Professors Advocate Academic Freedom & Encourage Unfiltered Debate

This summer has witnessed a particularly dangerous threat to academic freedom, involving free speech, control over hiring decisions, and the imposition of civility tests/criteria to control speech by professors. This episode began on Aug. 1 when Chancellor Phyllis Wise at theUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign overturned the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita, a scholar of indigenous studies. Salaita had already accepted the offer from Illinois, his classes were already listed, and he’d already sold his home and begun the process of moving his family to the Urbana-Champaign area. The case has garnered international attention and intense criticism of the university because it is rare for administration to overturn the decision of a hiring committee, department chair, and school dean. Because the decision to overturn theacademic decision to hire Salaita was not based on his academic credentials but rather was in response to his strongly-worded—some felt, antisemitic—comments on Twitter about the Israel- Hamas war in Gaza.

This case is part of a pattern that has emerged in the last few years of university administrations using “civility” and “collegiality” requirements to limit the academic freedom and broader free speech rights of faculty and students. UCI has been the site of several of these struggles, involving issues of free speech for professors in the course of their academic duties (the case of Engineering professorJuan Hong, which led to a landmark US Court of Appeals decision in favor of the University), the overturning of an offer to hire a professor in response to complaints about his political views (the case of Law School DeanErwin Chemerinsky, who was subsequently rehired after former Chancellor Michael Drake reversed his decision), and the arrest, prosecution and conviction of students for disruptive speech at a public event (the case of the so-called “Irvine 11”). As UCI begins a new year with a new chancellor (whom we wish the greatest success), it is important for faculty, students, staff and the surrounding community to consider what is at stake in the struggles that erupted this summer, and why it is crucial given the campus’ recent history that UCI take a clear stand for academic freedom, scholarly autonomy and shared governance. UCI needs to accept and encourage robust and unfiltered—and yes, at times even uncivil— debate on the most important issues facing our society.

Within days of Wise’s decision not to confirm Salaita’s hiring, an international outcry erupted.Thousands of scholarsfrom the humanities, arts, social and physical sciences condemned the decision, and many signed a boycott statement refusing to work with or visit Urbana-Champaign unless Salaita were confirmed. A group of leadingconstitutional law scholars, along with theCenter for Constitutional Rights, declared Chancellor Wise’s actions to be not merely unethical, but unconstitutional.Despite the intense pressure, which also includedno-confidence votesby almost a dozen departments at Illinois at the time of writing and letters from leading professional associations (including theAmerican Historical Association,Middle East Studies Association,American  Anthropological Association, the  American Political Science AssociationandCalifornia  Scholars for Academic Freedom), on Sept. 11 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (the equivalent to the UC Regents) voted 8-1 torescind the offerto Salaita.

What is most striking about the case is that evidence, obtained from mediareportsandemail  correspondence of Wise and other senior school officialsobtainedthrough a Freedom of  Information Act request, shows that wealthy donors exerted significant andexplicitpressure on Wise to fire Salaita. Even so, this egregious interference in the university was met not with a firm defense of academic freedom and autonomy by the senior management of the Campus, but rather with the exact opposite: the almost immediate and unprecedented decision to rescind the offer to Salaita.

If the decision on Salaita is allowed to stand, it will have a devastating effect on scholars working in highly politicized fields such as Middle Eastern studies or climate science where critical and untempered public debate is most crucial. It will limit the freedom of students and faculty to push the boundaries of knowledge and, in the process, their own identities and futures, toward new and unexpected horizons.

Just as the issue of civility was becoming a major concern for scholars across the country, on Friday Sept. 5 UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirkscirculated an open statementto his campus community that sought to define the limits of appropriate debate at Berkeley. Given the recent attention to the dangers of using civility to delimit speech, his statement was surprising and distressing. Issued as the campus approaches the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a famous civil rights movement that started at Berkeley, Chancellor Dirks’ statement echoes language of the UIUC decision and also mirrors language in the effort by the University of Kansas Board of Regentsto regulate social media speechand the Penn State administration’snew statementon civility. Although each of these administrative statements has responded to specific local events, the repetitive invocation of “civil” and “civility” to set limits to acceptablespeech bespeaks a broader and deeper challenge to intellectual freedom on college and university campuses.

To define “free speech and civility” as “two sides of the same coin,” and to distinguish between “free speech and political advocacy” as Chancellor Dirk does in his text, not only turns things upside down, but does so in keeping with an ongoing erosion of shared governance in the UC system, and the systemic downgrading of faculty rights and prerogatives. This does not mean we should not encourage civility, especially in times of significant conflict.

