Academic freedom is a widely used phrase on college campuses, as well as it should be.
Freedom of professors and students to teach and pursue knowledge without restriction is at the
core of higher education.
But freedom is never truly free, and academic freedom, as a practical matter, needs ongoing
vigilance. Today, our academic freedom is imperiled, ironically, by one of its core tools:
Textbooks. Or rather, imperiled by the increasing cost of these important learning materials, and by the methods that are being proposed to rein in these costs.
More and more schools are placing a spotlight on the textbook problem and proposing ways to
solve it for students and their families. Some schools, particularly in the community college and
state university sectors, are looking at centralizing decisions and purchasing of course materials in order to get "volume discounts" from purveyors of textbooks and others in the academic publishing business.
Such mandates from on high are anathema to instructors, and strike at the very heart of academic freedom. No professor wants to be told what to teach in a course or how to teach it. But academic freedom is more than just a matter of opinion, or preserving the right to have an
opinion. It is a basic tenet of America's higher education community and it has been bolstered
over the years by various court cases, long-standing teaching traditions and the companion
concept of faculty tenure. "You will learn what we can afford to teach" doesn't sound like the
credo we want for our colleges and universities, and it will certainly not lead us back to the
position of global preeminence we seek in educating our young people.
Indeed, support for academic freedom stretches back to the founding of our Republic, when
it was seen as a means to protect the interests of institutions and their instructors from undue
outside governmental interference. The concept of "academic freedom" was formalized in
1940, when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association
of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) agreed upon A Statement of Principles on
Academic Freedom and Tenure. Among other things, the statement said: "Academic freedom is
fundamental for the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student for freedom in learning."
We also can't overlook the problem of rapidly increasing student debt, placing the very existence of higher education in jeopardy. Academic freedom is in grave danger when an increasing majority of students are reaching the point at which attendance at the academy is beyond reasonable reach. "Freedom and economic security," the statement reads, "are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society."
While this 1940 reference to "economic security" was clearly referring to professors, I don't
think it is a stretch to refer to "economic security" now, in 2012, as a concept that should equally apply to instructors and to those whom they are teaching. Student indebtedness at today's levels now threatens to become too risky for the students and also for our national economy.
Certainly the cost of textbooks can't be solely blamed for the high cost of college, but to fail to
address it would be the height of irresponsibility. And to address it with a medicine that could
endanger the patient won't help either. Fortunately, there is another way. The good news is that
the cost of learning materials can be addressed by the disaggregation of content.
What do I mean by "disaggregation?"
You probably recall your own experiences in higher education, and your own frustration at the
cost of textbooks. Like me, you likely were assigned various textbooks for courses, often with
dozens of chapters, and then only assigned a small portion of those chapters as required reading.
"Disaggregation" allows for those chapters to be split into digital units, enabling them to be sold and for the copyright holder to be compensated, but not forcing the student to buy a lot of extra material that is not even required to be studied for the course. "Disaggregation" serves to hold costs down, while allowing instructors the choice of providing "best of" materials.
A digital solution of the moment that undergirds a timeless teaching principle, "disaggregation"
provides the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks while also sustaining the treasured concept and essential practice of academic freedom.
Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook Inc., the parent company of AcademicPub.