Academic Freedom, Academic Responsibility, and Civility

by George R. Boggs, Ph.D., Christine Johnson McPhail, Ph.D.

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One of the great strengths of American higher education is the protection of free expression, commonly referred to as academic freedom. But are there limits to academic freedom? Although individual academics may retain substantial degrees of freedom in the design of assessment plans and the awarding of grades, higher education administrators along with external agencies of various types have a vested interest in ensuring that academic and professional standards are in line with the mission of the institution.

Nowadays, additional questions are also raised about how institutions can manage faculty expectations of academic freedom and the institution's responsibility to facilitate higher levels of student success outcomes. Low levels of student attainment have propelled higher educational leaders to question the effectiveness of contemporary teaching practices and the role of faculty to promote student success. Thus, a critical issue becomes how an institution conceptualizes and exercises its authority in influencing academic standards within the complexities of completion and the student success agenda.

Henry Reichman argued that efforts on the part of some higher education leaders to encourage civility pose a threat to academic freedom. He argued further that the right to free speech not only permits but is designed to protect uncivil speech. But for educational leaders concerned about student success and the safety of students and employees, some provocations may be too risky. What role does academic responsibility play?

George Boggs, Ph.D.: Christine, we have just been through one of the most divisive presidential elections in the history of our country. Comments, slogans, and "fake news" reports were anything but civil. Even after the election, sharp differences of opinion on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russian cyber attacks, gun control, abortion, and immigration continue to divide us. Do you think our colleges and universities will engage in debates about these issues and, if so, how civil do you think they will be?

Christine McPhail, Ed.D.: Of course they will, George, and it is appropriate that our higher education institutions explore all sides of these kinds of issues. Educational leaders must support the academic freedom of faculty and students to study controversial issues and even to take positions that might not be popular. However, educators also have a responsibility to examine issues in a safe environment.

Boggs: And that is no easy task, Christine. Finding the correct balance between freedom of expression and maintaining a safe and healthy environment for scholarship and learning is difficult, and institutional leaders sometimes step too far in one direction or the other. Eugene Volohk took issue with a response by the University of Oregon to an incident in which a white law school professor dressed in blackface at a Halloween Party attended by her students. According to Volohk, the university released a report in which it labeled the incident as harassment. The university's harassment policy bans conduct that creates a hostile environment based on "age, race, color, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, religion, service in the uniformed services, veteran status, pregnancy, pregnancy-related conditions, physical or mental disability, gender, perceived gender, gender identity, genetic information, or the use of leave protected by state or federal law." Despite this long list, the policy is vague and subject to interpretation. It invites problems for the university.

McPhail: Yes, George, there may be cases in which educational leaders seem to bend over backwards to avoid controversy and hard feelings. San Bernardino Valley College in California halted the production of a play based upon the December 2015 terrorist attack in that city after some of the victim's family members objected to the concept. Higher education leaders at different institutions sometimes seem to make completely different decisions on issues. As an example, when the national anthem protest started by San Francisco 49er's quarterback Colin Kaepernick spread to college campuses, Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska, stated that the university "will not restrict the First Amendment rights of any student or employee. The same freedoms that protect the speech of those who have joined the conversation in recent days also protect our students' speech-whether they're kneeling during the national anthem, holding an American flag on the field, praying after a game, or expressing their opinion during class or on campus. All of that speech falls under the same category. All of it is protected." However, Eastern Carolina University officials communicated that it would not tolerate marching band students "taking a knee" during the playing of the national anthem. Essentially, I think the culture of the institution and the local communities play a major role in the institution's position on issues. What do you think?

Boggs: Yes, these decisions are a matter of judgment, Christine, and the circumstances at one institution may be quite different than those at another even if the issues seem to be the same. The decisions become even more consequential when safety is at risk. Last April, David Horowitz posted names of students and faculty at UCLA and San Diego State University whom he labeled as supporting violence against Jewish individuals because they were members of the Muslim Student Association or Students for Justice in Palestine. Listing names of individual students and faculty members with the implication that they are connected to terrorism raises a safety concern. Dozens of students at San Diego State University surrounded President Elliott Hirshman's car and prevented him from leaving campus for two hours because they did not believe he was doing enough to protect the safety of the students by allowing the posters to remain up as an expression of free speech. In a repetition of the posting later that year, President Hirshman asked student affairs staff to reach out to support the named students.

McPhail: George, I agree that when individuals are named, there is an increased concern for safety that must be weighed against freedom of speech. A new conservative nonprofit group, Turning Point USA, has begun a website that lists the names of college professors whom it deems to discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom. As an example, Joan Neuberger, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was put on the list because of her activism against the state's campus carry gun law.

Boggs: Listing individual names is pretty intimidating, Christine, and it does raise safety concerns. I suspect the balance between freedom of expression and safety will have to be addressed by the courts at some point. However, I think there are instances in which educators have acted irresponsibly, especially in their speculations about conspiracy theories or spreading "fake news." James Tracy, a communications professor at Florida Atlantic University, lost his job a few years after he speculated that the Sandy Hook shootings that killed twenty elementary school children and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut, never took place. He asserted that it was an effort on the part of the Obama administration to shape public opinion in favor of gun control. In November of 2016, Oberlin College dismissed Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, following an investigation into her assertions on social media that ISIS is an arm of Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies and that Israel was behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Do you think these faculty members overstepped the bounds of academic freedom, Christine?

McPhail: There is no question, George, that these faculty members were irresponsible. All of us in education need to use common sense. We are scholars, and what we say should be backed up by evidence. If we offer an opinion, we need to clearly state that it is an opinion and why we believe the way we do. When we are in the classroom, we should not avoid confronting difficult and sensitive subjects, but they should be related to the course we are teaching, and we need to respect legitimate different points of view.

Boggs: That's good advice, Christine. Academic freedom needs to be balanced with academic responsibility and civility. Colleges and universities should be places where faculty, students, and staff can explore controversial issues in a respectful manner and in a safe environment free from intimidation. As you say, Christine, we need to employ common sense-and we need to remember our mission of student learning.

We suggest that ownership of both problems and their potential solutions should be the responsibility of both faculty and the administration rather than just an array of individuals. Both ownership and execution of solutions are legitimate professional responsibilities for administrators and faculty working collaboratively to ensure an environment of responsible freedom of inquiry.