Marquette Warrior: Marquette Rejects Students For Academic Freedom

Monday, January 29, 2007

Marquette Rejects Students For Academic Freedom

This was expected, but the rejection letter is here.

We just phoned Dean of Student Development Mark McCarthy, and he refused to comment, saying “let the Tribune get the story.”

We can understand why he would refuse to comment, since he and other Marquette bureaucrats have failed to articulate any coherent reason for rejecting the organization.

The rejection letter to Charles Rickert, President of the organization said:
. . . we find that a number of the programs and events proposed in your constitution and the affiliation of your group with the national Students for Academic Freedom Information Center and its programs and activities are inimical to Marquette’s committment to academic freedom.
What the organization has proposed to do, and which McCarthy clearly sees as unacceptable, is to criticize instances of liberal and leftist bias on campus.

In his discussion with Rickert, McCarthy first stressed grievance procedures available to students who feel they have been discriminated against on the basis of their political opinions.

Further, he questioned whether students are qualified to judge bias!

Quite clearly, criticizing Marquette, particular programs at Marquette and individual professors is viewed by Marquette bureaucrats as “inimical to Marquette’s commitment to academic freedom.”

In other words, “academic freedom” doesn’t include the right to claim that faculty and administrators are using their freedom in a biased way!

Committee on Faculty

McCarthy had asked the Committee on Faculty to provide some confidential commentary on Students for Academic Freedom, and that group discussed the issue for about a half-hour back in the fall.

According to William Thorn, Secretary of the Committee, the discourse quickly became side-tracked with a discussion of supposed threats to academic freedom at other universities, particular the cases of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado and Kevin Barrett at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Members of the Committee were quite negative about any off campus group coming in and trying to critique or evaluate the curriculum or instruction at Marquette. Members said “we have an evaluation system.”

Much of the discussion involved attempted intrusion by state legislators at state schools.

One red-herring having nothing to do with Students For Academic Freedom (proposals that the official Marquette evaluations of professors be made public) got dragged into the discussion.

The commentary submitted to McCarthy was generally quite negative, although no vote was taken on the issue.

Given McCarthy’s initial negative reaction to the student group, it appears that he went to the Committee on Faculty not to seek guidance, but rather to try to enlist allies against the group.

A Threat To Academic Freedom?

Thus Marquette’s position is that having a student group on campus that will criticize individual professors, programs and the University as a whole for bias is inconsistent with academic freedom.

But we can’t imagine that Marquette would object if the Gay/Straight Alliance attacked Marquette for being insufficiently “gay friendly.”

Marquette, until recently, provided a link on the Student Government web site to something called Dogears. On this web site, students were allowed to post evaluations of professors.

The comments could be extremely negative. For example, one professor was described as a “prime example of a white elitist male.” Another was described as “extremely, extremely biased. Chooses favorites like it’s his job. Doesn’t read papers – I even turned the same one in twice to prove this.”

And of another professor: “. . . this course was very frustrating, overwhelming, boring, uninteresting, confusing, unorganized. I need more adjectives!” And of a different professor: “I believe this to be the worst class I have taken at Marquette, and that is saying a lot.”

And these faculty were attacked by name, and by students who were anonymous.

Given that Marquette explicitly allowed negative evaluations of professors to be publicly posted, it’s difficult to see why it would be a terrible threat to academic freedom to allow a particular group of conservative students to attack professors for leftist bias.

Does Academic Freedom Mean Professors Can Say Anything?

One might believe that if professors are in any way limited in what they can say in class, this is a violation of academic freedom.

But the classic formulations of academic freedom are far from giving professors carte blanche to say anything they want.

In the first place, the classic statements from the American Association of University Professors make it clear that academic freedom applies when an academic is talking about his or her subject matter. Thus an historian can espouse any conclusion about the origins of the Civil War (even a highly controversial one), but math professors don’t have the right to spout off about the Iraq War.

The same statements affirm that students should not be indoctrinated, and have a right to disagree with their professors.

For example, a 1967 statement from the AAUP says “Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.”

These sorts of restrictions are most certainly still applicable, as documents from Temple and Penn State show.

There is one final restriction on what professors are allowed to say. The doctrine of a hostile learning environment precludes certain kinds of statements that are gratuitously demeaning or insulting. Of course, this doctrine can be abused, as intolerant students claim to be “offended” upon hearing viewpoints they don’t like. But it’s perfectly sensible that, in the vast majority of college classes, negative comments about homosexuality should be out of bounds. Why not equally prohibit a professor of engineering saying that “Republicans are selfish bastards?”

What should be acceptable is a professor teaching a course on sexual ethics outlining in a sympathetic and favorable way the view of the Catholic Church that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. Or a professor in a class on public policy coming down on the side of the Democrats on a particular issue.

If criticism of particular professors should be allowed it’s even more obvious that students should be allowed to criticize majors that they think are biased, or criticize Student Government if it sponsors an ideologically biased slate of speakers.

Students For Academic Freedom Would Have No Power

The most important point here is a simple one. No student organization has the power to fire any professor. Or to reduce the professor’s salary. Or to determine the content of any reading list.

All Students For Academic Freedom would be able to do is criticize what they consider to be abuses.

Anybody seeing their criticism could make up their own minds as to whether it was well-founded.

In other words, the only power the student group would have is the power to publicize what they consider to be abuses.

But college administrators don’t like publicity. They don’t like having their decisions questioned, and don’t like having a variety of derelictions and failures publicized.

And if they are liberal administrators, they especially don’t like conservatives doing it.

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