Academic Freedom: Quality over Profitability


Submitted by an anonymous faculty member

Martin Regg Cohn (“Don’t let Ontario’s college system suffocate itself,” Toronto Star, Nov. 8, 2017) argues that the faculty involved in the labour dispute currently being waged in the Ontario colleges are appropriating a “conceit” by pretending to be “cutting-edge professors in the rarefied world of research universities” when they “elevate their disputes to the realm of academic freedom.”

There is no conceit here: Cohn doesn’t understand what college faculty mean when they use this phrase. For a college professor, academic freedom means having the agency to resist business decisions that erode quality in the classrooms of Ontario colleges. We want that agency to be enshrined in an article in our collective agreement that would allow us to fight back when we see the business model being used to erode educational standards.

When exams and textbooks are removed from courses, students pass more easily and continue to pay tuition rather than dropping out because courses are too challenging. College administrators like to talk about removing “barriers to student success,” which is management-speak for easing a student’s trajectory through the system. The easier that path is, the more quickly students will walk out the door with a diploma allowing more students to walk in to get one. The implications for education quality are obvious.

I teach the mandatory writing classes taken by every first-year student at my Toronto-area college and have done so for the past 13 years. In the years before my Associate Dean retired, my department had an exit exam required for all students who passed the course. In the fall of 2013, there were over 3,000 students who wrote the same exam over three days in multiple sittings.

Such exit assessment strategies are considered the gold standard in literacy education circles, as they ensure learning outcomes for literacy are measured against a common standard applied across multiple (in my department, over 100) sections of a mandatory, basic-skills course. During the time this exam was in place, my English Department had a college-wide reputation for academic rigour in assessing students’ achievement of the learning outcomes in its English courses.

Recently, over a number of years, successive decisions were made by management to replace this exam with a “take-home” assignment that seriously compromises faculty’s ability to assess their students’ achievement of learning outcomes. This “barrier to student success” was removed with minimal faculty consultation and a total lack of consensus. In this case, the resources and man power saved by management are significant, as is the resulting erosion of quality in literacy outcomes.

Before assuming you understand what college faculty mean when they talk about academic freedom, think about how the education quality of colleges in Ontario is being eroded by a business model that railroads faculty into gutting standards. How have students been affected by an underfunded system, a precarious workforce, and a lack of decision-making authority for their professors?

Cohn writes that “employees in all workplaces are sometimes subject to seemingly arbitrary demands and capricious interventions by employers.” The Ontario college system deserves better than this. Forget the tired, old phrase “academic freedom.” It’s about quality control and keeping it in the hands of the educators.