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Ewen Lecture Series Presents “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump”

James Davis (right) and Hans-Joerg Tiede discussing amongst each other before the lecture. PHOTO/ Samantha Castro
James Davis (right) and Hans-Joerg Tiede discussing amongst each other before the lecture. PHOTO/ Samantha Castro

By Samantha Castro

Published: February 7th, 2018

The acceleration of attacks on academic freedom was the main focus of “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump,” one of the many lectures a part of the Frederic Ewen Lecture Series, that covers civil liberties and academic freedom, on Tuesday, January 30.

The small audience of students and faculty were welcomed by James Davis, Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union’s Brooklyn College Chapter Chair, who started off the lecture with a quick overview of the nature of academic freedom today. According to Davis, attacks on academic freedom aren’t new. Colleges and universities are being held responsible to economically benefit the nation and to not only keep up to their ideals but also to the taxpayer’s ideals.

“That’s a kind of political climate that’s hostile to academic inquiry and that’s suspicious of higher education as a whole.” Davis said. “The professors are increasingly, in that context, in the crosshairs.”

He expressed that this trend has accelerated because of Donald Trump’s and his presence on social media. He referenced Professors Corey Robin and Samir Chopra who were put on posters made by the conservative David Horowtiz Freedom Center, and were placed around Brooklyn College with the title of “supporters of terrorism.” Situations like these create fear in professors. They make professors more cautious and more hesitant to talk, research and professionally publish controversial topics.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, the senior program officer in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), continued the lecture from there. The lecture consisted of three aspects: the definition of academic freedom, the certain aspects of academic freedom that are being targeted, and the ways in which professors and students can defend against attacks of their academic freedom.

 “The contribution of higher education to society cannot exist without academic freedom,” Tiede said. “ It’s not a luxury or elitism but it is a necessity.”

Tiede pinpointed four elements of discussion: teaching, research, participation in governance, and extramural utterances. However, teaching and extramural utterances were the two elements that were discussed further between Tiede and the audience.

Before Tiede talked about any of the elements, he discussed the relation between academic freedom and free speech under the First Amendment. He described each as being both narrow and broad in terms of what they protect. An audience member asked about an example of a history professor who doesn’t believe that the holocaust happened. As Tiede explained, the professor is protected under the First Amendment, but under academic freedom, it would be known as disciplinary incompetence because within the history curriculum, it the holocaust indeed happened.

Tiede said that there is sometimes confusion about what information is and is not allowed to be taught in the classroom. AAUP’s statement of freedom in the classroom states it is neither harassment or discriminatory for a student to criticize an idea that is presented in class. Furthermore, ideas that are within the discipline cannot be censored just because a student with a certain political or religious beliefs may be offended.

He connected this to the new form of attack of academic freedom today. Tiede spoke about “professorwatchlist.com,” a website that lists professors “who discriminate and who advance leftist propaganda.” He proposed that websites like these might be falsely claiming discrimination or harassment. Usually when there are such claims about a faculty member at any university, there are multiple mechanisms and due-processes to review the claims. This is done in order to ensure that the claims are correct. However, the website does not check over these claims like AAUP or universities would.

Extramural utterance was the last element spoken about. This gives professors the right to speak as citizens about issues outside the classroom. However, it does have its limitations as seen by many news stories.

Tiede gave the example of a student who saw that readings given by a faculty member at Bridgewater State University emphasized on Obama, Clinton, and Bush. So, the student searched through the faculty member’s personal Facebook page to find a post the day after President Trump was elected, took screenshots, and sent it to those in charge of professorwatchlist.com. After it was posted, the member was suspended because of all the threats the institution received.

What he noted about the website is that it never described where the situation occurred. According to research, barely more than half of the situations listed took place in classrooms or on campus. The other percent consists of social media and research publications.

Tiede went on to speak about AAUP opinion on extramural. To summarize, professors are allowed to write and speak as citizens, but since they are under an institution and thus they represent it, it’s important to think about what to say, respect the opinion of others, and indicate that what they say doesn’t represent them.

He stated this because this transitioned to his advice to combat and defend against attacks on academic freedom. He gave multiple suggestions for contacting AAUP in times of harassment to receiving guidance from universities when it comes to social media pages that are under their name.

When asked how students are impacted, Tiede stated that the main concern is the student’s education. Another reason why there’s a long due-process when looking at a claim is because, if the claim is false, they want to make sure that the students still have a professor to teach them and make sure they entrust in the professor. On the other hand, if a claim about the professor is correct, it affects the student’s view of the professor and they become more cautious.

These attacks also impact student’s and their own research. Just like professors, the students as well may be become worried about researching and sharing their thoughts on a controversial topic. Thus, Tiede suggested that the recommendations he gave to professors could work for students as well.

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