Below is the text of Professor Geoff Raymond’s talk at the CDAF-UCSB sponsored forum on academic freedom that took place on May 21, 2009. Check back soon for video of all the panelists’ talks.
In Defense of Academic Freedom: Some notes on the Academic Senate’s handling of the case against Professor William Robinson
Department of Sociology
Speech delivered 5/21 as part of a panel on Academic Freedom:
I have been asked here tonight to talk about the specifics of the Robinson case because I became involved in it through various departmental and senate positions I held when the complaints emerged. I am director of undergrad studies in Sociology, and a member of the Academic Senate’s committee on committees. I mention this because I think it is important to know from the start that I am active member of the academic senate, and a faculty member committed to the teaching mission of this university. I participate in the academic senate because believe it offers one of the few genuine instances of participatory democracy one can find in contemporary American life; and the shared governance in which participates has been vital the UCs success as a vibrant – and open – intellectual community. As I hope this brief statement makes clear, I believe in the work of the Senate, and it is my disappointment in its processes on this occasion that has prompted me to speak out.
As I also mentioned, I am also director of undergraduate studies in my department – I volunteered for this position because I am passionately committed to teaching and learning. As one might imagine, in a role such as this, one comes to know about the teaching of one’s colleagues. You learn who is a great lecturer, and who isn’t. You learn about lecturers who sometimes get in over their heads, and so on. And you learn who are the most committed, passionate, and open teachers. I count Bill Robinson on that latter group: students rave about his classes, they praise his passion, and they have universally praised his willingness to hear as many alternative viewpoints as students are willing to articulate. Great teaching does not require that one never reveals one’s own opinions regarding course content – and it does not even require that courses “cover all sides” or points of view. But it does require one to be open – and I know Bill to be such an open person, and nothing in this case suggests any different. So as a backdrop to discussing this case, you should know that I am involved in it because of its direct connections to two of the most central preoccupations of my academic life: teaching and university governance.
At the center of this matter is the Faculty Code of Conduct. For those of you who do not know about this code, there a few a things you should know about it. First, its primary purpose is to PROTECT ACAMDEMIC FREEDOM of FACULTY – not students – because faculty have earned a right to independence and protection by virtue of their education, their scholarly research, and a vigorous peer review process.
Let me read a part of this pre-amble:
The University seeks to provide and sustain an environment conducive to sharing, extending, and critically examining knowledge and values, and to furthering the search for wisdom. Effective performance of these central functions requires that faculty members be free within their respective fields of competence to pursue and teach the truth in accord with appropriate standards of scholarly inquiry… It is the intent of the Faculty Code of Conduct to protect academic freedom…
Following this pre-amble the code describes a set of principles that are deemed to govern how faculty relate to students, to each other, to the university at large, and to the community beyond. These standards establish the basis for creating an intellectual community worth working and learning in. As such, it is, I think, universally respected by faculty on this campus, and by the campus community more generally.
So what is this case about – and how does it relate to the code of conduct?
As many of you will have heard, in the course of his sociology of globalization course last winter term professor Robinson forwarded an e-mail that was sharply critical of Israeli policies and practices in the Gaza to his students; 2 students objected to this e-mail and dropped the class. After doing so they contacted the ADL and the Simon Weisenthal center who apparently suggested that a formal complaint be submitted to the charges officer claiming that Professor Robinson’s e-mail violated the Faculty code of conduct.
It is these complaints, and especially the senate’s handling of them, that I want to discuss this evening. Regrettably this matter has been handled so poorly that there are too many issues for me to take up here in a reasonable amount of time – so I will focus on the most glaring failures that we know of so far. As we hear of these problems, however, we should keep in mind the mantra we heard whenever we have them in the past: We are told over and over again by Senate leaders – and now by outsiders who side with the students – that since a process has begun, we must trust that process.
In most cases I would be inclined to follow this advice – indeed all to often I seem to be the one giving it. But for that advice to be meaningful, we need a set of complaints relevant for the Charges Officer, a committee to hear those charges that has been fairly composed, and a set of procedures that is beyond reproach. Sadly, the current situation falls far short on all 3 counts. So when we hear someone say trust in the process – we should respond with our mantra: give us a process we can trust.
