Whitman’s Missing Policy

Lindsey Brodeck, News Reporter

Academic freedom has entered the media spotlight, with institutions such as Drexel University responding hastily to faculty members’ controversial public comments. In the case of Drexel University, once a professor’s tweet about the mass shooting in Las Vegas went viral, it was attacked on conservative sites. The university received emails and phone calls for his dismissal and put the professor on administrative leave without faculty review.

While Whitman College’s commitment to academic freedom is expressly stated in the Faculty Code, there is no institutional statement expressing their collective commitment to academic freedom. And if controversies regarding academic freedom should arise, there is no protocol indicating how the college should respond.

Academic freedom grants professors the liberty to teach and research in their areas of expertise without risk of repression or job loss. It expresses the institution’s confidence in professors as experts in their field, and the ones capable of making decisions regarding what and how they teach.

Baker Ferguson Chair of Politics and Leadership and former Provost, Timothy Kaufman-Osborn believes academic freedom is essential to the mission of the college.

“If we refuse to respect the freedom of the faculty to decide these questions, we will compromise the quality of the education we provide to our students as well as the research we conduct,” Kaufman-Osborn said.

Academic freedom is a necessary protection in academic institutions. Without it, colleges are at risk of other forces dictating what courses should be taught, how they should be taught and which academic voices should be silenced. Wealthy donors, trustee boards, and even presidents of academic institutions do not possess the same professional expertise regarding educational matters.

“The principle of academic freedom expresses the belief that the mission of the college can only be fulfilled if faculty members have the autonomy to determine what they will teach and how they will teach as well as the questions they will research,” Kaufman-Osborn said.

Senior Politics major, Ben Freedman is working on a semester long project about academic freedom and the type of protocol the college should put in place. Freedman could see something similar happening at Whitman College as it did at Drexel University.

“In the past few years there have been large scale incidences of professors or students making comments on social media and public uproar after a news organization picks it up,” Freedman said. “The university doesn’t want to seem like they’re protecting this speech that is not politically correct. I think something similar could happen at Whitman because there’s not a protocol.”

Article VII in Whitman’s Faculty Code expresses its commitment to academic freedom based on the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The statement defines academic freedom in three forms. The first form applies to scholarship. It states that professors are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of their results.

The next form protects academic freedom in the classroom, and entitles professors the freedom to teach and discuss their subject.

The third and final form has drawn the most media attention recently, especially in response to claims professors have made on social media platforms. It posits professors as people with a special position in the community, that imposes special obligations.

“As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution,” (AAUP, 1940).

Recent social media storms, such as the one surrounding the Drexel University professor’s controversial tweet, make the development of a protocol even more important.

“Too often, colleges and universities have not been adequately prepared to deal with the public furor that accompanies these controversies, especially in an era dominated by social media,” Kaufman-Osborn said. “As a result, too often, college presidents have been pressed to offer hasty responses that often require later qualification and backtracking, and that sort of confusion serves no one well.”

This involuntary suspension also occurred without adequate due process or a consultation with a committee of his peers. This is a violation of academic freedom. The sixth footnote of the 1940 statement from the AAUP states that if a faculty member’s public statements ever “raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position,” then a faculty committee should be used to render the final judgment.

“This commitment to faculty review follows from the central idea of academic freedom: the peers of any given faculty member are the best qualified to render judgment on the fitness of a colleague to serve as a fellow faculty member,” Kaufman-Osborn said.

If a college president or governing board makes the decision instead, it becomes too easy to give in to pressure from public opinion, politicians or wealthy donors. This is why a collective, institutional statement and the development of a protocol is crucial.

Chair Elect of the Faculty, Barry Balof stresses the importance of creating a collective definition of academic freedom. “I think we all have the same understanding of what academic freedom should entail in theory. It’s tricky when the rubber meets the road and when issues come up, but the hope it that we can help codify that common understanding.”

With a newly formed Academic Freedom and Due Process Committee, Whitman College is in the midst of working on a community-generated institutional statement on academic freedom and free speech. Perhaps through this effort a protocol insisting on faculty review will be created.