Provost’s academic freedom letter praised but panel wants stronger protections


The University Senate’s Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee is calling for much stronger rules guaranteeing academic freedom at Pitt — either an official policy or additions to the University bylaws — while still endorsing a letter Provost Ann Cudd plans to release to show Pitt’s continued support for the practice.

The provost’s letter, which includes the statement that faculty “are entitled to freedom in the classroom to discuss their subject,” needs to be elaborated and made stronger with official University regulations, the committee concluded.

“The crux of concern now is the classroom atmosphere,” said Carey Balaban, faculty member in otolaryngology in the School of Medicine. “How are we going to deal with the subjectivity of criteria” used to determine what would be proper classroom speech?

“How do we judge the atmosphere conducive to learning and when a complaint is substantive and not trivial? The problem we are dealing with is the intolerance of everybody,” the ultra-sensitivity of everyone, he said.

“The unique perspectives and perceptions of every student — how are we to know the background of every student and what may or may not offend them?” said Karin Warner, faculty member in the School of Nursing. “It’s a scary place right now. We don’t know how we might offend someone now” — even when acting with good intentions. This “stifles open discussions,” she said. In her classes, she announces on the first day: “Your opinion may and should be different.” Every professor should do this, she added.

Abbe de Vallejo, committee co-chair and faculty member in immunology in the School of Medicine, said that  “even violent disagreements are part of” academic freedom principles. it would be very important to have in a Pitt-sanctioned document that “classroom discussions are academic freedom-protected.”

“Not just students but their parents are involved in monitoring what is going on,” pointed out Lu-In Wang, vice provost for Faculty Affairs. In the law school, where she teaches, many of the professors have academic freedom statements in their syllabi, which serve to encourage students to speak their own opinions.

“The actual University policy on academic freedom — where is that?” asked Barry Gold, emeritus faculty member in the School of Pharmacy. “Not the opinion of the provost, who may come and go. Does it exist?”

Balaban, who years ago served on a past provost’s study of academic freedom toward the creation of another such letter, said that previous committee had found that academic freedom rules at Pitt “are in provost statements and they have been since the 1940s.” However, he added: “What would such a policy say? What would be the procedure for such a policy?

Right now, Wang said, Pitt’s bylaws address academic freedom only as it pertains to the University’s offering of tenure, including that: “Autonomy and freedom of inquiry are required for the University to carry out its mission. … The University encourages the independence of the mind and the freedom to inquire. … Those who accept the rights and immunities of tenured appointment owe it to their colleagues unfailingly and unflinchingly to defend independence and freedom of mind in their field of competence.”

The bylaws also say that, “The rights to membership on the faculty and to academic freedom carry with them the obligations to uphold academic freedom against invasion or abuse, to not violate the academic freedom of others. … It is equally a responsibility of the officers of the University administration and of the Board of Trustees to assure, to protect, and to defend academic freedom.”

The need for strong rules on that last point was also a concern for the committee, with Balaban pointing out that, particularly now, there are “outside institutions affecting academic freedom ... either through offering money in the form of grants and gifts” with strings attached or by threatening lawsuits or the withholding of state funds over certain types of intellectual study or practical research.

Accreditation groups’ imprimatur may come with requirements concerning curricula or scientific studies, and faculty may have dual appointments with other institutions that use conflicting academic freedom rules or none at all. Dual roles for Pitt faculty are most commonly held with UPMC but faculty also may hold government appointments, private industry jobs or have other professional duties with conflicting or absent rules.

“It seems to me there are serious concerns here that are not reflected” in the provost’s document, said Maria Kovacs, committee co-chair and faculty member in psychiatry in the School of Medicine. “I think the important thing is not to be silent.”

Senate President Robin Kear, also in attendance at the committee meeting, suggested that the group approve the statement and then work with Pitt’s administration to see academic freedom principles put into a policy or bylaw change. After the committee voted unanimously to endorse the letter, de Vallejo said its members would work with the provost’s office to further the above concerns.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.