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January 21, 2016

Session examines academic freedom & the university

Michael Madison

Michael Madison

“Academic freedom is very, very closely tied up with the idea of the university, the idea of the university as a concept, the idea of the university as an institution, and the idea of the university as an organization,” law professor Michael Madison told fellow Pitt faculty in a recent discussion on the intersection of academic freedom and scholarly activities.

“When we talk … about challenges to academic freedom, opportunities associated with academic freedom, we’re not talking about academic freedom in isolation or in the abstract. We’re talking about challenges and opportunities to the idea of the university itself.

“When we look for problems in the domain of academic freedom … or new opportunities associated with academic freedom, we should be looking for how those problems or challenges are traced to the challenges to universities, opportunities associated with universities, because the two things are very, very closely bound together,” he said.

Madison’s Jan. 12 talk was the first in a series of University Senate-sponsored events scheduled in advance of the March 30 Senate plenary session, which will focus on academic freedom in the 21st century.

“Academic freedom is not, in the main, a basic freedom of expression or free speech principle analogous to the First Amendment to the Constitution,” Madison cautioned.

Whereas the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression is a right of individuals with respect to the government, academic freedom has a specific institutional context.

The university has allocated to faculty the primary responsibility for advancing those goals of its institutional mission to advance learning, share knowledge and cultivate students’ growth into independent critical thinkers. Faculty discipline themselves as a self-regulating professional body, and academic freedom is part of the bargain.

“An easy case to show that academic freedom has limits and that those limits are baked into the idea of self-governance and institutional context is peer review: It’s pretty well accepted that peer review is fundamental to the exercise of faculty roles in a university setting, that peer review is a form of disciplinary discipline and that it is a limit on any absolutist notion of academic freedom,” he said.

“Peer review is what helps us ensure excellence in the performance of our function in the university setting. It’s pretty well accepted as consistent with academic freedom, and in some respects peer review advances the idea of academic freedom,” he said.

“The accountability of the faculty ultimately is to the public and to the common good. But the public has no right to expect specific research results or specific outcomes. The public trusts us to police our own selves as the faculty body. In exchange for that we should have freedom of inquiry, freedom of publication, freedom to speak in the classroom.”


Academic freedom challenges fall into four basic, yet overlapping threads or conversations, Madison said.

• Who counts and who matters?

“Clearly the biggest threat to academic freedom is the displacement of full-time faculty by contingent faculty,” Madison said, clarifying that his observation is not a criticism of the individuals in those positions, but rather an observation that not enough researchers and teachers are being hired into full-time positions.

“Where investments and support of full-time faculty are on the wane, then academic freedom may be on the wane as well,” he said.

The balance between full-time and contingent faculty is partly driven by shrinking budgets, but also by technology, Madison said, noting that faculty have been encouraged to develop MOOCs or virtualize their teaching online.

“If you have a faculty that consists to a significant degree of contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, lecturers, part-time faculty, digital avatars, digital moderators, then in what sense do you have a faculty for academic governance and academic freedom purposes? Does it remain a self-regulating body of teachers and scholars? To what degree do you have a governing body?” he asked.

• What counts and what matters?

In a large research university, defining excellence in research or in scholarship in any unitary sense  “is all but impossible,” Madison said, arguing that it must be viewed school by school, department by department, discipline by discipline. “This is where peer review and self-governance play such critical roles,” he said.

“How does a university support and value excellence in genuine interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary research and scholarship? That’s an academic freedom question in large part,” he said.

That assessment question gets even more critical when technology enters the picture in work in the digital humanities, or in the visual and performing arts where research often takes the form of creative works themselves, or in work that melds health sciences with engineering, he said. “What does peer review constitute when we’re looking at these emerging fields?”

Questions also arise from non-traditional environments that may be digitally mediated, he said, pointing out that law schools have been wrestling with the question of whether faculty blogging counts as legal scholarship. “To my knowledge, no law school answered that question yes,” he said.

However, some topics that arose from blogs became papers or  book chapters. “Do we evaluate those end products in exactly the same way that we would evaluate more traditional forms of scholarship? … Does their origin story matter?” he asked.

Allocation of resources poses other questions: What sort of work gets rewarded and funded?

If a faculty member gets a patent, should it count toward promotion or tenure decisions? Conversely, should it count against faculty if they don’t pursue potentially commercializable opportunities in fields where such work is common? Might a faculty member be favored or disfavored with regard to access to funding and other support based on their willingness in this area?

“Direct or indirect pressure to engage in research that supports commercialization efforts is obviously a challenge to academic freedom,” Madison said.

“Building out an administrative infrastructure to support commercialization and industry partnerships likewise is a cause for at least interested concern, if not a challenge,” Madison said.

Such activities make sense in multiple ways: in terms of the university’s need to finance itself and its research infrastructure; in terms of advancing the important goals of the university; and in terms of transitioning knowledge output into the community, engaging with the community and maximizing the social impact of some of the work of the university, he said.

“There are pros and cons around the idea of commercialization. But they raise caution flags,” he maintained.

Some pressures toward pursuing commercialization and industry partnerships come from within the university; others are external, he pointed out.

“There are members of the academy who are very interested as researchers and have more flexibility to explore commercialization opportunities and to engage in research-related activities and commercial activities beyond their classic faculty researcher role,” he said.

