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April 14, 2016

Senate Session on academic freedom: AAUP vice president delivers keynote

AAUP's Henry Reichman

AAUP’s Henry Reichman

“Academic freedom today may be as endangered as it has been at almost any moment since the AAUP’s inception,” Henry Reichman told the March 30 plenary session of

the University Senate, in its keynote address. Reichman is the American Association of University Professors’ first vice president and chair of its Committee A on

academic freedom and tenure. “Our present situation is painfully reminiscent of the situation faced by our founders.”

Reichman spoke as part of a session dedicated to “Academic Freedom in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities,” which was followed by a panel discussion.


Chancellor Patrick Gallagher

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher

In his introduction, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher called the ideas behind academic freedom “something that is a central ingredient in carrying out our mission. … Like any fundamental element, they don’t sit in some timeless vacuum. They sit in the turbulent environment

hat this University and any university finds itself at any point in time.”

Senate President Frank Wilson echoed that sentiment, noting that “in our Faculty Assembly meetings the term [academic freedom] keeps coming up around almost every issue that emerges.”

Reichman pointed out that today, most colleges have some form of tenure, with its attendant academic freedom and other benefits, but this tenure is available “for ever-shrinking segments of the faculty” — a

Frank Wilson, Senate President

Frank Wilson, Senate President

quarter of all professors today. That’s a much smaller percentage than a few decades ago, he said.

“While academic freedom is one of the foundations of greatness in our higher education system, it has always been — and always will be — challenged, contested and


The fundamentals of academic freedom, adopted in AAUP’s inaugural declaration of principles, called for faculty to have:

• Freedom in research and its publication “subject only to the informed peer review of their academic colleagues … and to profit appropriately”;

• “Freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject,” as well as in talking with students, choosing academic materials and assessing student performances, with a caution against introducing controversial subjects unrelated to their class subjects;

• Freedom from academic discipline for speech, “freedom of extracurricular expression” and (added more recently) to be “no more restricted in electronic formats than in traditional modes of expression”;

• Freedom from arbitrary termination of services — “only under policies and procedures guaranteeing due process.”

Today, with levels of economic inequality in America not seen since the 1920s, tenure in Reichman’s view is a crumbling bulwark against “the expanding influence of wealth … on politics, society and culture” and the “historical influence of corporations on higher learning.” Universities in the 21st century are functioning more and more like corporations, he said, with an increasing hierarchy of leadership “and an increasing focus on the bottom line.”

Rather than merely defending tenure, Reichman proposed to expand the concept: “There is a rightful place for some temporary part-time appointments, but compelling allegedly ‘adjunct’ faculty to cobble together the semblance of a career from a series of part-time jobs is not only an unconscionable abuse of those colleagues, but also an ominous threat to the academic freedom of all faculty members. There is no more critical task in the defense of academic freedom today than a renewed fight to make the overwhelming majority of faculty appointments once again full-time and probationary for tenure.”

One persistent danger to academic freedom is “the expanding and corrupting need for money” among universities facing cinched state purse strings, he said.

Given today’s financial straits in higher education, how much sway should funders — individuals, companies, foundations or government agencies — have on the content or direction of scholarship and teaching at a university? Eternally funded research centers “catering to the needs of business or other outside forces” pose a growing risk for academic freedom, he believes.

Research universities in particular are becoming more entrepreneurial and restricting faculty rights to patents and subsequent profits from inventions and discoveries, he said. The recent ruling in Stanford v. Roche determined that faculty should receive patents unless they were assigned to universities beforehand, prompting some universities to compel faculty to sign over their intellectual property rights in advance as either a condition for applying for future grant funding or for employment at the institution (see Sept. 25, 2014, and Oct. 9, 2014, University Times). Such universities “falsely claim that Stanford v. Roche requires them to do so,” Reichman said.

“In a disturbing number of cases, difficult financial straits have provided college and university administrators with specious justifications for assaulting the academic freedom and shared governance rights of their faculties,” he said. “In a disquieting number of instances, some administrators and trustees (and some legislators) have sought to justify faculty layoffs and the discontinuance of controversial programs not by claiming exigency but simply by making ill-defined assertions of ‘distress’ or program ‘redirection’ — sometimes on grounds that are unproven, if not patently bogus.”

