After the preposterous CAUT report on the University of Manitoba’s Economics Department was released, President David Barnard offered a wonderfully robust and thought-provoking refutation of CAUT’s accusations.
One of the most interesting observations Barnard makes relates to a specific incident from the report, namely the request by a departmental council to review an existing Health Economics course after having approved a new Economic Determinants of Health Course taught by the same professor. CAUT viewed this as a violation of the professor’s academic freedom (basically – she/he can teach whatever she/he likes).
In an age when we are all intensely aware of intellectual property rights issues, we have, over time, come to focus on the professor’s role as a creator of content. And this is absolutely right. The way in which Economics Macro 300 or Organizational Behaviour 250 gets taught is a reflection of a professor’s lifetime of scholarship, and many hundreds of hours of hard work in creating a pedagogy and syllabus that conveys the necessary information to students. The idea that this “belongs” to anyone other than the professor is ridiculous – which is why there have been such fierce battles over the terms of universities’ involvement with private for-profit companies, like Coursera, with respect to online education.
Barnard responds to this line of thinking by reminding us of a very important truth: Macro 300 and OB 250 exist independently of the professors who currently teach them. When they are approved by Senate, they become the property of the university as a whole (with the department in which the course is situated taking special responsibility). After the incumbent of a particular course retires or leaves, someone else will be asked to takeover. The course, in this sense, is eternal and communal. It does not “belong” to the professor.
There’s an obvious tension here between the way a course gets taught (owned by the prof) and the course objectives and outcomes (owned by the university). Usually – at least in Canada and the United States – we solve the problem by always leaning in favour of the professor. Which is certainly the easier option. However, this attitude, which gives total sovereignty to professors at the level of the individual course, inevitably leads to programs become disjointed – especially in Arts and Sciences. Students end up missing key pieces of knowledge, or have to learn it and re-learn it two or three times.
Universities own courses in the sense that a course is a building block towards a degree, (which the university very definitely owns – its entire existence is predicated on being a monopoly provider of degrees). As a result, course objectives, how a course fits into the overall program goals, course assessment guidelines, and course delivery mechanisms (online, blended, or in-person) are all legitimately in the hands of the university and its academic decision-making bodies. The actual syllabus – that is, what material gets taught in pursuit of the objectives – and the pedagogical methods used is what belongs to the professor.
The problem here is that, in Arts and Science at least (less so elsewhere), our smorgasbord thinking about curriculum makes us prone to assuming that courses stand alone, and do not contribute to a larger programmatic structure. Hence the widespread fallacy that professors “own” courses, when the reality is that courses are a shared enterprise.