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Balancing academic freedom with academic duty

Puskar, Kathryn R. DrPH, RN, FAAN; Sun, Ran MSN, RN; McFadden, Tricia G. PhD

doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000558104.89280.2b

At the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing in Pittsburgh, Pa., Kathryn R. Puskar is a professor and associate dean, and Ran Sun is an RN and PhD candidate. Tricia G. McFadden is an assistant professor at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pa.

The authors have disclosed no financial relationships related to this article.

EDUCATORS WORKING in schools of nursing (SONs) have an academic duty to teach content that follows course guidelines and mandated rules and regulations in nursing education.1 At the same time, they have a right to expect academic freedom to conduct research and pursue truth without fear of punishment or termination of employment.2 Because new faculty may be unaware of the rights and responsibilities associated with these corresponding concepts, this article discusses the importance of incorporating academic freedom and academic duty into faculty orientation at their respective SONs.

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Academic freedom: A well-established concept

In 1990, Berdahl defined academic freedom as “...that freedom of the individual scholar in his/her teaching and research to pursue truth wherever it seems to lead without fear of punishment or termination of employment for having offended some political, religious, or social orthodoxy.”2 In 2009, Fuller defined it as a “system of complementary rights and obligations entitled to teachers and students as free inquirers.”3

The concept of academic freedom, which originated in Germany as early as 1693, is well established.4 In 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) first reported on academic freedom and tenure in the US.5 In 1940, the organization published a set of principles describing the basis for academic freedom to promote understanding and support in colleges and universities.5 The Education Reform Act of 1988 enhanced the concept further by ensuring academics the right to question and challenge received wisdom and put forward new ideas without jeopardizing their institution.6

Nursing faculty rely on academic freedom to prepare and design curriculum content and coursework, which requires educators to “teach what they believe should be taught.”7 The AAUP gives faculty the freedom to teach topics according to their qualifications and to discuss relevant issues in the classroom. As such, educators may establish curricula and determine how best to articulate their discipline.

Academic freedom applies not only to teaching, but also to nursing research. In the 1970s, research flourished as nurses became more involved in higher education and began to pursue doctoral degrees. Educators are entitled to freedom in conducting research and publishing results.

Academic tenure is also an elemental aspect of academic freedom. It protects nurse researchers' autonomy to inquire, think, express, and publish. Both tenured and nontenured educators may express any position and conduct research on an issue without fear of punishment from the school.

Unfortunately, some faculty may abuse academic freedom to cover questionable decisions or actions; for example, making institutional policy changes such as an early holiday break, or shortening the course from 15 weeks to 12 weeks. These decisions may violate an instructor's academic duty to follow school and university policies.

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Academic duty: An equal responsibility

In contrast to academic freedom, academic duty is the responsibility of faculty to follow school curricula and guidelines according to regulations from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). These organizations promote the essentials of baccalaureate education for professional nursing practice designed to prepare students to graduate and obtain national licensure.8

In some cases, academic freedom can conflict with academic duty. An example of an academic duty violation is an instructor's decision to remove a lecture on thyroid disease from the syllabus based on his or her own judgment, even though the content is required according to the course topical outline and approved by the SON's curriculum committee. Although the instructor has leeway in creating the course syllabus, the instructor also has an academic duty to give this lecture because thyroid management is part of nursing care as reflected in the National Council Licensure Examination.9



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AACN guidelines

To ensure high-quality faculty, the AACN highlighted four domains of academic duty in a 2017 position statement (see AACN's four domains of professoriate):10

  • demonstrating knowledge of AACN essentials
  • functioning as teachers and researchers
  • sharing values
  • making a commitment to the future of nursing.

Additionally, AACN addressed competency-based education, transition to practice, and faculty roles. The faculty must be accountable to the mission of the school. The statement emphasized preparation through orientation, mentorship, and instruction in educational technology. It also recommended that doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or doctor of philosophy (PhD) graduates interested in becoming faculty educators should prepare with additional classes in education to enhance their teaching skills.10

In a 2018 position statement, AACN defined scholarship in academic nursing as “the generation, synthesis, translation, application, and dissemination of knowledge that aims to improve health and transform health care.”11 Similarly, it noted that academic nursing “encompasses the integration of practice, education, and research within baccalaureate and graduate schools of nursing.”11 The statement also highlighted the importance of sustained competency in pedagogy, AACN essentials, and accountability as characteristics of high-quality nursing professors and instructors.11

Nursing faculty must comply with AACN standards for educating nursing students for their BSN, DNP, or PhD degrees.8,12,13 The National League for Nursing (NLN) also offers certification programs for both academic and clinical educators to promote excellence in their role.14,15

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Integration for educators

Orientation programs at SONs are typically held for new faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and teaching assistants or fellows. These help new faculty members to learn their way around campus and become familiar with the various school resources. They meet with personnel from the different departments and receive information on the SON's strategic plan, organizational chart, and general academic undergraduate and graduate programs.

SON orientations rarely address the role of academic freedom and academic duty, however, and including these concepts in the orientation handbook increases faculty awareness and understanding, establishes cultural and professional standards for quality performance, and inspires creative teaching.

Along with the current faculty orientation materials, SONs should provide new faculty with content to clarify expectations (see Education resources).8,12,16,17

Academic freedom and duty provide expectations and guidance for new doctoral-prepared faculty. Additionally, SON PhD programs can utilize information from the National Research Council and the AACN white paper, “The Research-Focused Doctoral Program in Nursing: Pathways for Excellence,” to shape their curricula.13,18 Specifically, the white paper recommends three outcomes for these programs: to develop the science, steward the discipline, and educate the next generation.13

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Framework for success

As they interact with students, nurse scholars should understand and incorporate the concepts of academic freedom and academic duty as part of the framework for academic excellence.19 In doing so, they can support career competence and promote adherence to accreditation standards. Incorporating these concepts into faculty orientation can establish a high standard for performance in the early stages of a nursing educator's academic career.

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Education resources8,12,16,17

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