As will become clear in the ensuing discussion, the irregularities in the procedures adopted by the Charges Officer are systematically biased against the accused faculty member; the failings of this committee cannot be excused as instances of mere sloppiness and neither can they be attributed to the officers efforts to find an “informal resolution” to the complaint (especially since none was even attempted). Now that the Academic Senate has been made aware of the Charges Officer’s repeated failures to fulfill his mandate the University and its faculty would be well served if the Chair of the Senate threw out the tainted findings produced through a process fraught with conflicts of interest, and possibly even outright duplicity.
Let’s consider what has happened in the case so far:
First, the Charges Officer’s departed significantly from the procedures he is mandated to follow in the faculty code of conduct;
According to it,
Before forming an advisory committee the charges officer should refer complainants to the Department Chair or the Dean (Faculty Code, revised, section 4 — on pg. 2) so that an informal resolution can be attempted; despite this, neither the Chair of Sociology nor the dean was contacted by the Charges Officer regarding this matter. In fact, the charges officer made no effort to resolve the complaint informally – or even seek the input of those most proximately responsible for the course and its content. For that matter the students never contacted Professor Robinson, the chair or the dean either – they headed straight for the charges office to pursue their complaint in the most aggressive, confrontational manner possible.
These choices have considerable negative consequences.
Instead of approaching the matter as an educational one — as an occasion for teaching and learning –with potential lessons for *all* concerned parties — the students’ conduct and the charges officer’s decisions reinforced extant divisions by isolating the involved parties and setting them into direct conflict with one another, thereby making open dialogue and learning *less likely*. In every way the use of the Charges Officer as the primary venue for handling student complaints regarding course content undermines the educational mission of the university.
If the Academic Senate wants us to trust the process, they need to give us a process we can trust.
As an aside, let me respond to a charge made by Rabbi Gross-Schaefer; in today’s newspaper he chastised Professor Robinson for not reaching out to the offended students. He should know that the professor is virtually barred from doing so. Once a formal charge has been registered and an ad hoc committee has been formed no professor can contact the aggrieved students without fearing that the very fact they have done so will be treated as an admission of guilt, or as an effort to tamper with the process.
A second major set of concerns is that the charges Officer and his fellow committee members have failed to protect the rights of the accused both with respect to the presentation of actual charges and in their failure to maintain the confidentiality of the committees proceedings.
Professor Robinsons was virtually excluded from meaningfully participating the advisory committee’s process because no set of coherent charges were presented to him until after it had made its decisions.
After receiving the student complaints, the charges officer forwarded them to professor Robinson and solicited a written response from him. Given the character of these charges however, no such response was possible. The charges contained in the student letters were copied straight from the FCoC; they included a long list of charges copied from it — including those against romantic relations with students, despite the fact that the professor had never met the students in question, charges against the use of university property for commercial gain, and even the bizarre claim that he violated his own academic freedom. Since these charges have no possible bearing whatsoever on the case, professor repeatedly requested that the charges officer clarify the specific nature of the charge. The Charges Officer’s failure to respond to these requests constitutes a direct violation of the Faculty Code of conduct.
Finally 50+ days later, did the Charges Officer did convey a specific set of charges to Professor Robinson — but then he claimed that Professor could no longer respond because he had passed on the opportunity to do so.
These actions create an almost Kafka-esque process for the accused. It is a basic principle of justice that a person can defend him or herself only after specific allegations or charges have been made public. To request a defense in anticipation of charges constitutes a fundamental perversion of even the most flexible and informal forms of due process insofar as it allows subsequent charges to be crafted that do not relate to the defense on offer. (It is worth noting in this context that this is not an unfounded fear: the Charges Officer has actually added a charge — regarding the “coercion of conscience” — that does not appear in any of the student complaints and so could not have been defended against had the professor responded to the laundry list initially presented in the letters.) In such a situation (where a risk of charges has been presented, but no specific or formal charges have been made) no reasonable person can or should offer a defense since any comments they provide can be used to facilitate the case against them. Because this sequence of actions (first charges, then defense) cannot be altered without undermining basic principles of fairness, they are encoded (in a numbered series of steps) within the faculty code of conduct itself.
As these facts make clear, this is not merely a case in which the Charges Officer departed from procedure in an effort to resolve the complaint informally. Rather, his departure from procedure in the case so substantially altered the process that the accused faculty member could not meaningfully participate in it. Moreover, even though the lack of transparency in the process and its consequences were made clear to the Charges Officer, he repeatedly refused requests by the faculty member to clarify the specific charges in the complaint and where in the process they were.
