Letter to Faculty Welfare and Academic Freedom Committee Chairperson

Dear Professor Scott,

I am writing you on behalf of the Department of Sociology (as its Director of Undergraduate Studies), and as a member of the Committee on Committees, to encourage you take up an issue related to one of the central duties of the committee you chair (on Faculty Welfare and Academic Freedom): namely to “initiates studies or make recommendations with respect to any conditions within or without the Division which may affect academic freedom.”

I am particularly concerned with the recent efforts by outside interest groups (e.g., the SAF, ironically the Students for Academic Freedom and the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, to name just two groups who have supported student complaints on this and other campuses in the past year) to intimidate faculty or otherwise discourage them from presenting, distributing and/or discussing controversial materials. As the chair of the committee that is centrally concerned with academic freedom on campus I am sure that you are aware that the presentation of such materials — even materials that may be disturbing or upsetting to students — is vital to the university’s teaching mission, as well as any serious conception of scholarly freedom. The ongoing efforts of the groups named above – as well as any others with similarly narrow political agendas — currently threatens teaching in the social sciences and beyond. We can anticipate that if current efforts by such groups are successful their methods will be emulated by others leading to attacks on the teaching of evolution (in biology), and the like. It is therefore imperative that you and your committee take up these matters as soon as possible.

I would encourage you to open a broad discussion regarding these issues. As part of this, I would like to suggest two items for your the agenda:

1. I would encourage the Academic Senate to establish a clear set of procedures for the registering and managing of student complaints regarding the materials faculty present as part of, or in association with, a course. In courses dealing with politically divisive or otherwise sensitive materials it is likely that students will come into contact with materials they find objectionable, disturbing or otherwise problematic. To deal with such complaints requires the establishment of a clear set of procedures that will allow the university to listen to and respond to them *within the academic setting in which they arise*. I believe that, as a matter of policy, student’s complaints regarding the content associated with a course (whether it is required or optional) should be handled by the department through which the course is offered. Only *after* such efforts fail should students be allowed to present their complaints in another venue (e.g., the Charges Officer). (Such a policy would not apply to students’ communications with the campus ombuds office, which they are free to contact at any time.)

Clarification on this point is required because under the current system such complaints are directed to the Charges Officer, which effectively treats the presentation of objectionable materials (or opinions) in a course as on par with profound ethical breaches such as quid pro quo arrangements for sex, plagiarism in research, and so on. To use the Charges Officer as a first-line venue for managing students complaints about *course content* unnecessarily criminalizes conduct that is specifically protected by the Faculty Code of Conduct.  As the AAUP states (on its web site’s discussion of Academic Freedom in the classroom), “Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.” And yet this is precisely the situation we are in. In light of recent events faculty in the Department of Sociology tell me that they feel that they are concerned about teaching courses on sexuality, global conflict, race, or any number of potentially sensitive matters because of the fear that they will be hauled in front of the Charges Officer should they offend a student. This is plainly a travesty, and a matter requiring urgent attention.

In a recent mail regarding these matters EVC Gene Lucas seemed to claim that a policy of the sort I describe above would exempt a professor’s conduct as an instructor — in toto —  from oversight by the Academic Senate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course the Charges Officer should handle very serious ethical breaches of the sort described in the faculty code of conduct whether they happen in the classroom or elsewhere. It is quite a different matter, however, to suggest that the Charges Officer should decide what materials can be appropriately introduced into a Sociology course — or Dance and Theater course, for that matter. Faculty should be free to introduce or distribute materials that reasonably relate to the subject of the course, and that includes the presentation of research, news articles, opinions, advocacy pieces and so on, that may be offensive or troubling to some students. Given my use of the term “reasonably relate” I should emphasize that according to the AAUP judgments concerning whether materials “reasonably relate” to a course should be based on the *broadest possible construal* of that standard; as they note “if an instructor cannot stimulate discussion and encourage critical thought by drawing analogies or parallels, the vigor and vibrancy of classroom discussion will be stultified”.  It is precisely via such comparisons and parallels that professors relate the substantive focus of their courses to current events (which, by definition, can not be included in a course description or syllabus since they arise after the fact). Moreover, even apparently unrelated materials can be used to stimulate discussion and interest. Thus,  AAUP asks, “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel? Might not an instructor of classical philosophy, teaching Aristotle’s views of moral virtue, present President Bill Clinton’s conduct as a case study for student discussion?” Given the potential relevance of a broad range of such parallels, the AAUPO concludes that “Whether material is relevant to a better understanding of a subject cannot be determined merely by looking at a course description.” Excellence in teaching requires a fundamental openness with regard to how professors approach their subject matter, and how they illustrate its contemporary significance.

In an ideal world faculty members could count on the Charges Officer to handle complaints regarding a professor’s use of controversial materials in a course by reminding students that (according to the AAUP) “Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended”. Regrettably, this is not the case. As a consequence the Academic Senate must act forcefully to prevent further efforts to use the Charges Officer as a vehicle for attempting to intimidate instructors. The current practice of having the Charges Officer handle such complaints amounts to “punishment by procedure” even if the professor is ultimately exonerated. In addition — and perhaps more importantly — the current system deprives students and faculty of the opportunity to use such conflicts as occasions for teaching and learning (with potential lessons for *all* concerned parties); instead, current practice reinforces 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 current use of the Charges Officer as the primary venue for handling student complaints regarding course content undermines the educational mission of the university.

2. In addition, I feel it is important for your committee to issue a clear statement regarding the Academic Senate’s position on academic freedom, and especially whether the senate supports the rights of professors to present disturbing or objectionable material in the classroom. Given the fraught character of virtually all political, intellectual — and even scientific — disputes, scholars must be free to pursue, express or transmit ideas or opinions that they deem worthy of their time and energy. As the same AAUP website notes, “Colleges and universities do not possess or teach the whole truth. They are engaged in the quest for truth. For that reason their scholars must be free to examine and test all facts and ideas, the unpleasant, the distasteful, and dangerous ones, and even those regarded as erroneous by a majority of their learned colleagues.” Moreover, I hope your statement will make clear that in teaching such courses, professors 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; according to the AAUP, 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.”

Experiments in censorship on campuses over the last 100 years suggest that the university fails in its mission when it “protects” students from ideas and opinions that make them feel uncomfortable because it thereby undercuts  the basis on which they may develop the capacity for independent thinking and reasoning. Thus, just because I think the Bell Curve (Herrnestein and Murray, 1994) employs a racist methodology, and is designed to support racist educational policies, does not mean that another professor should not be free to use it, or even passionately advocate the views expressed in it. Instead of “protecting” students from such objectionable materials, we should help them to develop the capacity to critically engage them. Indeed, given the wide range of political and scientific views found in contemporary society it is vitally important for our students to come into contact with ideas (and people) that they disagree with, and even ones that make them feel uncomfortable, because such encounters provide experiences critical to the development of independent, open minded — and active — citizens.

I hope your committee will take up these matters forthwith; it is vital for the Academic Senate to provide (1) a clarification of the procedures for handling student complaints regarding materials distributed as part of a course, and (2) a clear statement in support of the AAUP’s position on academic freedom (or at least some description of where our academic senate departs from those views). In light of the attacks on academic freedom currently taking place on our campus this is a matter requiring urgent attention. Without some way of knowing whether faculty will be supported in their efforts to understand, and teach about, sensitive or controversial matters our university will soon cease to be a place for free and open inquiry.

If you are interested in the website I mentioned above, here is the link to the AAUP website on Academic Freedom in the Classroom:


With best wishes,


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