Communication Currents

Academic Freedom in Peril

April 1, 2015
Freedom of Expression

During the past year, attempts by college administrators and trustees to limit the free speech of college faculty have been the focus of a lot of media attention, debate, and public protest.

In early August 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) sent shock waves through the world of higher education by “unhiring” literary scholar Steven G. Salaita from a tenured position in its American Indian Studies Program—before he had even set foot on campus—on the grounds that his strongly worded, pro-Palestinian Twitter posts about Israel’s attacks on Gaza were “disrespectful” and intended to “demean and abuse” his opponents. In response, hundreds of students and faculty at UIUC held demonstrations and teach-ins protesting Salaita’s firing, and some 5,000 scholars have promised to boycott speaking engagements at the school until he is reappointed. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has expressed “deep concerns” about UIUC’s actions and is conducting a formal investigation into the school’s handling of the case.

More recently, on February 27, the University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governors voted to eliminate the UNC–Chapel Hill Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, a move many believe was designed to punish the center’s director, law professor Gene Nichol, an outspoken critic of the Republicans who control North Carolina state government. Student demonstrators disrupted and nearly shut down the meeting where the board voted to close the center. And more than 50 of Nichol’s law school colleagues signed a statement denouncing the decision, saying it “will deprive North Carolinians of critical research and education on poverty” and “chill academic freedom and inquiry.”

What makes these attempts to silence the controversial speech of scholars like Salaita and Nichol so alarming is that they flagrantly violate the principle of academic freedom upon which modern colleges and universities are based. As explained in the AAUP’s founding documents, widely accepted as defining the guiding values of the academic community, for scholars to do their jobs—seeking out new knowledge and serving the common good—they must be free to research and teach their subjects as they see fit, criticize the policies of their own institutions, and voice their views on matters of public concern without fear of retaliation or retribution. Yet, as the contributors make clear in a special forum that I edited in the current issue of First Amendment Studies, each of these elements of academic freedom is currently under attack in American higher education.

As the Salaita case vividly attests, the right of faculty members to speak candidly as citizens about important political issues is increasingly in jeopardy. Rhetorician Dana Cloud in her forum essay exposes the way administrators and others are using the notion of “civility” to silence dissident intellectuals like Salaita who speak out about injustices perpetrated by U.S. allies like Israel. The forum contributions by John K. Wilson and Matthew Abraham both reflect further on what the Salaita affair says about the dismal state of academic freedom. In her contribution, First Amendment scholar Adrienne Hacker Daniels looks at the related case of University Kansas journalism professor Daniel Guth, whose anti-NRA posts on Twitter got him suspended from teaching and led the administration to adopt a draconian policy on faculty communication via social media.

Freedom of extracurricular utterance is not the only component of academic freedom under assault. Faculty’s prerogative to criticize the policies and decisions of their own institutions is also in danger. One of the contributors to the First Amendment Studiesforum, Loretta Capeheart, a Justice Studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), faced harassment and retaliation from the administration for speaking out about the university’s rough treatment of student protestors. Her essay details her successful legal battle, which lasted more than six years, to get NEIU administrators to apologize for their actions and stop their reprisals.

Nor is Capeheart’s experience the only instance of administrators attempting to stifle faculty criticisms. Last year, Colorado State University(CSU)–Pueblo officials suspended Professor Tim McGettigan’s email account after he sent an email to faculty and students skewering the school’s plans to eliminate 50 faculty lines. In his email, he compared the cuts to the notorious 1914 Ludlow Massacre (in which the Colorado National Guard murdered striking miners and their families). CSU–Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare justified blocking McGettigan’s email access by citing security concerns. McGettigan has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Di Mare and the CSU Board of Governors. 

The freedom to teach without administrative or political interference is also at risk. In 2013, for instance, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) placed intercultural communication instructor Deandre Poole on leave in response to controversy surrounding his use of a classroom exercise—taken directly from his textbook—that involved having students write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper and step on it. FAU also ordered Poole not to speak to the press, depriving him of the opportunity to explain his pedagogy and the motives behind it. FAU’s faculty union rose to his defense and he eventually returned to the classroom.  

Freedom of research, too, is in trouble. In Arizona, political pressure from the head of the state Senate apparently caused the University of Arizona medical school to sever ties with Professor Suzanne Sisley, a doctor researching the effects of marijuana on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Attacks by politicians on marijuana researchers and funding for marijuana-related research have become all too common.

Finally, as Stephen Smith explains in his forum essay, the contingent faculty (part-time and half-time instructors) who make up more than 50 percent of all instructional staff at American colleges and universities lack even the embattled academic freedom enjoyed by tenured and tenure-track professors. He makes a strong case that the best possible defense of academic freedom for these faculty would be for them to unionize and secure academic freedom protections through collective bargaining.

One hundred years ago, Arthur Lovejoy, John Dewey, and other leading scholars founded the AAUP to fight for the right of faculty to express unwelcome truths and challenging opinions both in and out of the classroom. Over the past century, the AAUP together with other organizations—such as teachers unions and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union—have won some notable victories for that cause. But as John K. Wilson points out, academic freedom “requires ongoing defense” and, as the evidence surveyed by the contributors to the First Amendment Studies forum makes painfully clear, such defense is required now more than ever.

About the author (s)

Steve Macek

North Central College