NSSE Symposium: A Question of Academic Freedom?

October 7, 2011

The higher education news media are abuzz today about a controversy involving the cancelling of a symposium on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).  The Chronicle of Higher Education piece (gated) is here.  The Inside Higher Ed piece is here.  The symposium was to be held as a special panel at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and would have focused on articles critical of NSSE recently published in ASHE’s journal The Review of Higher Education.

I am a member of NSSE’s National Advisory Board, and believe it to be as valuable an instrument for the assessment of learning as anything else available.  Perfect? No, but extraordinarily useful, and becoming more so each year.  I agree with the views recently put forward by Peter Ewell, Kay McClenney and Alexander McCormick in “Measuring Engagement” in Inside Higher Ed.

That disclosure and affirmation stated, I am most intrigued this morning by the assertion of six of ASHE’s past presidents, in a letter to the current president, that the cancellation of the panel constituted a violation of academic freedom.  That assertion is all the more interesting and forceful because some of these past presidents have held positions of responsibility with the American Association of University Professors, the major professional organization that superintends academic freedom as an essential value of higher education.

I know little more about this controversy than what I read in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.  And I suspect what we read there doesn’t tell us all that we need to know.  I’m inclined to think that cancelling the symposium once it was scheduled was not wise.  It certainly will generate more controversy and cause less light to be shed.  But I also don’t think there is much of an academic freedom issue here, or any at all.

ASHE has a right and a responsibility to organize an annual meeting that produces the most fruitful consideration and discussion of ideas in the scholarly society’s ambit.  Often the programs of such scholarly meetings are formed in a very loose-jointed, open-to-initiative manner.  It is only towards the end of the process that judgments of quality, fairness, and balance of topics are exercised.  ASHE’s current leadership may have learned more about the circumstances of the panel after that approval that gave them pause for concern.  Once the special panel had been accepted and scheduled, it was probably unwise to withdraw the approval.

But denial of academic freedom?  That’s a big claim to intrude into this controversy.  Most of the panel participants had already had a chance to voice their views in the journal issue.  It’s only those responsible for NSSE who have yet to have their say.  It appears to be a point of public disagreement about whether NSSE folks were given a chance to contribute to the journal special issue; they certainly should have been accorded that opportunity.

Denial of academic freedom?  Let’s save that accusation for genuine suppression of opportunities for scholarly speech.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Academic Freedom, Accountability and Accreditation. Bookmark the permalink.

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