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April 14, 2016

Senate session on academic freedom: Panelists tackle variety of issues

From left: Provost emeritus James Maher and faculty members Michael Goodhart and Beverly Gaddy joined keynote speaker Henry Reichman of the AAUP for a panel discussion during the March 30 University Senate plenary session.

From left: Provost emeritus James Maher and faculty members Michael Goodhart and Beverly Gaddy joined keynote speaker Henry Reichman of the AAUP for a panel discussion during the March 30 University Senate plenary session.

True to the multifarious nature of academic freedom, keynote speaker Henry Reichman and faculty panelists touched on issues including trigger warnings, civility, intellectual property rights, protections for non-tenure-stream faculty and the impact of collective bargaining on shared governance in response to audience questions. Provost emeritus James Maher and faculty members Beverly Gaddy and Michael Goodhart joined Reichman in the wide-ranging discussion moderated by University Senate President Frank Wilson.

“How do we protect academic freedom for non-tenured faculty, who are the majority of the faculty?” asked Senate past-president John J. Baker, faculty emeritus of the dental school.

Maher cited the 2001 dispute with state legislators who opposed the Pitt Environmental Law Clinic’s action against logging in the Allegheny National Forest as a case in point. In spite of pressure to fire the untenured law clinic faculty, “It was regarded, as part of the University’s deepest and most strongly held values, that we had to defend those people because their academic freedom was as important as anybody else’s,” Maher said. “The whole community is very, very assiduous about the importance of academic freedom. There should not be a distinction between the most safely tenured full professor and most tenuous undergraduate student. If their academic freedom is threatened, we need to defend it. As long as we keep that attitude, we’re going to be fine.”

Reichman added, “Academic freedom is not something that’s reserved for tenured faculty.

“It’s for the faculty, period. All faculty are entitled to academic freedom,” he said. “Even if tenured faculty are now a minority, or even tenured and tenure-track, it is the professional responsibility of the tenured faculty to defend all their colleagues.”

He added: “I think too few of us understand that we have an obligation as tenured faculty, precisely because we are the ones who are most secure, to defend the rights of the probationary faculty and those off the tenure track. And especially those who are off the tenure track who probably should be on the tenure track.”

Gaddy pointed out that although all faculty have academic freedom, their protections are not as strong as those of tenured faculty.

“These can be strengthened by University policy,” she said, noting that an enforceable academic freedom statement in the faculty handbook and collective bargaining would help in securing those protections.

“If it’s okay to counsel students on civility, is it okay to counsel faculty on civility?” asked University Library System librarian Faye Leibowitz.

“Absolutely,” said Goodhart. “I think we ought to be doing more of it.”

Goodhart said people can’t be forced to abide by a civility code, “but in terms of modeling good practices, sharing values and talking openly about creating the kind of community we want to create, absolutely.” He said the discussion must make clear that its aim is “to be enabling for everybody involved in the conversation and not to be chilling or limiting or restricting.

“It’s a tough line to walk, but it can be done.”

Reichman agreed there is a difference between what faculty can do and what it’s advisable to do. “It would be wrong for a department to say we’re not going to promote or give tenure to someone because he’s such a jerk. But it is pretty appropriate for some colleagues in the department to pull that person aside and say, ‘You’re being a jerk. Try to act differently. Here’s how.’ … That’s a different thing.”

ULS scholarly communications librarian Lauren Collister said that while part of her job is to encourage faculty and students to make their work openly available as part of Pitt’s mission to disseminate research, often they can’t because they’ve had to sign away their rights in order to publish in certain journals.

“Many tenure and promotion guidelines privilege, or in fact outright require, publishing in certain outlets,” she said. “That’s the reason I hear most often: ‘I have to publish in this journal because tenure and promotion guidelines say I need to.’ Those outlets are often the ones that make you sign away your rights and give up [your]intellectual property to publish it.

“Obviously it’s okay if they want to do that. … But should they be compelled to do so in order to get that tenure they want so badly or promotion we all advocate for?”

Said Maher: “It’s a significant problem,” noting Pitt’s longstanding advocacy for open access scholarly publishing as signatories to the Tempe Principles (see July 6, 2000, University Times) and through its financial support for authors who publish in open-access journals.

“It’s largely a problem that can’t be solved by any one institution: It has to be solved by some collective activity. And the collective activity is difficult to organize because of antitrust laws and the aggressive way in which the commercial publishers enforce their rights under those antitrust laws,” he said.

“On the other hand, I think a young faculty member recognizes no matter what the attitude of his or her own university may be, they’re not going to have the impact in their profession that they want to have — and need to have to succeed — if they don’t publish in the right journals.”

Reichman said that the AAUP has developed cooperative relationships with groups such as Authors Alliance. He added that AAUP has refrained from dictating tenure and promotion criteria. “I’m for making those criteria as clear yet broad as possible without specifying things that privilege one certain publication because of the prestige,” he said.

Deborah Wanamaker, a lecturer in communication in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and formerly an attorney, asked about case law that may regulate the content of extramural expression.

“When you’re looking at a school, you’re looking at a government employer now. There are Supreme Court decisions where they tell us the government employer can regulate the content of your extramural expression if they can make a nexus between your job, your ability to do your job, as well as the university or government employer’s ability to function and look good,” she said.

“Academic freedom and jurisprudence is incredibly muddled,” Reichman said, noting that the AAUP has posted a report on the Supreme Court’s Garcetti v. Ceballos decision online. The case involved a public employee’s public comments on an internal dispute, but how that might apply to professors in a public institution was left unanswered.

“There was a later, better case that says Garcetti doesn’t apply to higher education. It still varies around the country,” Reichman said. “And at some point, the Supreme Court will take this up again.”

Maher added that First Amendment rights “are quite distinct from academic freedom,” adding that the courts have been supportive of universities’ academic freedom as part of its work.

“In discovering more about the world in which we are immersed, and then in teaching about it, we have to have academic freedom in order to operate effectively,” he said. “The courts have been very supportive of that.”

“How do you see collective bargaining as supporting values such as shared governance and academic freedom?” asked Tyler Bickford of English.

Said Reichman: “Our belief is that collective bargaining should and can support shared governance by providing teeth to policies that support shared governance and academic freedom.

“It’s one thing to put something into university policy; it’s even stronger if it’s in a contract because contract law is one of the most foundational elements of the law.”

Reichman cautioned that not all collective bargaining agreements support academic freedom. “If contracts can be written in such a way as they can strengthen pre-existing wording or add new protections for shared governance, they can strengthen faculty rights.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

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