• May 28th, 2020

Interrogating the purposes of collegiality and academic freedom in varsity setup

The two concepts – ‘collegiality’ and ‘academic freedom’ - as they are applied in higher education, often confuse academics as they appear to have opposite connotations.  Yet, on further consideration, there seems to be a close relationship between collegiality and academic freedom.

In terms of the opposition between the two terms, collegiality retards academic freedom in the sense that if decision makers take it into consideration, it implies that a community of players have to be consulted before decisions are made.  Where quick responses or answers are needed, there will always be delays. When it takes a long time to provide responses, this affects the function of the institution. Systems that largely rely on collegiality in decision making bring frustration and resentment from academics and stakeholders. Collegiality in this case tends to negatively affect academic freedom in that one has to wait for all people to give consensus on a matter that could be solved by a few people. It prolongs decision making and this is not compatible with cases that need urgent and immediate feedback or responses from every level of management. Also, since decisions are made by group consensus, it is difficult to assign responsibility to anyone should things go wrong. This may lead to situations where actions are not taken and responses are delayed or not given at all. Change, for instance, may take long to implement, and this may affect the systems and operations of an institution. A manager may be sabotaged by members of the group in a way to derail his or her focused vision.  Sometimes being too cordial to subordinates and colleagues backfires. There are always the cunning and mischievous who enjoy taking advantage of the friendly environment that may be created by the manager.

Notwithstanding the above, collegiality sometimes comes with some advantages. When collegiality is carefully implemented in a university, there is that sense of ownership that it comes with. It is that feeling of oneness or the one-family attitude that it brings. Academics and stakeholders feel that they are part of the larger university community when they are consulted in the decision-making process. Consultation is key in the success of collegiality.  In this sense, collegiality fosters a spirit of togetherness and cooperation from academics, students and stakeholders. This is healthy for the institution. 

But some scholars have argued that university managers are employed to make decisions on behalf of others.  The argument is that, without collegiality, their job is to steer the ship through rough reefs until they safely come to the intended destination, that is the decision. Food for thought, indeed.

Now, academic freedom. This appears to be a dubious concept, a concept that has been misused and abused, a concept that has sometimes brought   controversy and acrimony among academics and management. Some academics have been imprisoned and other have been killed because of expressing their views in their strong beliefs of academic freedom. The reason for all these negatives is that in most cases, academics do not know the limit of their academic freedom, if there is a limit at all. Whether there is a limit or no limit, it is my conviction that academic freedom must be exercised while respecting other people’s rights, values, norms and customs. It would not be courteously for instance to denigrate other people’s cultures in the name of academic freedom.  As I see it, academic freedom must be exercised in the confines of our Constitution. 

But some scholars feel that academic freedom has limited or no bounds at all.
Higher education scholar, Ramsden, said that “academic freedom in its strongest form implies the absolute personal right to purse the truth wherever it may lead, uninfluenced by management and accountable only to a community of scholars.”  In this case, academic freedom has no confines; the academic is only answerable to a community of scholars in his or her field of specialisation. This is sensible in the creation of knowledge in this knowledge-based economy.

On the same issue, renowned scientist Albert Einstein commented: “By academic freedom I understand the right to search for the truth and publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right implies also a duty: one must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true. It is evident that any restriction on academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among people and thereby impedes national judgement and action.”  

 According to the two scholars quoted above, there must not be any hindrances in the search for the truth and dissemination of knowledge by academics. Academics must fully enjoy the privilege of academic freedom in their search for the truth. Academics have what can be termed academic licence in the execution of their duties.

Nevertheless, all is not rosy in the academic terrain as far as academic freedom is concerned. It is not an understatement that some institutions around the world do actually hamper academic freedom. Reports have it that some institutions are run in an autocratic manner, thereby suppressing academic freedom. In such situations, academics do not have the freedom which is the prerequisite for their search for the truth. University managers are therefore advised to let academics exercise their academic freedom. Equally, academics must exercise their academic freedom responsibly. Limitless academic freedom may lead to disaster.

* Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address:kjairos@gmail.com

Staff Reporter
2019-08-30 08:21:41 | 8 months ago

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