The most dramatic example of such a move, he said, occurred at the University of Wisconsin, from which the state legislature recently cut $250 million in funding over two years. The legislature also removed tenure protections and got rid of tenured faculty “for reasons of program curtailment … or redirection, whatever on earth that might be,” Reichman said. Wisconsin faculty, he reported, label the new tenure rules put in place by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents “fake tenure.”

Of course, he added, such adversity also has caused new and very active AAUP chapters to form at several Wisconsin campuses.

Several other current cases illustrate the shaky position of academic freedom as a governing principle on college campuses today, Reichman said.

In 2015, for instance, the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign withdrew the tenured faculty appointment of Steven Salaita following what an AAUP report termed “impassioned” Twitter posts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although his tweets may be seen as “juvenile, irresponsible and repulsive,” Reichman allowed, Salaita still was denied due process. “While civility may be …an admirable value … it is vague and ill-defined” as a disciplinary criterion. It conflates the tone of a message with its content, and shows “the danger to democracy of attempting to outlaw emotionally provocative speech” as well as “efforts to impose a pall of orthodoxy” that could dampen all dissent.

In another much-publicized incident in February, University of Missouri communication faculty member Melissa Click was videotaped suggesting “some muscle” was needed to remove media, including some students, from a campus protest site. She later was fired, with the university administration issuing a statement saying she “was not entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement or to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student.”

Click has acknowledged that her call to arms was wrong and apologized for it, Reichman noted, yet she has received hate mail and threats of rape and murder. More significantly, he said, at least 100 Republican legislators wrote to her administration urging that she be fired, some even citing her scholarship on pop culture as a reason.

“The AAUP will have much more to say on this” in a report in May, he added. “Nothing in either U.S. First Amendment jurisprudence or in AAUP case history prevents a university administration from responding to genuine threats of violence or true harassment — against individuals or groups — including threats made via social media,” he added. “It is one thing for a disgruntled colleague to say, ‘I am fed up with things here; everyone’s an incompetent fool,’ but quite another to say, ‘I’m fed up with things here and I’m bringing my Uzi to campus to give the incompetent fools what they deserve.’”

However, he cautioned: “The mere creation of discomfort” is not enough to constitute a threat against which action should be taken. “Universities were traditionally designed to make people uncomfortable.” Why should course syllabi contain trigger warnings for content that may spur an emotional student reaction, as has been urged or done on some campuses? Such moves are “…out of place in education and threaten not only academic freedom” but the fundamental missions of universities. He quoted an earlier AAUP statement: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Title IX, a guarantee of equal education for women and men and a successful tool to fight sexual harassment, also has been abused, he believes. This is particularly true, he said, in the cases of Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, investigated for harassment based on a piece she published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the case of Teresa Buchanan, a Louisiana State University professor dismissed for allegedly vulgar language in her classroom that was deemed to be sexual harassment.

Students, Reichman added, also have been charged with curtailing academic freedom. During the current upsurge in activism, student groups have called for “safe spaces” for their discussions, views and protests, seemingly seeking to silence those they see as threats to their safety or even comfort. He sees no evidence that this mode of student protest truly threatens others’ rights.

“The real question is whether and how to act on such demands” by students to punish faculty who allegedly offend, he said. In another recent incident that received a great deal of press attention, a Yale faculty resident adviser sent an email criticizing the email of another resident adviser, who had written against offensive Halloween costumes.

Students called for the dismissal of the RA who disliked her fellow RA’s criticism of the costumes — and that is their right, Reichman says. But if Yale accedes to that demand, “that’s another matter,” he said.

Student protests, particularly by minority groups who realize that their points of view aren’t understood by the majority, should be welcomed, he added: “They have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others … they will demonstrate indifference to the rights of others … but, doing so, they will learn.” Universities “should welcome the challenges they pose. To approach them in this way is to fulfill our responsibilities as educators.”

Too many people “take academic freedom for granted,” Reichman concluded. “It is in danger of restriction by powerful forces in our society … but these forces pale before the challenge of our own apathy and indifference.

“If more of us do not become active, all of us will be in danger,” he added. Higher education needs “a new commitment … to reclaim the possibilities threatened by corporations. If you say you are too busy, find the time. If you say you are demoralized, get over it. If you are indifferent, wake up.”

—Marty Levine 

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