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Three Cheers for the Faculty!
Academic freedom is necessary for effective governance.
In the past two months we have seen two art-related controversies on college campuses in Minnesota where the administrations responded in ways that were far from ideal. The first was at Hamline University where adjunct art history professor, Erika Lopez Prater’s contract was not renewed because she showed a 14th century Islamic painting of Muhammad in her classroom; and the second was at Macalester College, where Iranian-American artist Taravat Talepasand’s exhibition was “paused” when students claimed “harm” upon viewing her work. Both cases made national headlines and those interested in the details can read my earlier pieces (here, here and here).
As college and university administrations continue to balloon, this kind of overreach and encroachment on academic freedom will likely become more frequent.
But we mustn’t lose heart. In the words of Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers,” that sings in the “chillest land.” In both instances administrators have chilled speech on campus, but now faculty are speaking up! At Hamline 71 of the 130 full time faculty voted for the president to step down. In their official statement they note, “We are distressed that members of the administration have mishandled this issue and great harm has been done to the reputation of Minnesota’s oldest university.” When the reputation of a university is tarred, it has direct implications for the faculty who are, frankly, at the heart of what makes the academic reputation of an institution in the first place. Faculty outrage is warranted.
At Macalester too, faculty have publicly voiced their objections to the decision to “pause” the exhibit. Anthropology professor Arjun Guneratne called out the administration for not doing right by the students and the faculty in his an article for the college newspaper (reproduced on Banished here):
It is the responsibility of Macalester’s administration to help create a climate on campus in which the freedom to express ideas and conflicting points of view is fostered and safeguarded. By failing to do so in this instance, it has let all of us down.
And this week, the Macalester chapter of the AAUP released a pointed statement disagreeing with the president’s claim that the “pause” constituted an act of kindness. The statement further notes how the administration’s decision to temporarily close the gallery impinges on the faculty’s freedom to teach:
The justification of “kindness” as a reason to constrain speech is a subjective doctrine. Who determines when speech constitutes unkindness? Unkindness also arises when those who hold unwelcome ideas are prevented from expressing them, or have those ideas constrained in some other way. It sends a message to faculty, and especially to those faculty who lack the protection of tenure, that their speech may indeed be subject to policing should the administration find it “unkind.”
Indeed, the notion that academic freedom is only limited to the classroom is likely one of the most simplistic and perverse understandings of the principle itself. Academic issues are not narrowly limited to syllabi or classroom instruction. Especially in the case of residential liberal arts colleges, where the whole model is predicated on an understanding that learning takes place even outside the classroom, what constitutes academic matters certainly extends to include spaces such as the art gallery, theatre, music halls, etc. It stands to reason that any move that chills speech on campus has implications for faculty (and student) speech.
Faculty responses in both these instances affirm the importance of faculty involvement for good governance. It would serve us all well to remember that academic freedom and effective governance are co-constitutive in higher education. As the AAUP report On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom puts it
[A]n inadequate governance system—one in which the faculty is not accorded primacy in academic matters—compromises the conditions in which academic freedom is likely to thrive. Similarly, although academic freedom is not a sufficient condition, it is an essential one for effective governance…Under those conditions, institutions of higher education will be best served and will in turn best serve society at large.
I say, hear, hear! It’s high time that faculty spoke up against administrative overreach. And it’s high time that administrators recognized how integral academic freedom is to sound governance.
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