Academic freedom – Pleas for civility meet cynicism

‘Civility’ just might be American academe’s newest fighting word. In the past week, pleas for civility at Ohio University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California at Berkeley have had the unintended effect of provoking harsh attacks on the campus leaders who issued them. All have been accused of seeking to silence speech rather than simply lower its tone.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Among those criticising the actions of the three university leaders is Henry F Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on academic freedom and tenure.

He suggested on the AAUP blog Academe that charges of incivility are being used to silence today’s faculty members in the same way that accusations of communist sympathies were used to silence them during the red scare of the 1940s and 1950s.

In an interview last week, Reichman said he perceives "a growing trend" in which college administrations are citing a need to maintain civility “whenever there is controversial speech that people don’t like”.

Officials at UC Berkeley say Nicholas B Dirks, the chancellor there, was simply obeying a directive from his boss – and repeating a back-to-school ritual carried out by his predecessors and by other University of California campus chancellors – when he sent faculty members, students and staff members there an email on 5 September discussing the importance of civility and free speech.

But his statement, which said “free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society”, has been widely denounced on blogs such as Daily Kos, Counterpunch and Popehat as an assault on free speech and academic freedom.

Eric J Barron, the new president of Pennsylvania State University, has similarly denied any attempt to curtail speech in issuing a call for civility recently. That call came in a "message from the leadership at Penn State" that was signed by more than 80 other university leaders, including members of the faculty, student body and staff.

But the statement, which alludes to lingering divisions over Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal in urging people connected with the institution to "consciously choose civility”, has been criticised by many alumni.

They have characterised it as an attempt to suppress arguments that the university unfairly treated the late Joe Paterno, the football coach whom it fired for allegedly failing to respond adequately to allegations that Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the football team, was molesting children on university property.

In a blog post Paterno’s son Jay argued that “stating the truth is not incivility and not disrespectful”, and told Barron that "the people advising you have only added fuel to the fire".

Roderick J McDavis, Ohio University’s president, has come under fire for issuing a plea for civility in response to a 2 September incident in which Megan Marzec, the president of the university’s student senate, dumped a bucket of fake blood on herself in urging the university to divest from Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

McDavis’ statement did not explicitly accuse Marzec of incivility in pulling the videotaped stunt in response to an invitation from McDavis for her to take part in the ‘ice-bucket challenge’, which is being used to promote awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Some Ohio University faculty members, however, have interpreted his statement as implying such an accusation, given that it also disavowed her stunt as in any way representing the views of the university.

"My reading of that statement was that it was a much more general call for civility," Beth Quitslund, an associate professor of English and chair of the university’s faculty senate, said last Tuesday in an interview.

But, she said, "some faculty members have heard that as an indictment of Marzec’s civility". McDavis would help allay such fears, she said, by issuing a follow-up statement denouncing the incivility of the hundreds of people who have reportedly sent Marzec obscene or threatening letters over the stunt.

Faculty vigilance

Faculty members appear to have become more defensive of their speech rights as a result of several recent high profile battles around the nation over the boundaries of academic freedom.

Going into the summer, college administrations had been struggling to adjust to changes in communication brought about by social media, with their capacity to make controversial speech go viral and to amplify outside pressure on institutions to rein in faculty members whose statements give offense.

Then, in recent months, the military conflict in Israel and Gaza greatly intensified debates in academe over Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, prompting scholars on both sides of the issue to use such heated rhetoric they tested administrators’ willingness to continue supporting unfettered debate.

Advocates of academic freedom have long been sceptical of efforts to promote civility on campus, fearing that they represent a veiled attempt to squelch debate.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is being blamed for elevating such fears by citing concerns about civility to justify its controversial decision last month to rescind an offer of a tenured professorship in American Indian studies to Steven G Salaita, formerly of Virginia Tech.

The Illinois leaders’ decision came after the university was barraged with angry emails, including threats to withhold donations, in response to media coverage of inflammatory tweets by the scholar protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Phyllis M Wise, the campus’ chancellor, has said the appointment was not rescinded over Salaita’s views but by how he had chosen to express them.

In a message to the campus last month, she said: "What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them."

Tenure, she said, brings with it "a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built".

Salaita argued at a news conference last Tuesday that "the notion of civility is really subjective" and "can mean anything in the context of what the speaker wants it to mean".

He called Wise’s professed concerns about his civility "a fundamental mischaracterisation of who I am as a scholar, as a teacher, and as a human being".

The university’s decision to rescind the appointment has been denounced by many faculty members on the campus and by a long list of academic associations.

Katherine M Franke, a professor of law at Columbia University who is helping to coordinate protests on Salaita’s behalf, last Tuesday argued that "civility is really a catch word for a kind of censorship for speech that makes us uncomfortable".

"Uncomfortable ideas are what we trade in in the academy," Franke said. "That is our job."

Anita Levy, associate secretary in the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, argued that colleges "get into very troubled water" when they attempt to distinguish what constitutes civil speech.

She attributed the university’s decision to rescind Salaita’s appointment partly "to the corporatisation of the university, where administrators feel obliged to, or responsible to, the donors rather than the students or faculty".

William Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said his group has no objection to college administrators’ calls for civility as long as those calls are not in any way enforced.

Colleen Lye, a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and co-chair of the UC Berkeley faculty association, said in an email that Chancellor Dirks’ call for civility "touches a raw nerve" among faculty members there and elsewhere in light of the Salaita controversy.

She said: "I’m inclined to think that the chancellor did not mean anything more by his message than a wish ‘for us to all get along’."

Dirks was overseas last Tuesday and unavailable to comment, but Nils Gilman, an associate chancellor there, said the reaction to the chancellor’s remarks "has been a lot more explosive than we anticipated" and some bloggers have "gone a long way with the chancellor’s words" in construing them as a call for the repression of speech.

Quitslund, of Ohio University’s faculty senate, said that the controversy surrounding President McDavis’ remarks similarly appears to be partly driven by faculty members’ reaction to the Salaita controversy.

There is good reason to believe that Salaita is not alone in being vulnerable to having his career derailed over his criticism of Israel.

The Amcha Initiative, a California group that characterises itself as an anti-Semitism watchdog, last week posted on its website a list of more than 200 scholars in the field of Middle East studies who had signed a petition calling for the academic boycott of Israel.

"How can professors who are so biased against the Jewish state accurately or fairly teach students about Israel or the Arab-Israel conflict," Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the group’s co-founder, said in a news release.

* Sydni Dunn contributed to this report.