Service learning under fire outside of the classroom

Students in various disciplines throughout universities receive hands-on training through service-learning programs such as law school clinics. But that type of academic training is under attack from both big business and legislative bodies, say two professors from the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

“Recent legislative and corporate efforts to interfere in the operations of law clinics indicate that academic freedom is at risk when hands-on student learning bumps up against ‘real-world’ disputes,” write Robert Kuehn, JD, and Peter Joy, JD, in “ ‘Kneecapping’ Academic Freedom,” the recent lead article for “The Conflicted University,” a special edition of Academe, the publication of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Kuehn is a WUSTL professor of law and president of the Clinical Legal Education Association. Joy is vice dean and professor at the School of Law.

The University of Maryland recently came under fire when a law-clinic lawsuit against a $4 billion poultry company sparked an effort to withhold state funds from the university unless its law school provided the legislature with sensitive information about clinic clients and case activities. The state legislature eventually withdrew its threats.

Outside law school

Many professional programs offer course opportunities with real-life experiences and Kuehn and Joy note that a growing number of universities have begun to require service learning and other experiential educational opportunities for undergraduates.

“Yet, each time teaching leaves the confines of the classroom, the potential exists for conflicts with the interests of others,” Kuehn and Joy write. “This is particularly true when the activities outside the classroom involve assisting individuals and groups whose interests put them at odds with the interests of those with strong ties to the university or elected officials, especially corporate interests.”

Kuehn and Joy question whether academic freedom in teaching will transcend the classroom.

“If academic freedom as a constitutional right imposes some limits on the regulation of public higher education, the scope of this protection when applied to service learning has yet to be defined,” they write.

“Although courts generally have upheld a university’s power to decide and control its curriculum when students, taxpayers, or individual faculty members have challenged that power, the legality of efforts by legislatures or other government officials to restrict directly the method or content of university courses is less clear, especially when those courses move outside the classroom.”

Read Kuehn and Joy’s article, “ ‘Kneecapping’ Academic Freedom” at