Be Careful What You Wish For: Academic Freedom, Free Speech, and the Syllabus
According to CNN, a professor of English at Iowa State University threatened to discipline students who submit projects or papers opposing abortion, the Black Lives Matter movement or same-sex marriage. The professor also warned on their syllabus: “Any instances of othering that you participate in intentionally (racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, sorophobia, transphobia, classism, mocking of mental health issues, body shaming, etc) in class are grounds for dismissal from the classroom.”
In response, administrators at Iowa State University required the professor to change the syllabus and issued a statement to inquiring media outlets:
The syllabus statement as written was inconsistent with the university's standards and its commitment to the First Amendment rights of students. After reviewing this issue with the faculty member, the syllabus has been corrected to ensure it is consistent with university policy. Moreover, the faculty member is being provided additional information regarding the First Amendment policies of the university. Iowa State is firmly committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of its students, faculty, and staff. With respect to student expression in the classroom, including the completion of assignments, the university does not take disciplinary action against students based on the content or viewpoints expressed in their speech.
As I have been watching academic freedom and First Amendment issues closely for years – beginning with a study of McCarthyism against African American and Jewish communities as part of my dissertation, I was interested in this case.
I, too, don’t want people to be ‘othered’ in classes that I teach, but I wouldn’t dismiss a student for offensive behavior. Instead, I would talk to the offender and the person who was offended, and I may have the class discuss with the offending behavior as part of the learning process. Having taught for over 20 years, I’ve had to do this many, many times. I think it is vital that learning take place in the classroom, and I see my role as one who needs to facilitate this learning regardless of the course I’m teaching. With that said, I’ll let someone else delve deeply into this aspect of the professor’s syllabus as I’m more interested in grappling with the first issue – threatening to dismiss students who write about certain topics. The professor specifically stated: "The same goes for any papers/projects: you cannot choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn't deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e.: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.). I take this seriously."
I want to make it clear that I am a Democrat and I consider myself to be on the left. I also want to be very upfront about by perspectives. I am pro-choice with regard to abortion (which means I believe that women have a choice and not that I am pro-abortion). I believe that gay marriage is a legal right for gay couples (and so does the Supreme Court) and I completely support my friends and family members who are gay and married. And, I wholeheartedly believe that Black Lives Matter, have donated to the organization(s) and do everything I can to bring about equity and opportunity for African Americans.
Despite these very firm and well thought out perspectives and beliefs, I do not think that it is right, smart, or legal to tell students what they can and cannot write about in a class. If an assignment allows any topic to be explored, students should be able to write about any topic from any perspective. The First Amendment allows a student this right as do the confines of academic freedom as originally conceptualized. Do students write papers and take perspectives that I am vehemently opposed to? Absolutely and often. However, they have a right to do this. Over the years, I have had excellent students author well-argued and well-written papers that I completely disagreed with in terms of content and perspective. The best papers forced me to wrestle with and sharpen my own ideas and argument. In fact, I often ask people to write papers or give talks about ideas that they completely disagree with, and this exercise helps them to more thoroughly understand their point of view.
I understand and believe as James Baldwin has said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” I assume the professor who created the syllabus in question also understands and believes this notion. I could feel the professor’s passion for justice. However, I also believe that students need the opportunity to grapple with tough ideas and that their thoughts and ideas are at the early stages of development. Students come to college having been shaped by their family and their environments. As faculty, we should be assigning readings that challenge them to think deeply and help them to look at issues from many viewpoints (even those we don’t agree with). We should also be offering assignments that allow students to explore ideas of interest even when those ideas are in opposition to ours. What better way for a student to learn why Black lives matter than writing a paper and having a challenging discussion with a professor as a result of that paper? In order to write the paper, the student will have to read a variety of sources and perspectives and they will inevitably learn something new. If a student is anti-abortion, why can’t they write a paper about this stance? Being anti-abortion is personal a choice? Perhaps the student will come to understand more about the complexities of the issues, and the unique role of women in this decision, as a result of writing the paper? And if a student doesn’t think that gay marriage should be legal, wouldn’t exploring the issue be an interesting assignment? Having to find evidence for one’s ideas is vital and the student would encounter nuance across various sources of evidence. In all of these situations, I would require the student to share evidence in their papers and not merely opinion, and I would push back against unfounded ideas and perspectives that lack evidence to help the student sharpen their perspectives and learn.
I think that Iowa State University made the right decision by having the professor revise their syllabus and by providing them with materials on First amendment rights of students. Unlike those on the right who are calling for the professor to be fired for their syllabus statement, I think there are important lessons across the board in this situation: 1.) The professor was passionate about ensuring that students have a learning environment that was free of ‘isms.’ We should all want a professor who fights to eliminate ‘isms.’ 2.) Although we may think that our views on controversial issues are merely our opinions, these opinions can feel and be oppressive to others. It would behoove us to think about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of this oppression as James Baldwin so eloquently explains above. 3.) Students have the right to free speech and the academic freedom to learn and explore the topics of their choice even if we disagree with their perspectives. 4.) We on the left need to be careful what we wish for in terms of curtailing academic freedom and free speech. The curtailment of free speech has been used in the past to destroy those who have fought for justice and it will be used again.
Marybeth Gasman, an historian of education, is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education & a Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She is also the author (with Clifton Conrad) of Educating a Diverse Nation (Harvard University Press, 2015).