Globalisation can threaten liberal traditions

Academic freedom must be safeguarded and included in business school accreditation standards

In management education, intellectual progress requires academic freedom. Only in a free environment are students and faculty at liberty to exchange ideas, challenge conventional wisdom, generate knowledge and innovate.

In the west, business schools that have instituted safeguards for academic freedom have been at the forefront of intellectual progress. They have created an environment in which disagreements are tolerated, debate is encouraged and contradiction is transcended through a dynamic synthesis of opposing ideas.

Today, however, as western business schools expand to the east and south, the very precondition for intellectual progress in management education is being put at risk. Prevailing in some emerging markets is an overriding belief that disagreements should not be tolerated and debate should not be encouraged, for there is no apparent “contradiction” only economic opportunity within the existing status quo. What matters most in these markets is value creation within a static and unassailable institutional order, not intellectual progress in the context of a free and flourishing academic environment.

Thus, to operate successfully in these markets, business schools may be asked to dissuade students and faculty from expressing disagreements over government regulations, economic policies, even local business practices. Equally deleterious, they may be granted a “licence” to debate ideas freely, with the tacit understanding that “sensitive issues” that could upset the existing status quo be avoided at all cost. Either way, if business schools acquiesce in these measures, academic freedom will have been violated and a core value of western management education, the sine qua non of intellectual progress, will have been seriously eroded.

So, as business schools globalise, as they enter new markets that lack a liberal tradition, what should be done to safeguard academic freedom and who should do it? Undoubtedly, business school deans should do their utmost to cultivate a culture of “openness” conducive to the free exchange of ideas. However, given the intensity of business school competition, the enormous weight placed upon deans to “make ends meet” and the precarious position of western educational establishments vis a vis their foreign host governments, business accreditation associations must step in and take the lead.

What sort of safeguards should these associations demand? If not tenure, they should insist on the separation of academic from corporate governance, faculty contracts that cannot be terminated at will, contractual guarantees of academic freedom, even institutional guarantees embedded in the business school charter. More importantly, they should set forth accreditation standards devoted exclusively to academic freedom. They should not just assume that academic freedom exists because business schools produce scholarship. Rather, they should make academic freedom an explicit requirement, the very precondition for business school accreditation.

Surprisingly, none of the major business accreditation associations even mention academic freedom in their accreditation standards. This omission is more likely to be the result of presumption, than of intentionality, avoidance, or neglect. Nonetheless, by failing to require business schools to demonstrate that they have instituted safeguards for academic freedom, accreditors have effectively deprived these schools of the leverage they need to resist authoritarian pressures.

Now is the time to incorporate academic freedom in the business accreditation guidelines, lest it fall by the wayside in the inexorable drive to globalise management education.

The author is an accreditation assessor and interim provost and chief academic officer at Bryant University.

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