Op-ed: Recommitting to Whitman’s Academic Freedom

Ben Freedman

Consider Bret Weinstein. He was a biology professor at Evergreen College who sent an email on March 15, 2017 criticizing the new “Day of Absence.” In the past, one day each year students of color at Evergreen would choose to not show up to campus. But, in 2017, organizers of the event asked white members of campus to stay home. Although Weinstein supported the previous format, he called the new day a “show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” Viewing Weinstein’s criticism as an attack on racial justice, students became outraged. Large protests ensued, and the Chief of Police warned Weinstein that it was not safe for him to remain on campus. Without support from Evergreen’s administration, Weinstein resigned his position.

Contrary to the right wing narrative, incidents like this are not unique to the easily triggered “liberal snowflakes.” In response to the Las Vegas mass shooting, George Ciccariello-Maher, professor of politics at Drexel University, tweeted: “It’s the white supremacy patriarchy, stupid.” Fox News picked up the story, and suddenly the university and Ciccariello-Maher received enormous pressure, demanding a response from the school. Drexel University answered by placing him on involuntary leave. Eventually he too resigned.

The pattern is clear. A professor expresses “controversial” political views, people get upset, and a public firestorm ensues. To protect its reputation, the school throws the professor to the dogs. From a school’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. Colleges and universities are simply not prepared for the speed and ferocity with which social media can ignite controversy. Unfortunately, Whitman does not have adequate policies to prevent a professor from being pressured into leaving our own campus.

We support liberal arts education because we believe that a diverse range of studies, perspectives and ideas develop more thoughtful students and citizens. Consistent with this ethic is the notion that the professors teaching us also possess a wide range of specialties and world-views. We value tenure in part to give professors more instructional freedom to embrace this notion of open-mindedness. But protecting an ethic of academic freedom does not end once professors leave the classroom.

In Chapter 1, Article VII of the Whitman Faculty Code, the College makes explicit its commitment to the 1940 American Association of University Professors Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom. The AAUP statement defines academic freedom in three contexts – in research, the classroom, and most salient here, as private citizens. With respect to the latter, the provision reads: “When [professors] speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Professors do not cease to hold an insightful perspective once outside the classroom, and academic freedom cannot be considered a principled good unless it protects speech in all three contexts.

Today, social media is the extension of our voice as citizens, so online speech should be protected as well. In fact, the AAUP argues that faculty should be subject to potential sanctions only when their speech raises “grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position.” By this standard, both Weinstein and Ciccariello-Maher were well within their rights. Without this commitment, students receive a perplexing message. When we’re in school, we learn, form opinions and challenge dominant ways of thinking. But when you leave class, be careful. Don’t rock the boat. Play it safe.

There is no doubt that Whitman’s commitment to the 1940 AAUP statement on academic freedom is important. However, when Whitman faces an issue akin to that at Evergreen or Drexel, such generalized language will not suffice. Twitter, Facebook, and contemporary news media can galvanize a mob within minutes. A policy worth adopting must reflect this reality.

Fortunately, Whitman’s Academic Freedom and Due Process Committee (AFDPC) is working on this exact issue. Although the AFDPC has a draft of the new statement, I was denied access to a copy. But according to the chair of that committee, it draws heavily from Franklin and Marshall and the University of Chicago’s recent re-commitments to academic freedom, as well as the 1940 AAUP statement. Unfortunately, after reviewing these documents, neither have provisions that are sufficiently substantial, specific or social media-conscious as to prevent what happened at Evergreen or Drexel.

My goal is not to offer a comprehensive account of what such a statement ought to look like; that is the AFDPC’s job. This being said, one aspect is crucial; our professors must have institutionalized affirmative rights. Specifically, I think Whitman should instantiate a protocol that makes a simple guarantee: Regardless of public pressure, when a faculty member is caught up in controversy and their comments do not violate the AAUP guidelines, the institution must proactively take action to ensure that the faculty member can continue and work normally. Remember, Weinstein was not “forced” out of Evergreen. He had to leave because his school made no effort to calm an enraged student body. Academic freedom is only as valuable as the school’s commitment to a professor amidst intense public opposition.

One might counter: What if a professor tweets, posts or emails something truly reprehensible, yet she is still protected by the school? Can people say whatever they want without repercussions? Clearly no. In such a case, this speech would violate the AAUP’s position that a professor will not protected if their speech indicates their unfitness for teaching.

We are at a crossroads. Our school has the opportunity, and I believe responsibility, to send a message about the kind of institution we claim to be. If we see nothing wrong with what happened at Drexel or Evergreen, fine. But then we cannot act as if we value the academic freedom of our professors, and cannot be surprised if the same thing happens on our own campus.