The kicker here is that while the Charges Officer and other Senate officials consistently ignored Professor Robinsons repeated requests for information, these same individuals managed to keep the university spokesperson fully informed every step of the way. In fact, Professor Robinson only found out about some steps in the process by reading the spokespersons accounts of them in the newspaper! When a campus spokesperson knows more about a committee’s actions than the accused does, we don’t have to wonder what this process is really about.
When the leaders of the academic Senate tell you to trust the process. You tell them: give us a process we can trust.
Third, and perhaps most troubling in my view: as has become clear in recent weeks, a faculty member who sat on the Charges Officers Advisory committee – the very committee charged with deciding whether the complaints were frivolous or not — had a substantial and direct conflict of interest. Despite a longtime alliance with one of the parties to the complaint, this person not only participated in the decision-making process of this committee, he also apparently communicated with interested parties about it in direct violation of the faculty code of conduct.
As a backdrop to my discussion of these events let me be absolutely clear: in my view, a university campus should be open, and the best universities are. In my view a university cannot be, and should not be, hermitically sealed off from the world at large – and that includes outside interest groups. Thus, I do not object, in principle, to groups communicating with university faculty or administrators regarding their concerns or virtually any other matter; such meetings are, and should be, a routine part of the public life of a university. Precisely because they constitute part of the basic fabric of university life, however, communications of this sort should be conducted much as they are in virtually every other context on campus – that is, in an open and transparent manner, consistent with the faculty code of conduct.
Our Academic Senate has fallen short of those principles. Since another of our panelists will discuss the March 9 meeting involving the Anti-Defamation League’s National Director Abraham Foxman – I will focus on the second.
According to newspaper articles quoting an interview by journalist Anthony Fenton: “Aaron Ettenberg, a UCSB psychology professor and member of the Academic Senate’s Charges Advisory Committee, has confirmed that he met with Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer prior to the committee’s recommendation to investigate Robinson.”
Let me point out here that Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer is the interim director of the local chapter of Hillel, an organization that played an important role in the student’s registering of the complaint in the first place. Despite this connection, the two men apparently discussed the case. According to Anthony Fenton — a reporter based in Vancouver who writes for the “Asia Times Online” and “The Dominion” of Canada – when he questioned both Ettenberg and Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer about their contact regarding the case, the Rabbi is quoted as having replied:
“I really didn’t discuss that with him very much.”
Obviously the issue is not how much they discussed the matter, the faculty code of conduct is absolutely clear.
“When a complaint has been made, all faculty members, campus officers and agencies shall treat the identity of the complainant and the faculty member against whom the complaint is made as a matter of the utmost confidentiality.” If these allegations are true, it would seem that Professor Ettenberg violated this basic tenant: by talking about this matter at all with an interested party, he violated the rights of the accused, and the academic Senate’s basic principles and ethics. For example, the Faculty code of conduct section D covers relations with colleagues. Among the types of prohibited conduct is: Breach of established rules governing confidentiality in personnel procedures.
Professor Ettenberg had a duty to disclose this discussion with the Charges Officer so that he could make an appropriate decision regarding Ettenberg’s continued participation in the advisory committee’s deliberations and decisions. If no such disclosure was made, then all subsequent deliberations of the committee were conducted under false pretenses; if these facts were disclosed, then we need to ask why the Charges Officer did not demand his immediate recusal.
While this alone might prompt us to question the decision arrived at by the Advisory Committee, these events brought to light an even more substantial violation of senate procedures in the case.
Professor Ettenberg, as the former president of the local Congregation Bnai Brith (a post he held until 2008) co-sponsored many events with the ADL during his tenure (these are spelled out in the congregation’s newsletters which are easily found via an online search). Insofar as the ADL has been a central actor in these complaints, Professor Ettenberg’s association with them constitutes a clear and direct conflict of interest. As a result Professor Ettenberg should have been asked – or should have volunteered – to recuse himself. (For what it is worth I was virtually forced to drop my participation in the academic senate’s handling of this case on the mere grounds that I was in the same department as Professor Robinson, never mind the fact that we know each other only through departmental meetings, and have mostly voted against one another in various committees.) If my tenuous connection to Professor Robinson meant that I could not participate in the mere choosing of an ad hoc committee without damaging the results that entirely different group of people would arrive at – then Professor Ettenberg’s direct conflict of interest, and his direct participation in the advisory committee’s deliberations and decisions suggest that we cannot trust the fairness and legitimacy of this most important stage in the process so far. Since this committee required only a single positive vote to forward charges to an ad hoc committee, the participation of even one person with a conflict of interest – which we now know to be the case – mandates that the Academic Senate reject its findings since they cannot be trusted or relied upon as a basis for subsequent action.
