March 14, 2006

Victory on academic-freedom grievance

The last agreed-upon changes to the USF computer network user agreement were completed yesterday, so I can now explain that even though the university took more than nine months (285 days, to be precise), USF's computer network guidelines no longer have speech codes embedded in them. I'm very surprised it took this long, but I was willing to be patient because there was only one outcome possible, and while this was pending no faculty member could really be punished without quite a bit of embarrassment on the part of the administration. And since the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida has been successful in putting public pressure on the administration in several different cases over the past few years, I felt no need (and others in the chapter didn't try to dissuade me from this lack of desire) to embarrass the administration just for the sake of the political pressure. Sometimes when you know you're going to win and people aren't hurt at the moment, you can be patient.

To recap my concerns: USF blog server's "user agreement" had some odd language about banning offensive language, referring to anything other than coursework, and I realized the general network user agreement had some similar problems, so I raised concerns with the head of academic computing and, when that produced nothing, filed a grievance last June under the academic-freedom article of our collective bargaining agreement. When I met later that month with the president's representative on union matters, we agreed that the network administrators probably didn't understand the academic-freedom consequences of the user guidelines, and before he retired, he offered to refer all of the issues to our faculty senate. But he never responded to questions I had about his proposal, and it was some weeks after he retired before I heard anything from his replacement, and there wasn't a meeting until January, and ... (but my concerns about dilatory treatment of grievances is a different matter)

So when I sat down with the new president's rep on union matters (and a few other items), a staff member from academic computing, and a member of the university's general counsel's office, we immediately agreed on a few changes (to delete all references banning the use of computer network stuff like e-mail for religious or political organizations) and then came time for education and dickering on a few matters:

  • Offensive language. Back in May 2005, the university lawyer had recommended changing the ban on offensive language to discriminatory language, a change I thought meant nothing in terms of academic freedom. I explained this again in the January meeting, said I had no problems with user guidelines that banned illegal acts, and just explained the inadequacy of a few proposed alternatives until the university staff present in January said, essentially, okay, we'll delete that. And so it was deleted. The new language is a prohibition against Publish[ing] information that is threatening, harassing, abusive, defamatory or libelous, which generally have definitions in a legal context, and while I'm a bit concerned about overly vague uses of "abusive," think it'll stand pretty decently.
  • The private profit clause. University staff explained that they just didn't want computers used for staff or students who started up side businesses with university resources. I said I agreed with the university's interest in preventing the abuse of university equipment but explained that there was frequently a legitimate purpose for activities that would "generate private profit" but still served the university's mission. I then cheated by giving an example from the class of a former faculty member whom I knew was well-liked. They couldn't say that our erstwhile colleague's class violated the university's interest, and eventually the president's rep suggested the addendum "not related to university activities."

A few notes about this:

  • In this case, the faculty union contract benefitted students and other staff as well as those in the bargaining unit. Everyone won because faculty rights were used as a lever to change general university policy.
  • Administrators showed they were educable in these matters with a little bit of effort and considerable patience. If someone's livelihood were at stake, I would've been a bulldog and pulled out all the tools at my disposal to get a faster response. But for many purposes it's important to think of the defense of academic freedom as an educational process, and one that's eternal.

Yes, I'm satisfied. Is USF's environment perfectly friendly to academic freedom? No. I'm sure the folks at FIRE could comb through USF's policies and find other speech-code-ish things embedded in the thousands of pages of paperwork. But computer use is a trigger for considerable oversight of what happens on campus (or off!), and this successful grievance significantly reduces the chances of problems down the road.

(Later on the 14th): I need to thank the chapter grievance chair Mark Klisch for his help with the grievance and him and several other officers for their support. Mark handles most of the grievances on campus, few of which are as visible as academic freedom but most of which affect individual faculty far more.

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Posted in Academic freedom on March 14, 2006 7:40 PM |