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This content is taken from the University of Oslo & Scholars at Risk's online course, Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds In earlier steps, we discussed the scope of academic freedom. We discussed threats to academic freedom. We discussed the sources of those threats. And we discussed how those threats harm society. In this step, we’ll discuss how you can help defend and promote academic freedom at your institution. First, establish or improve a statement of values. Now, many institutions already have a statement of values. You can look online for yours. Or if yours doesn’t have one, look online for any one at a different university and use that as you go through this course. It’s important to look at that statement of values and see does it include all five of the core values that we’re talking about.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 seconds Next, to be proactive, we need to move beyond just a statement on paper towards implementation of these values and towards creating proactive cultures that respect higher education values. Many institutions, as I said, have statements, but few have procedures or mechanisms in place that know how to implement those statements. And those that do almost always are implementing them after the fact, such as having them as part of a dispute resolution process. After the fact is too late. After the fact is not enough. We need proactive implementation of values so that we develop cultures that respect these values before we have problems.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds Proactive implementation of values helps to promote quality, because it gets us talking about the core higher education values of the university all the time– quality teaching, quality research, and quality discourse on campus. Equitable access supports diversity of talent and provides protection against hidden or unknown biases in our discourse. Autonomy supports leaders giving priority to promising areas of research and also guards against corruption in university leadership. Social responsibility encourages higher education to consider the short- and long-term benefits for everyone in society. Neglecting this proactive implementation also adds risk. It doesn’t create risk, but it adds risk because values-related incidents happen. And they happen without warning. They may be triggered by something inside the university, say, a student group.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds Or they may be triggered by something outside the university, such as a group that is angered or upset about something that’s going on inside the university. If you’re not proactive and you’re not prepared, dealing with these incidents can take up valuable time and resources. If you’re not prepared, these incidents can increase the risk to the university– risk to its reputation, risk to leadership, and risk to other stakeholders. And all of this is worsened when you’re trying to deal with these incidents under time pressure or when the media is paying attention. Proactive implementation, on the other side, decreases risks. It can turn a values crisis into a values opportunity, an opportunity to enhance the reputation of your university.

Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds Proactive implementation requires what we call ritualizing the values. And in this case, ritualizing means creating regular, repeated visible and meaningful opportunities to discuss your university’s values with stakeholders in the community. Ritualizing values will help you develop a common vocabulary. It will help you develop an understanding of a shared process, a process that can buy time when incidents do happen. It will help you build a culture of trust and respect that can help you deal with values issues. Looking ahead, we’ll ask you to assess your institution’s statement and compare it with statements of values of other institutions of other course participants. We will then have steps discussing how you can help promote academic freedom on your campus and in society.

Developing proactive, pro-values practices

Earlier in this course we discussed the scope of academic freedom. We discussed the threats to academic freedom. We discussed the sources of these threats, and how these threats harm not only academics, but all of society.

In this step, we will consider how you can help defend and promote academic freedom, at your institution and beyond.

Establish or improve a statement of values

Many higher education institutions have statements recognizing some of the core higher education values discussed in this course. You can look for your institution’s statement online or in any faculty or student handbook. (If you cannot find it, or if you are not affiliated with an institution, you might benefit from searching online for the statement of values from any institution and referring to it throughout the rest of this course. Or you can use one of the two sample statements linked below, taken from the websites of two of the partners in the Academic Refuge project – the University of Ljubljana and the University of Oslo.)

If your institution does not have a statement of values, or if the statement is lacking, a good first step is to step is to work with people at the institution to establish or improve your statement of values.

Moving from statements to implementation

Having a statement of values is a first step, but it is important to move beyond statements to implementation.

While many institutions have statements of values, few institutions have procedures or mechanisms for fully implementing core higher education values. Some may have staff and student dispute mechanisms, disciplinary procedures, and codes of conduct that address one or more of the core values. But these are usually limited to responding after-the-fact to an incident that has already happened. These are not enough.

Institutions must put procedures or mechanisms in place for implementing their values commitments proactively, before any incidents arise, if they want to enjoy the full benefits of core higher education values. As we discussed earlier, these benefits include higher quality inquiry, teaching, and discourse within a more inclusive community and with meaningful engagement with the broader public.

Equitable access, for example, serves quality by encouraging the widest range of intellectual talent to enter higher education, and by guarding against the corrupting effects of bias and limited perspectives.

Autonomy gives institutional leaders and faculty space to prioritize promising areas of research and teaching, as determined by experts. It can also be a shield against corruption, including attempts from outside to divert higher education resources. Accountability similarly can guard against improper diversions of resources initiated from within the higher education sector.

Academic freedom encourages researchers to take intellectual and creative risks. It can increase quality by encouraging free and open debate about new ideas. It can also fuel innovation and accelerate the distribution of new knowledge by decreasing the risks of negative consequences for sharing critical information.

Social responsibility encourages institutions and researchers to consider and prioritize both short- and long-term benefits to society when determining their research and teaching agendas.

Neglecting to put procedures or mechanisms in place for implementing these values proactively, before any incidents arise, limits the ability of institutions to capture these benefits and to serve society as fully as possible.

Neglecting proactive implementation adds risk

Neglecting to implement values proactively can also create risks for institutions and leadership. This is because values-related incidents and disputes often arise without warning. They can be triggered by students, administrators, faculty or trustees. Often they are triggered by persons or events off campus. When they happen, they can consume valuable time and resources. They can distract attention from other priorities. Handled badly, values disputes can strain relationships and leave lasting scars on leadership and the institution. (In the absence of pre-established values procedures, for example, student protests against the imposition of higher tuition fees, faculty objections to adding or eliminating an international activity, or donor/alumni objections to speakers or course content can quickly devolve into acrimony.)

Neglecting to implement values proactively does not create these risks, but it can add to them if leadership is expected to find solutions to contentious or sensitive issues after-the-fact, without established values practices to draw upon. This is especially true when leadership is expected to respond under time constraints and subject to media or other pressures.

Proactive implementation of values decreases risk

The converse is also true: grounding leadership in core higher education values can help resolve conflicts and turn a values “crisis” into an opportunity to enhance the institution’s most valuable asset—its reputation.

This requires ritualizing dialogue on values questions as a regular part of campus life before any values-related incidents arise. In this case, “ritualizing” values means creating and repeating regular, visible, and meaningful opportunities for all stakeholders to discuss values questions and their meaning in practice in the community.

Ritualizing values allows stakeholders to develop a common vocabulary, understanding, and culture around values, as well as constructive patterns of communication that can help to avoid miscommunication and build the trust that can be helpful in resolving future incidents.

Looking ahead

In the coming steps, we will ask you to assess your institution’s statement of values. (Again, if you are not affiliated with an institution, you can find a statement from any institution online, or you can use one of the two statements linked below.)

We will then look at steps you can take to help promote academic freedom and other core values at your institution, and beyond.

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Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters

University of Oslo

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