When the current leadership of the Academic Senate says: Trust the process. We must say: Give us a process we can trust.
In light of these failings – the failures of process, the failures of communication, and the failure of Professor Ettenberg to live up to the standards that all other members of the academic senate hold themselves to – it should come as no surprise that the charges themselves are beyond the pale. In fact, as soon as we consider the charges we are confronted by the fact that they cannot be separated from the process up to this point. This is in part because charges made by the students were literally incoherent, but is mostly a product of the charges Officer’s failure to fulfill the role granted to him by the academic senate.
When The Charges Officer received the students problematic complaints he could have quite easily paired them down; instead, however, the actual charges he has proposed forwarding to the ad hoc committee differ from the student complaints in their (1) basic claims and (2) the aspects of the code purported to have been violated. The Students complaints were premised on the claim that accused sent an e-mail that expressed anti-Semitic views and that doing so violated many (but not all) aspects of the FCoC. The Charges Officer’s letter of April 3, however, contains no claim of anti-Semitism (or racism, or discrimination of any sort – because there was none) and specifies a different set of facts AND charges than were contained in the students’ complaint.
By (1) altering the substantive focus of the complaint (from a charge of anti-Semitism to a charge that the professor distributed “highly partisan materials in a class”) and (2) adding both a set of facts and a charge that do not appear in either of the students complaints – namely that the students were given no opportunity to respond, and the “coercion of conscience” charge — the Charges Officer has, in effect, become a co-complainant (a party to the complaint itself).
I want to emphasize that this is not merely a matter of the Charges Officer helping the students to formulate more clearly what they meant to be saying all along by translating their concerns into a legalistic form required for the case to go forward. No act of translation can include the manufacturing of factual claims that have no basis in reality. No student has ever complained that Professor Robinson prevented open discussion on any matter; in the current case after getting the mail the students could have hit “reply all” and voiced their views to the entire class; they could have raised the matter in class discussion, or they could have talked with the professor in his office hours. In my experience students do all 3 of these things with great regularity. Moreover, it is simply not credible to claim that 2 students who videotape complaints for worldwide distribution on youtube are either too shy or too oppressed to present their views to a class of 80 students. One cannot stand atop such a large soapbox and simultaneously claim to be frightened to climb atop a much smaller one.
In considering these charges, then, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the very deliberative body that was to determine whether the charges were frivolous was actually a party to the complaint itself.
As I have said before: when someone tells you trust the process, we have to say: give us a process that we can trust.
Let us consider the charges – the ones forwarded by the charges officer – not the scattershot list provided by the students.
According to the Charges Officer, by sending what he described as a “highly partisan” e-mail, professor Robinson may have violated the following elements of the Faculty Code of conduct:
II, A. 1.b is “Significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course”;
II A. 4. is “Use of the position or powers of a faculty member to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for arbitrary or personal reasons”
1. The first of these codes – the significant intrusion standard – was adopted so to allow some discussion of unrelated materials, while ensuring that professors largely focused on the substance of their courses. There are two elements to this standard: “significant” and “intrusion”. In the current case, the complaint fails on both counts.
Insofar as the course in question was the Sociology of Globalization, which is billed as a discussion of global affairs, including political, cultural, and economic matters of global significance, it is patently obvious that the Israeli Army’s invasion in Gaza – which was one of the main headline stories around the world at that time – fits the bill. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of event the class was conceived to discuss; if Professor Robinson had failed to discuss these events, he would not have been doing his job. So the claim that that the e-mail constituted an intrusion is plainly absurd.
(As an aside, let me address a matter I have seen raised by some who are plainly not familiar with teaching practices in the university. The fact that Professor Robinson described the e-mail as “for your information” does not count as “proof” that the material is unrelated to the course. In fact professors commonly use this phrase indicate that a reading is optional. In my own classes I regularly distribute materials with “for your information” headlines. That does not mean the materials are unrelated to the course; it means students are not are not required to read it, but that those interested in additional information may find it useful. )
So the e-mail sent by professor Robinson is not an intrusion. But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it was. Suppose we could develop a twisted logic in which a set of events with global significance would not be discussed in a course about global affairs: can a single e-mail, distributed as an optional reading, be counted as a “significant” intrusion? Not by any reasonable interpretation of that standard.
