Academic Freedom Survey Results

Durham College Faculty Union Local 354, Academic Freedom survey results

During the week of September 30 to October 4, 2013, your local union asked you to complete a short survey regarding your views on academic freedom issues. In comments forwarded through the survey, there was a great deal of passionate commentary passed on to us.

First, it needs to be stated clearly that all Ontario college faculty DO NOT enjoy academic freedom. In Canadian universities, professors enjoy academic freedom, but not in Ontario colleges: ownership of materials, control of student grading, teaching methods, and the right to speak critically ARE NOT guaranteed. Our provincial union negotiating teams have asked for these protections over several negotiating rounds, but without any success.

Sharing of materials in a genuinely collegial environment is fine, provided it is part of a process of ensuring quality education to students. However, there is concern over the expectation that sharing materials is required, or that not sharing is frowned upon.

There was a great deal of concern expressed over the “ownership” of teaching materials, including on-line and hybrid courses. One respondent wrote that his/her work was “plagiarized” at another college, and our college’s leaders failed to provide any assistance to protect this work.

A contrary opinion, forwarded by a minority of people providing feedback, was that the college, as our employer, does and should have every right to “ownership” of any materials produced by faculty. This opinion contradicts the commonly-understood definition of academic freedom as practiced at the university level, but it is nevertheless a conclusion expressed by a few Durham College faculty in their feedback.

Another person wrote to share the opinion that our local’s greatest concern should be the “indiscriminate abuse of contract hires,” rather than issues like academic freedom. However, it needs to be clarified that contract teaching is a top concern at all college locals and at the provincial level even though it’s extremely difficult to do anything due to the wording in our current collective agreement.

Furthermore, the massive growth in numbers of part time teachers is possible partly because of the untold hours of work done by coordinators and concerned professors who assist contract hires, including sharing their teaching materials. The benefit to the students is the primary reason given when full time faculty give their reasons for sharing their materials and mentoring part time teachers.

Unfortunately, our current collective agreement does nothing to allow us academic freedom or control over the massive increase in numbers of part – time teachers at our college. These can only be addressed through the collective bargaining process, and then only if we as college educators are prepared to take a strong stand, perhaps to the point of being willing to strike over these issues.

One other commonly expressed concern was the following: there were several comments regarding alarm over the number of students who fail early-on in a given program, yet are moved forward to advanced – level classes. How, some respondents asked, can these students move forward after failure in a pre-requisite course? The following questions were raised: are final marks being changed after submission by the professor in order to allow students to continue in the program? And, is management’s pre-occupation with student retention perhaps leading to the altering of grades?

The survey question results were as follows: there were 161 respondents, or a little less than half of our local’s membership. The first question, “I have felt pressure to share some of my creative work with other teachers or managers” was answered as 62.1% strongly agreeing or agreeing, and 21.1% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Clearly, then, this is a common practice at our college.

The second survey question was, “I have felt pressure to alter my teaching or assessment methods in some way that I did not agree with”: 36.6% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed, and 46.6% disagreed or strongly agreed. The third question, “I have felt pressure to alter a student’s mark,” elicited a response of 34.8% strongly agreeing or agreeing, and 44.7% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. 10% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “I have had one (or more) of my student’s marks changed without my consent.” 73% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

For the statement, “I have felt afraid to speak critically within the college for fear of punishment,” 44.4% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed, while 23.8% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

The question, “Generally, I feel that academic freedom is a concern for me” elicited a very strong 52.8% strongly agreeing or agreeing. 27.3% disagreed or strongly disagreed. The statement “I want my union representatives to focus more on academic freedom at the local level” received 55% agree or strongly agree and 13.8% disagree or strongly disagree. The issue, “Academic freedom should be high on the list of negotiated demands for the upcoming round of contract negotiations” received the result of 52.2% who agree or strongly agree, and 19.8% who disagree or strongly disagree.

The strongest response to the survey questions was the last one: “I would be in favour of the union providing more information on the subject of academic freedom”: 78.9% agreed or strongly agreed, and 5.6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In response, the local will be updating Durham College faculty with news and information on the issue of academic freedom.