Outside pressures are the result of the “broken” postwar bargain between the federal government and the research university world that called for federal funding to finance basic science research that industry later would build into commercializable products.

“The federal government is no longer funding research in the university to the extent that it once did and industry is no longer sitting back and waiting for the university to finish its work in basic science,” Madison observed. “Increasingly, industry is eagerly coming to the university saying, ‘How can we buy research time and invest in research products very early on in the process?’

“We like the money, we like the ability to raise private funds to support major research infrastructures, but the challenges to academic freedom become more pronounced because it’s no longer so clear that we’re doing basic science or basic research that is distinct from commercial payoffs.”

Madison clarified that he has not seen evidence of this sort of dynamic at Pitt. “I’m not aware of this kind of pressure manifesting itself presently but people are concerned about trends in general,” he said.

“I think that the conversations about the impact of commercial interests at the University are going to get more pronounced, partly because it’s clear that Pitt is interested in defining and solidifying a commercialization pipeline that is finding research in the lab that has potential commercial application. But also in addition to that, finding industry partners the University is interested in bringing to campus and stimulating conversations about new lines of research that might be supported by external partners.”

• Who owns or controls what?

Pitt is among the universities undertaking reviews of their intellectual property policies, said Madison, who is a member of a task force charged with reviewing Pitt’s copyright, patent and conflict of interest policies.

The goal, he said, is to add flexibility to the intellectual property policies.

“The goal is really to continue to have the flexibility to move academic research into the public sphere for the common good, within a variety of ways consistent with academic freedom but also consistent with the ways we want to benefit society at large,” Madison said.

Frequently the mention of intellectual property brings to mind patents. While researchers in health sciences, other natural sciences and engineering may work in areas that might result in patentable intellectual property, copyrights affect all faculty, Madison said. “Copyrights affect everyone because everyone’s a scholar, everyone is publishing,” he said.

Most universities are committed to the idea that faculty own the copyrights to their research output that is shared in academic journals, monographs and other publications.

Pitt’s patent policies require faculty who invent something to assign their patent to the University. An associated bargain structure enables the inventor to share in any commercial proceeds that arise from the invention. The arrangement is designed to preserve faculty prerogative to publish their research results without compromising possible patent interests, Madison said.

Virtualization and digitization of scholarly work has resulted in dramatic change in publishing markets that affect faculty authors.

The rise of open-access publishing models has helped counter the troubling trend of skyrocketing journal subscription costs.

Traditionally, faculty publish papers in journals that require them to assign copyright to the journals; the journals then license their content back to university library systems, limiting scholars’ ability to use their own work, he said.

Rising costs and tight library budgets force cutbacks that can create potential compromises to access to knowledge, which itself is a challenge to academic freedom, Madison said.

Faculty in many fields now have the option to publish in high-quality open-access, peer-reviewed journals that don’t require authors to sign away as many rights. In addition, many universities have developed open-access repositories where faculty work can be shared publicly. And some federal agencies require that the results of funded research be made available, although it is not an across-the-board mandate, he said.

The storage of scholarly work in the cloud introduces another concern for academic freedom. “A lot of scholarship is out there living in a proprietary controlled universe,” he said. “Companies own it and control access to it” and users must pay subscription fees to access it.

“That introduces a third wing of interest into the question of cost, access and the academic freedom principle at the bottom of all of this, which is the ability to freely ask questions and share answers,” Madison said.

“Where things start to get interesting has to do with research data,” he said. Research here results in massive amounts of clinical data, experimental data and other collections of data, yet many faculty fail to consider the question of who owns that data.

It is and will continue to be an important topic that faculty should be paying attention to, he said. “Most people that I’ve talked to think that either no one owns data or the University owns data,” he said. However, if a collection of data is an original work of scholarship, researchers and scholars may own their own data, he said.

He noted that a group centered in Pitt’s School of Information Sciences is embarking on a review of research data.  The big questions are not ownership questions, however. “They’re access questions, governance questions, security, integrity, privacy, portability, reproducibility,” Madison said. “When a researcher wants to test somebody else’s research results, where do you go? Who do you ask? Are there limits on that? Those are compelling questions.”

• Life beyond the lab or classroom

The fourth type of academic freedom challenge focuses on life beyond the lab or classroom, Madison said.

“What happens when you take faculty activity — whether it’s research activity, public service, teaching — and take it outside the campus, whether it’s a MOOC or a blog or Twitter or some other form of social media?”

Speaking to a newspaper or television network as a faculty expert is well understood. “Your university affiliation is easily processed by the audience,” Madison said.  That can become less clear in other contexts, particularly online.

“At what point do you lose your identity as a member of the university community? At what point do you lose your accountability to your peers? At what point does the university cease supporting you in your academic role?”

The Association of American University Professors has taken an interest in these questions in the aftermath of several high-profile cases in recent years.

“It’s an area well worth watching,” Madison said.

Madison stopped short of saying that academic freedom is under attack. “Academic freedom is facing a lot of challenges. It also is facing some opportunities,” he said.

“I think those challenges and opportunities have a lot to do with the challenges and opportunities facing the university,” he reiterated. “As we think about the questions and possible answers, I think it’s important to think about those two things simultaneously.”


Madison’s talk will be featured at

—Kimberly K. Barlow        

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