Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is under fire for tweeting to some incoming freshman an article about the budget cuts and attacks on tenure at her institution. The campus College Republicans started a campaign denouncing her tweets as “disgusting and repulsive” and declared, “The College Republicans of UW-Madison call on the University of Wisconsin-Madison to address the harassment of these future Badgers on Twitter.”
This is a disturbing reaction: engaging in a conversation or political debate on Twitter is not even remotely close to harassment. The fact that the College Republicans describe it as “harassment” (they replace this with the term “out-of-line actions” in their formal press release) indicates that they think it is deserving of punishment. We need to reject the very stupid notion that being exposed to an idea you disagree with is a form of “harassment.”
The notion that professors should be banned or discouraged from engaging in conversations on substantive issues with students is anathema to the basic ideals of intellectual engagement at a university. Goldrick-Rab declared, “I was very frustrated with the university not being forthcoming. Nobody’s communicating with them. So I looked for prospective students on Twitter and sent them information….I’m not trying to say to them, ‘Don’t come here.’” But even if she was discouraging students from attending her university, that is absolutely protected by academic freedom. It is not a professor’s job to be a cheerleader for their institution.
Even worse, the executive committee of Madison’s Faculty Senate declared in a statement. “As faculty members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we support free speech and diversity of opinion, as has been our tradition. Such freedom requires responsible behavior and in this respect we are deeply dismayed with the actions Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has taken toward students and faculty on Twitter in recent weeks to discourage them from coming here. While claiming to stand for academic freedom, she has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations.”
The executive committee of the Faculty Senate, not Goldrick-Rab, is guilty of irresponsible and unprofessional behavior, and of damaging the principle of academic freedom. First, the assertion that academic freedom “requires responsible behavior” is absolutely wrong. The purpose of academic freedom, in part, is to protect professors even when they make comments that some people think are irresponsible. This is especially true when comes to extramural utterances, such as Goldrick-Rab’s tweets, which are given the strongest protection.
The University of Wisconsin policies on academic freedom declare that it “includes the right to speak or write-as a private citizen or within the context of one’s activities as an employee of the university-without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties, the functioning of the university, and university positions and policies.” In other words, it protects exactly what Goldrick-Rab did in her tweets. By contrast, the section of the policy on academic responsibility requires “the faithful performance of professional duties and obligations,” not “responsible behavior” in one’s personal comments on public policy. The policy clearly declares that when a professor is “speaking on matters of public interest or concern,” the only requirement is that a professor makes it clear “one is speaking on behalf of oneself, not the institution.” Since no one has accused Goldrick-Rab of pretending to be an official spokesperson for the university, there is no violation at all of the university’s policies.
Also included in those policies is an important statement on academic freedom by the Regents: “in serving a free society the scholar must himself be free….The concept of intellectual freedom is based upon confidence in man’s capacity for growth in comprehending the universe and on faith in unshackled intelligence.” Apparently the Faculty Senate executive committee has its lost faith in unshackled intelligence, and now wants professors to keep quiet about uncomfortable topics such as the recent damage to the university caused by the actions of politicians.
The College Republicans responded, “We want to thank the Faculty Senate for standing up with us for not only free speech, but also individual responsibility.” I can understand why some poorly educated students don’t know what free speech and individual responsibility are, although I’m baffled at how they can imagine that a collective campaign to stifle an individual professor’s free speech is a defense of free speech and individual responsibility.
But the actions by the Faculty Senate are inexcusable. At any time, it is unprofessional for a Faculty Senate to tell a professor to shut up. But in the midst of a public campaign to have the professor punished for her comments, such a statement is highly unethical and threatens academic freedom.