The UO faculty union and the Senate fought hard with President Gottfredson over academic freedom. Gottfredson and his negotiators Tim Gleason, Doug Blandy, Randy Geller and Sharon Rudnick wanted the union contract to include rules requiring civility and proper respect, and they didn’t want the university to give explicit protection for criticizing administrative policies.
They lost, after a year of hard work by United Academics and the UO Senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom. Gottfredson and Geller are gone, Gleason has been put out to pasture as FAR, and UO now has an Academic Freedom Policy which says:
… Members of the university community have freedom to address, question, or criticize any matter of institutional policy or practice, whether acting as individuals or as members of an agency of institutional governance. … Public service requires that members of the university community have freedom to participate in public debate, both within and beyond their areas of expertise, and to address both the university community and the larger society with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, cultural, or other interest. … The academic freedoms enumerated in this policy shall be exercised without fear of institutional reprisal.
As well as Lariviere’s strong Free Speech Policy, which says:
Free speech is central to the academic mission and is the central tenet of a free and democratic society. The University encourages and supports open, vigorous, and challenging debate across the full spectrum of human issues … The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, and in any other way despicable, detestable, offensive or “just plain wrong” cannot be grounds for its suppression. …
These policies are of course founded on basic human rights and the social purposes of universities, but they are also entirely practical. No sensible university leader or trustee wants to get distracted from their jobs by a political fight over some statement by some professor that offends some politician, donor, or alumnus.
They want to be able to respond like this: “Yes, that statement by professor X about Y in Z was deplorable. But I can’t interfere. My job is just to manage the administrative side of the university. I’m sorry, and I appreciate your years of support, but the only response our university can make to free speech that someone doesn’t like is more free speech.”
The latest example of the practicality of this approach is in Illinois. UI made a job offer to a professor. He then wrote something controversial. (The professor’s name is Steven Salaita, his writing was about Israel and Gaza, and it was on Twitter, but that is irrelevant). The Trustees and donors got upset about what he’d written and put pressure on the Chancellor, who caved and rescinded the job offer. The Chronicle has an article about some of the backlash.
Scott Jaschik has an excellent report on this in InsideHigherEd.com, with emails between the chancellor, trustees, and lawyers obtained from public records requests. And the AAUP blog Academe has an excellent post as well, by John Wilson:
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chancellor Phyllis Wise has written an open letter to the campus (copied below) explaining her decision not to allow the hiring of Steven Salaita. The letter is an appalling attack on academic freedom and a rejection of the basic values that a university must stand for.
Wise argues, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
Of course, this standard is ridiculous: individuals should be free to say personal and “disrespectful” things about others (for example, everyone should be free to say that Wise’s argument here is both stupid and evil, without facing punishment from the respect police). Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime.
But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.
Wise’s other main argument confirms this absurd approach: “A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner.”
If what a professors tweets before they’re even hired might undermine those “confident” feelings, then all professors would have to be banned from ever expressing any opinion anywhere, lest it create any doubt that a student will be unable to debate in a respectful manner. There is clear evidence in Salaita’s teaching evaluations that students are free to express disagreements with him. But since the standard that Wise sets is the imagined feelings of students, rather than actual evidence or reality, Salaita’s long experience as a teacher is no defense.
Wise claims, “We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” That sentence is exactly right. But Wise’s grotesque mistake is imagining that one of the rights of an individual is to be protected from the possibility of hearing “disrespectful” criticism. To the contrary, one of the fundamental rights of individual students is the right to hear dissenting points of views without censorship, and Wise is clearly violating that right of students to hear Salaita teach when she imposes her personal standards of “civility” on a university.