November 2, 2004

Academic-freedom juggling

Yesterday morning, former USF adjunct professor Lynn Stratton called the St. Pete campus the University of Silence in Florida because an administrator called for faculty to "monitor" what they said in the classroom in terms of tomorrow's election. I suspect it's going to be a relatively hot topic over the next few days on this campus, in addition to the election. Part of the concern is the recent history of academic-freedom troubles at USF and elsewhere in Florida. But there's a more mundane issue at stake here.

From what I gather (and at the moment I don't have an electronic copy of the original memo to plug in here), Arts & Sciences dean Mark Durand received complaints from students about adjunct faculty using class as a forum to advance their political views. So he responded with a memo asking faculty to monitor their speech since politics and religion are sensitive topics, "especially in Florida."

Ouch. To many reading this memo (including Stratton), this smacked of politically-correct thought policing at worst and malodorous censorship at best. That interpretation has its origins in the recent history of censorship and attempted censorship around Florida (including the recent recalling of an invitation to a speaker at FGCU because of her political views), as well as the political pressures to fire three USF employees since Judy Genshaft was appointed president. (You thought Sami Al-Arian was the only one?)

Let's pretend, for a moment, that the original incidents weren't at USF but at Famous Private University, which doesn't answer to political masters in the same way. A few students go to a dean and complain about the politicking of an adjunct faculty member. What does the dean do? What should the dean do?

The dean should do nothing immediately except counsel the students to talk to the faculty member. Students have academic-freedom rights as well as faculty, but they need to assert them positively. (The same is true of faculty, by the way—if no faculty member complains, rights do get trampled on.) Trying to intervene in any way without requiring the student to talk to the faculty member is only acceptable in cases where the student clearly needs protection because of the nature of the allegation (such as sexual harrassment, and even there some coaching in assertiveness can provide at least documentation of intransigent behavior). Part of the reason for diffidence is because students can (and sometimes do) misunderstand what a teacher says, and that can be clarified by discussion. Part of the reason is because students can learn some useful skills by talking to faculty—it's a rare person who doesn't need to negotiate with a person in authority, and I'd like to think that college graduates have some experiences so they're not milquetoast in the workplace. But the main reason for putting the responsibility on students to talk to teachers about issues in the classroom is because the main relationship in a class should be between teachers and students. That's the way it is with concerns about grades, and it should be the same thing with regard to political or other issues in the classroom.

So should Durand have written anything? I suspect not. If he had to, this is what I would have written:

I have received some complaints recently from students upset that, in their view, adjunct faculty have used classes to evangelize about the current election. In every case, I have told the student in question to talk directly with the teacher to clarify and, as appropriate, ask for time to present alternative viewpoints. In my view, the primary relationship in a classroom is between teacher and student.

I am writing about this to all of you because you should be aware of how administrators handle these types of complaints and what my attitude is. I trust USF faculty to bring their expertise to the classroom, and I trust that they will use their academic freedom in the classroom to maximize what students learn about the subject matter. I trust departments to supervise and provide feedback appropriately for both adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants. I trust that faculty will reflect thoughtfully on any concerns that students raise about a class. And, most of all, I trust that the faculty we hire are competent and should not be second-guessed for their everyday decisions.

But I guess that's why I'm not an administrator.

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Posted in Academic freedom on November 2, 2004 6:04 AM |