TAFC seeks addition of ‘academic freedom’ in Pitt’s mission statement


Pitt’s Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee (TAFC) approved a resolution at its June 1 meeting intended to increase the visibility and inclusiveness of Pitt’s academic freedom policy and related statements.

Described as a “call to action,” the document asks Faculty Assembly this fall to recommend the administration add Pitt’s academic freedom policy to the University’s mission statement and clarify that its rights extend beyond just tenured faculty. The resolution, which TAFC members passed following a spirited discussion, emerged from concerns about the visibility of Pitt’s 2003 Statement on Academic Freedom, which Provost Ann Cudd reaffirmed and Faculty Assembly endorsed in April.

“Although we approved the provost’s statement — and we were very pleased to see that — we kind of felt as a committee that this concept didn’t have enough visibility,” said Marika Kovacs, TAFC co-chair and professor of psychiatry.

The idea prompted co-chair Abbe de Vallejo, a medical school faculty member, to research how visibly other universities feature academic freedom policies, Kovacs said. “It was clear to us that other universities had very prominent statements about academic freedom and also incorporate that as a core value in mission statements,” she noted, citing Carnegie Mellon University as an example. “That was missing from (Pitt).”

TAFC contends that Pitt’s position on academic freedom expressed in its by-laws:

  • Is “neither prominent nor readily evident” on the University’s website.
  • “Fails to define academic freedom, the conditions necessary to maintain it, and policy and procedure to ensure it.”
  • “Fails to include University scholars other than tenured or tenure-stream faculty.”

De Vallejo considers the resolution a “call to action” for Faculty Assembly and the administration to strengthen Pitt’s commitment to “increasing visibility” and accessibility of the academic freedom policy and related provisions. It asks Faculty Assembly to recommend:

  • Pitt’s administration and Board of Trustees include academic freedom in the University’s mission statement.
  • The administration develop specific policies and procedures on academic freedom as it applies to all University scholars and actions necessary to maintain it; and the administration protect academic freedom against all threats, whether arising internally or externally.

Explaining the basis of the committee’s concerns, de Vallejo said, “If one were to just do a simple Google search, what comes up is really a statement of academic freedom by the provost, and then (one from TAFC). And it’s very difficult to find academic freedom as it exists for the University of Pittsburgh.”

Carey Balaban, TAFC member and professor of otolaryngology, pointed out, however, that, “if you do read the reports, the statements on academic freedom going back historically at the University, they’re posted. It’s got a very thorough definition,” he said. “It’s all posted. It’s a matter of just reformatting it.”

De Vallejo countered that while Pitt’s Board of Trustees web page states academic freedom as a Pitt “core principle,” it doesn’t include an actual definition, or “who has the rights and responsibilities to it, how it may be defended and whether certain options may be taken if there were breaches to the exercise thereof.”

“And if we look at the six-point statement of the University mission, it makes no mention of academic freedom,” he said. “Something is missing there, which is necessary to accomplish this particular mission. And every university that I’ve looked for, they state in their web page that academic freedom is the instrument through which they accomplish their university mission.”

De Vallejo cited Penn State University, whose policy he said even includes a “redress of academic freedom-related grievances,” as well as Washington University of St. Louis, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University among the institutions that “have clear statements and codified” their commitments to academic freedom.

Kovacs elaborated on the perception of exclusivity in the current academic freedom policy.

“We realized that wherever statements are out there in the University, they seem to apply only to tenured faculty,” she noted. “And the fact that it’s really important to make the point that academic freedom — whatever way it is designed or defined — should apply also to non-tenured faculty and students. That’s why we (included) the word ‘University scholars,’ because we felt that it covers everybody who has some kind of an academic appointment or academic task at the University.”

While seven members voted to forward the resolution to Faculty Assembly, not everyone at the TAFC meeting was clear on the resolution’s functional goals or favored the call to add academic freedom into Pitt’s mission statement.

Noting that academic freedom is a “means to an end,” Kristin Kanthak, Faculty Assembly vice president, cited the American Association of University Professors’ statement on academic freedom. It says universities serve the “common good” — something that can’t be reached without academic freedom.

“If you open up the mission statement to means-to-ends, including academic freedom, you’re going to get other sorts of demands of other means-to-ends that are as important as academic freedom … that ought to go into the mission statement as well,” she said, including such issues as social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. “And I could sort of go on and on and on, right?”

She also expressed concerns about specificity regarding the development of policies and procedures, and that the resolution may appear to go against TAFC’s endorsement of the provost’s academic freedom statement.

“Those are kind of the issues that I would think about that are likely to come up in Faculty Assembly,” she said. “And that will create an environment that’s going to do the opposite of what you want (and) make it look like there’s all kinds of controversy around academic freedom when really there’s not.”

Robin Kear, University Senate president, said the statement could use more specificity regarding faculty members’ inclusion, and agreed with Kanthak that adding academic freedom to the mission statement could open a can of worms.   

“The Board of Trustees might say, well, we delegate academic freedom to our senior vice chancellor and our senior academic officer, who is the provost,” she said. “And the provost, as you saw in 2003 and you saw in 2022, has endorsed the statement. If there is more specificity needed, then I think we can discuss that. But I worry about making this seem like it’s not a value, and making it seem like it’s not enough, what exists.”

Saying he understands the concerns expressed, de Vallejo explained the resolution is simply a way to “codify” TAFC’s commitment to academic freedom through policy and procedure. “The provost statement of the reaffirmation of the 2003 statement from (former provost James Maher) is just that: It tells us again about academic freedom, but there’s really no guidance. It’s an insufficient guidance as to how academic freedom could be defended or could be exercised at the university.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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