate the conflict and how to weight the conflicting values to best support the university’s mission. If universities are forced to delay their response to the pandemic because of protracted debates over whom should be consulted and how best to defend academic freedom, people could die as a consequence.

It is crucial at this time that universities are guided by social responsibility, accountability and equitable access, all of which militate in favour of suspending on-campus teaching and learning. They also militate in favour of swift action. In these crucial early days, university personnel should pull together to support a smooth transition and to hoist the cholera flag.

Flying the flag

One of the worries leading some faculty unions to resist a swift transition away from on-campus instruction is the fear that universities will use this crisis to chip away at collegial governance and academic freedom. A corollary worry some faculty members have raised is that this shift will encourage universities to move – with or without faculty agreement – to more online teaching even after the risk has passed.

Look, it’s right to be cautious any time the cholera flag leads to the suspension of social norms. But this time there is no self-interested Florentino behind the order. We are dealing with a literal life-or-death matter and need to deal with it quickly. Now is the time for an extraordinary exception.

That said, once we are past the initial transition, university administrators, faculty associations, and collegial bodies like university senates and faculty councils should convene for a less rushed deliberation about next steps. COVID-19 may require a swift response, but it’s with us for a while. Some universities are making coronavirus contingency plans through the fall semester. It is too soon to know when the contagion will peak and whether it will peak only once.

As we respond to the disease, we should think in terms of time-slices. What do we need to do right now to keep people safe? That decision can’t be as consultative as most university governance in Canada would normally have it because time is of the essence. Once that decision is behind us, our commitment to academic freedom and collegial governance should bring everybody back to the table in good faith to do more careful, consultative planning for how best to defend the university’s core values in the shadow of the cholera flag.

ABOUT SHANNON DEA
Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is a professor of philosophy and vice-president of the faculty association at the University of Waterloo.
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