01/24/2017

AFT guides faculty through threats to academic freedom

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In the days since the presidential campaign and election, colleges and universities have experienced a spike in hate crimes and threats directed against African-Americans, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, women, people with disabilities and others. In addition, many on campus have been targeted and harassed for statements they have made both inside and outside of the classroom.

United Academics of PhiladelphiaUnited Academics of Philadelphia create a safe space on campus at Temple University

These incidents threaten academic freedom and free speech, creating fear that could prevent faculty from exploring challenging ideas with students in the very place such inquiry is most appropriate—our institutions of higher learning.

To help faculty understand their rights and guide them with practical advice about how to continue to exercise their academic freedom, the AFT has joined with the American Association of University Professors to create a guide for locals to use to educate their members. Informed by faculty experience, it is designed to prepare academics for the possibility of increased attacks on campus.

The guide offers advice on a number of relevant questions, including:

  • What to do should the administration prohibit discussion of the election in class;
  • How to respond when students share racist, xenophobic, homophobic or misogynist views with their classmates;
  • Whether there are there restrictions on what faculty may tweet and post on blogs outside their faculty roles;
  • Where to draw the line between freedom of speech and threatening actions;
  • The importance of tenure-track faculty defending the academic freedom of their contingent colleagues;
  • What responsibilities bystanders have when witnessing intimidation, threats or violence;
  • What to do if one is placed on the Professor Watchlist;
  • Whether there is job protection for professors who speak out on controversial subjects; and
  • How to establish a sanctuary campus.

Each point is explained at length, with citations from AAUP and AFT policy as well as references to court decisions that support them. At the center of the guide, as reflected in AAUP's "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," is the concept that "controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry," while at the same time, there is also "the need for teachers to avoid persistently introducing material which has no relation to their subject."

The guide applies to all faculty—tenured, tenure-track and nontenure-track, as well as academic professionals, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and others engaged in teaching and research in higher education.

[Virginia Myers]