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March 3, 2016

Senate Matters: Why academic freedom?

This spring’s University Senate plenary session will focus on the challenges and opportunities of academic freedom in the 21st century university. Academic freedom is in many ways the cornerstone of higher education. It is the foundational principle that provides faculty members the freedom to pursue scholarly questions and to teach students in the manner they see fit, all while operating within the boundaries of academically defined professional standards. The AAUP’s original 1940 statement on the subject said academic freedom also extends to the speech and activities in which faculty members engage as private citizens, which should be free from university censorship.

The last time academic freedom was at the forefront at our institution was in 2001, when the Environmental Law Clinic in the law school raised the ire of state legislators by taking legal action to oppose timber harvesting in the Allegheny National Forest. Following fierce debate, the law clinic eventually was permitted to continue its advocacy work — the principles of academic freedom ultimately prevailed. In a 2002 memo to faculty, former Provost James Maher summed up Pitt’s position: “Even as debate over these issues continues on campuses and in the courts, the University of Pittsburgh aggressively endorses the longstanding understanding of academic freedom … The University has been and remains determined to resist any infringement of these principles from any source.”

In 2013, alarmed by reports at numerous U.S. academic institutions of faculty members facing discipline for comments made as private citizens on various social media platforms, the Senate formed an ad hoc committee to determine if Pitt’s decades-old policies on faculty speech and academic freedom were in need of an update. The committee found that while Pitt’s policies were sufficiently broad to cover many different forms of expression, they clearly were not written with forms of mass communication like Twitter in mind. Important outcomes resulting from this committee included an affirmative statement by Provost Patricia Beeson that our academic freedom protections extend to electronic communications and a “best practices” document to help faculty protect themselves in this increasingly treacherous area.

The recent widespread protest movement on U.S. college campuses underscores the timeliness of this topic, with passionate calls for (and against) restricting certain kinds of speech on campus. Other worrisome national trends include schools attempting to impose restrictive speech codes on faculty members; mounting pressure on teaching faculty to use trigger warnings in the classroom; and efforts by outside political groups, trustees and legislators to silence faculty members who hold dissenting or controversial viewpoints. These issues touch all faculty members engaged in teaching and scholarship and thus we cannot ignore them.

At Pitt, we are fortunate to not be in the midst of an academic freedom or free-speech scandal. So why choose academic freedom as this year’s plenary session topic? As a University with national and international reach, we must be fully engaged with high-stakes matters affecting higher education. In addition, Pitt currently is grappling with several critical issues that at some level intersect with academic freedom. When it comes to research, our shifting intellectual property policies and aspirations toward greater commercialization and corporate partnerships likely will have an impact on the kinds of scholarship we engage in, value and reward. While these changes represent new avenues for advancement in some areas of the University, there also are potential dangers, such as loss of autonomy and restrictions on investigating certain research questions or disseminating results that run counter to the interests of corporate partners. Strong policies are needed to preserve the academic freedom of our scholars as we move forward on these fronts. The Senate recently hosted an event led by law professor Michael Madison on the complex relationship between academic freedom, University policy and scholarship (see Jan. 21 University Times).

Another critical issue here has been the treatment of non-tenure-stream (NTS) faculty. Without the protections afforded by tenure, it is critical that our policies and practices guarantee the academic freedom of our NTS colleagues. These protections are particularly important when it comes to academic speech as well as teaching and curricular decisions. Fortunately, based on the recommendations of the Senate’s ad hoc committee on NTS faculty issues, the Provost’s office is in the process of ensuring that NTS faculty are appropriately integrated into governance structures of their units.

These are serious issues that require careful consideration. The stakes are high enough that our faculty cannot afford to be uninformed. This is why we selected academic freedom as the topic of this year’s plenary session.

Our keynote speaker will be Henry Reichman, first vice president of the AAUP and chair of the AAUP’s committee on academic freedom and tenure. There is arguably no one more qualified to articulate the numerous complex issues around academic freedom facing institutions of higher learning today. We are looking forward to a frank and open discussion on both the challenges we must face and opportunities we must embrace as a community.

You are all invited. We hope you will join us on March 30.

*Seth Weinberg is chair of the 2016 plenary session planning committee. Other members are Frank Wilson, Senate president; Irene Frieze, Senate vice president; Michael Spring, immediate past-president; Beverly Gaddy; Chris Bonneau; Rose Constantino; and Nicholas Bircher.

Filed under: Also,Volume 48 Issue 13

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