On Academic Freedom and Free Speech

The recent public debate over a course offered this coming semester, African Cultural Studies 405, “The Problem of Whiteness,” is not particularly unusual. Every university that I have been at has experienced occasional controversy about a professor or a course that presents material others find offensive.

Universities are unique places, characterized by their acceptance of people who push the boundaries of perceived truth. Universities frequently employ faculty members whose opinions are considered “out there” — people who embrace alternative ideas and identities that surprise (and occasionally shock or anger) others.

This includes the researchers who proposed that ulcers were caused by bacteria rather than stress and who were widely derided and dismissed…until research proved them right. It includes those who write about (and sometimes live) alternative forms of gender identity. It includes those who argued for plate tectonics, the big bang theory, the value of a minimum wage, or the idea that race is a socially-constructed concept. All of these were or are hotly controversial topics in their field and even among the general public.

I’ve always thought that universities’ greatest value to society is that they are places where any idea is thinkable and debatable…even ideas that shock and insult. A university’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech is a commitment that allows all ideas to be presented and discussed. Ideas should be dismissed only after research and debate proves them inadequate, rather than being dismissed out of hand without debate because they challenge perceived wisdom or offend current beliefs.

That is what the famous UW Board of Regents’ statement was all about, when they proclaimed their support of “continual sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” This was an unambiguous statement about the need for all voices to be heard at a university, in response to an effort to fire a faculty member, economist Richard Ely, accused of advocating socialism.

Now, anyone who is around a university knows that we often fall short of these ideals. Certain opinions in any field of inquiry are dismissed or even laughed at. Sometimes that dismissal is based upon serious inquiry and debate and sometimes it’s just based on current fads and prejudices.

But what we’ve learned over the centuries of arguing about different scientific theories and different social beliefs is that we can all be surprised about where the truth is ultimately found. Those who are dismissed and laughed at today may be taken very seriously at some point in the future. At universities, if we really want to pursue ideas wherever they take us, we can’t censor discussion by only talking about those ideas that others find acceptable.

That brings us to the African Cultural Studies course that is the subject of the current controversy. By itself, the content of this course actually isn’t very controversial. Its approach and its readings are similar to many courses offered at other universities on the social construction of race, studying how the majority culture in many societies has utilized racial concepts to constrain and marginalize minority cultures.

Universities have a long tradition of giving faculty freedom in the classroom to teach about a topic. And, I might note, universities also typically give students a lot of freedom about which classes they can choose to attend. If a faculty member is unable to attract students into his or her course, then we will typically cancel it and assign the professor to a different course. If we receive significant student complaints about a professor’s lack of teaching skills, we will try to provide assistance to that professor to improve. If a faculty member bullies or personally attacks individual students in the course of teaching, we will discipline that professor. But if a faculty member makes arguments in the classroom that some find objectionable or even believe to be wrong, we do not interfere. In fact, as chancellor, I will strongly defend the right of any faculty member to present highly controversial opinions. Faculty who teach well about controversial subjects are often much in demand.

Departments determine their curriculum and faculty are typically assigned a certain number of classes needed by the department to fulfill their curricular requirements. These courses go through a vetting process by a university-level curriculum approval committee. But many faculty occasionally teach special topics courses that reflect their particular research interests, and those may change from year to year. Departments have the right to approve a special topics course on a one-time basis, without a broader curricular review, which is how African Cultural Studies 405 is being offered.

The reaction to the course title, The Problem of Whiteness, has been particularly loud. In part, this title uses language in a way that is familiar to academics but not to others. In academic use, “The problem of…” is language that signals “this is a topic worthy of conversation and debate”, not “this is something that creates problems.” A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences on effective communication by scientists suggested that researchers need to not only avoid jargon, but also understand that people interpret information based on their social norms, which can lead to misunderstanding of the original intent. Indeed, the National Science Foundation has issued guidelines for how project summaries should be written so that the value of the project is clearly understood by national legislators and their staff. I encourage all of our faculty to think about the outside as well as the inside audiences as they put together courses, write articles, and speak publicly. The more that we can use language that all of our audiences understand, the better we will be in communicating the value of the university to the state.

The current controversy over this specific course was amplified because the professor also has a strong social media presence and it didn’t take long for critics to uncover Twitter postings that appear to express enjoyment at hearing about the shooting of police officers. This moves the debate about academic freedom and free speech beyond the freedom to teach in the classroom.

If an employee in a private company posted twitter statements entirely unrelated to her employment that the employer and customers found objectionable, could that employee be fired? That’s certainly possible. But again, universities – especially public universities – are unique. Twitter postings are public statements. They are like posting a message on a public bulletin board.   Universities provide their faculty a guarantee of academic freedom in the classroom, but like any person, faculty members also enjoy freedom of speech from public sanction in the public domain. In fact, the famous “sifting and winnowing” case occurred because Professor Ely was giving public speeches that some thought advocated socialism. It was the 1890s version of Twitter postings.

I have looked at these Twitter postings and I do not accept nor condone the opinions that they seem to express. But my distaste is trumped by my responsibility as chancellor to defend the principles of both academic freedom in the classroom and free speech outside the classroom. It is not acceptable to fire faculty because they publicly say things that others find objectionable, because that’s a very slippery slope. What about those who don’t like faculty who talk about global warming? Or those who don’t want faculty to discuss gay culture? Or those who don’t want faculty to present their research analyzing the cause of a specific disease because it utilized fetal tissue? If faculty have the freedom to present their opinions, then there can’t be arbitrary limits set on which opinions can be presented and which cannot.

Defending academic freedom and free speech can be uncomfortable. I hear about it when alumni or legislators or citizens are unhappy about what’s happening here on campus. There are days when I really wish that everybody at UW would stop doing anything that might create controversy. But once that happens, then we are no longer a university, engaged in the intellectual debate and ferment that leads to new ways of thinking and new innovations. Academic freedom and free speech are among the most important foundations on which universities are built.