Indeed, UCI faculty and administration havejoined together to call for civilityin such situations. But Chancellor Dirks erred when he conflated free speech and civility because, while civility and the exercise of free speech may coexist harmoniously, the right to free speech not only permits, but is designed to protect uncivil speech. He was wrong to say that there exists a boundarybetween “free speech and political advocacy” because political advocacy is the apotheosis of free speech, and there is no “demagoguery” exception to the First Amendment.

The right to free speech is not limited, circumstantial, or contingent. It is protected by the prohibition on the infringement of speech by the state and other public institutions and officials.

Second, the right to speak freely on public and institutional issues is one of the pillars of academic freedom. Academic freedom is a specific—though not exclusive—right of professors. The pillars of academic freedom that extend to individual members of the professoriate are: (1) the freedom to conduct and disseminate scholarly research; (2) the freedom to design courses and teach students in the areas of their expertise; and (3) the right to free speechas laid out in the 1940 Statement of Principles of Tenure and Academic Freedomand its policy onextramuralutterances, which in this context prohibits the professional penalization of professors for extramural speech. Ensuing from academic freedom is the right and duty of faculty to decide, collaboratively and individually, standards for teaching and research, without interference from administrators, alumni, or donors.

The University of California bears a special burden to respect these rights. For the rights of academic freedom and the 1st Amendment right to free speech cohere in a way peculiar to a public university. As a public university, the University of California is called upon to affirm not only the rights of Academic Freedom but the more expansive rights of the First Amendment— which after all, are possessed by students and staff as well as faculty.

To his credit, Chancellor Dirks—unlike UIUC Chancellor Wise—clearly realized that the effect, if not the intent, of his words was to suggest a less than robust support for free speech and academic freedom, and on Sept. 11 issued a clarification of his remarks that reiterated the primacy of academic freedom and the AAUP guidelines while affirming that civility remains an ideal to which the academic community should aspire.

Given the events of this summer, the Council of University of California Faculty Association, including our Irvine Faculty Association, has written the following declaration which we ask our Academic Senate to pass as a resolution, and Chancellor Gillman and other senior campus administrators to affirm, in order to demonstrate our campus commitment to the fullest expression of free speech and support for scholarly autonomy.

Taking note of the concurrent rapid growth in non-academic administrative positions in most colleges and universities and the significant reductions in state/government funding for public universities during the last decade,

Concerned by numerous accounts across the United States of senior administrators, management, boards of trustees, regents and other non-academic bodies attempting to influence, supervise and in some cases over-rule academic hiring, tenure and promotion decisions, as well as policy and evaluatory decisions traditionally under the purview of Academic Senate and other faculty bodies,

Concerned further by the attempts of senior administrators in the UC system and at many universities across the United States to narrow the boundaries of academic freedom and permissible speech by faculty, students and other members of the university community, and, in particular by the inappropriate and misleading appeal to concepts like “civility” and “collegiality,” deceptively used to limit the “right” to free speech, and as criteria for hiring, tenure, promotion and even disciplinary procedures,

We reaffirm,

That all professional evaluations related to hiring, tenure, and promotions of either present or potential faculty are the sole purview of designated committees composed of faculty members, department chairs, and deans as peers and/or academic supervisors of anyone under review and/or evaluation,

That senior campus and University/system-wide administrators, as well as Regents and other governing boards, or donors to the university and/or its foundation(s), do not have any right to interfere in these processes, and that final decisions on appointment and promotion must be based solely on information in the candidate’s file that is related to established categories of teaching, research, and service and that has been added by established procedures of peer academic review.

That we oppose any insinuation that civility, per se, be added either formally or informally as a valid category in the academic personnel process, as well as any attempt by external parties, including donors to the university, government officials, or other forces, to interfere in any personnel decisions, especially through the threat of withholding donations or investments should certain academic policies or personnel decisions be made.

We ask the campus community to consider this resolution and ensure it receives the fullest possible hearing by the Academic Senate. We invite you to comment on the resolution, available at our website, ucifa.org. Let’s work together to ensure that UCI remains not only one of the finest public universities in the United States, but a leader in protecting academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance without which no university can thrive.

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Note: UCIFA is a chapter of CUCFA, the Council of the University of California Faculty Association. Information on CUCFA and on UCIFA can be found on their websites.