Though the term “significant” can have different possible meanings, in the Faculty code of conduct the context of its usage makes plain that it refers to the portion or volume of material that is “intrusive” relative to volume of material covered in the course as a whole. The use of “significant” to modify “intrusion” is important because no course is hermetically sealed, and professors should be encouraged to make connections to current events and the like, so long as these do not overwhelm the course. As it happens, math professors are permitted to talk about China and Tibet, they are permitted to post abortion pictures on their office doors, and otherwise inform students of their views on matters completely unrelated to their courses so long as the intrusions are not “significant”. So can a single e-mail constitute a violation of this standard?
Given the number of hours the course met each week and the amount of reading material assigned (100-200 pages per week) the e-mail constituted less than 1% of even 1 week of the course — and much less if one takes the course as a whole. Obviously this a portion that falls far below any reasonable measure or threshold of “significant.”
So what of the other charge — the one suggested by the Charges Officer, but found nowhere in the student’s complaints – namely, that the sending of an e-mail constituted a “Use of the position or powers of a faculty member to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for arbitrary or personal reasons”
Such a charge is made in cases where a person in authority compels another to adopt a position or view that is at odds with their own – or face punishment. The essence of coercion entails the use of power, leverage or position to mandate that the coercee act or think in a manner determined by the coercer. In the context of faculty code of conduct, this typically means something like forcing students to adopt ones own point of view or receive a poor grade, or some other form of quid pro quo exchange.
Obviously nothing like that happened here: the professor sent out an e-mail, he did not require anyone to accept the opinions expressed in it, and in fact he did not even require anyone to read it. Moreover, that the students own behavior constitutes prima facie evidence that they had a range of options regarding what to do next: they chose to drop the course, and no one prevented them from doing so. But students cannot freely choose to drop a course, and then claim that their decision reflected intimidation on the part of Professor Robinson, especially since they did not even convey their concerns to him before doing so.
The sad irony here is that this case does involve the coercion of conscience – or at least an attempt to do so: the ADL, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are using two students in an attempt to punish Robinson for expressing views critical of the Israeli government in an e-mail sent to his course. They are attempting to use the charges Officer and his compatriots – who appear to be willing participants, I must say – to stifle dissent, to control classroom discussions of Israeli policies, and thus to determine how professor Robinson teaches his courses by shaping what materials he can included in them.
This is made clear in statements offered by the students. In Associated Press reports, one of the complainants is reported to have said, “while Robinson has his own freedom of speech, he doesn’t have the freedom to send his students his own opinion that is so strong.” I am sorry but this student is just plain wrong. While it is perfectly reasonable for others to prefer less confrontational teaching styles, professors cannot – and should not — be forced to present potentially objectionable materials in a “nonpartisan” manner so as to spare the feelings of those who might be offended; As the AAUP notes, nothing should prevent the vigorous presentation of ideas, viewpoints and positions, since “Vigorously to assert a proposition or a viewpoint, however controversial, is to engage in argumentation and discussion — an engagement that lies at the core of academic freedom. Such engagement is essential if students are to acquire skills of critical independence. The essence of higher education does not lie in the passive transmission of knowledge but in the inculcation of a mature independence of mind.”
As another professor put it: “No student has a right to have a professor that won’t offend them; They have a right to a professor who will grade them fairly.” By all accounts Professor Robinson is just such a teacher.
We must recognize that in defending him we are defending ourselves: We must stand up to this attack on our academic freedom. We can never forget that freedoms, privileges, and rights can only be achieved through our persistent efforts. In fact nothing guarantees this freedom other than our effort. There is no guarantee that academic freedom will survive at UCSB no matter how many times it is mentioned in various documents adopted by the university, no matter how many times administrators proclaim its virtues, and no matter how many times it is challenged by outsiders. We can only sustain academic freedom only through our sustained efforts on each occasion it is challenged. And since we can not know what outcomes our conduct will produce, or what others might try to do to us, we must ensure that the choices we make are both fair and ethical: We must insist that the committees of our academic senate, and the procedures they adopt are also fair and open. We will trust the processes we have, just as soon as when we have a process we can trust. We are still waiting.
May 21, 2009