My Colleagues and I Don't Have Academic Freedom

I was associated with the University of Connecticut for almost 25 years before I learned that I did not have academic freedom. Naively I had assumed that all American institutions of higher learning, except some small religious colleges, guaranteed academic freedom. I had hoped that the current contract negotiations between UConn’s trustees and its chapter of AAUP would honor my basic professional rights. Then I learned that the trustees’ chief negotiator refuses to change the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement. It states:

“3.1 The Board of Trustees recognizes the paramount importance of academic freedom in an institution of higher education and reaffirms its continuing commitment to the principles of academic freedom and its protections described in the University of Connecticut Laws and By-Laws, (revised June 30, 2006).
3.2 This article on academic freedom is a statement of intent and policy and is not subject to the Contractual Grievance Procedure.”

Here’s a hypothetical and potentially controversial example of what these provisions mean. If either I or a colleague were to tell a class “Opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement is an expression of white racism,” the university’s administration could suspend or fire us and we would have no meaningful recourse, because the current university procedure for determining whether we would have exercised academic freedom is loaded against professors. At UConn you cannot grieve academic freedom by appealing to the state’s Labor Relations Board. That matters, because the existing UConn procedure is not faculty friendly. Rather, a professor’s only recourse is to appeal to a faculty committee designed to check that appropriate procedures were followed in appointments, promotions, and tenure.

The University Senate, a body composed of faculty, students, and administrators, elects that group, the Committee of Three. Senate rules explain,

“The Committee of Three functions in faculty dismissal and grievance procedures. Complaints involving promotion, tenure, and reappointment decisions may be brought to the Committee of Three only at the end of a sequence of peer review procedures, including those of the Faculty Review Board [a body of six tenured professors elected by the Senate]. Other complaints may be brought to the Committee of Three only after appropriate administrative remedies have been exhausted.”

After ruling on whether appropriate procedures have been followed, the Committee of Three’s decision is passed on to the provost and may be referred to the president. I take that to mean, hypothetically, that if the administration had followed appropriate procedures to fire an accused Marxist during the McCarthy period, that fellow could stew in his own juices before he had recourse. However, if the collective bargaining agreement included a neutral procedure to determine whether grievances are justified, that hypothetical professor or the one who made controversial statements about Black Lives Matter would be able to grieve to the state’s Labor Relations Board.

I did not choose my hypothetical cases at random. This past year two black assistant professors of sociology faced significant problems after making statements about racism on Twitter. In each case, at least one white person complained. One of these women changed jobs. The other issued a public apology that appears to have been coordinated with the office of her university president. Such events suggest that the definition of racism is a private opinion and not a scholarly concern even though both professors made statements that can be found in the scholarly literature. That matters, because academics from many disciplines, including sociology, will continue to do research about topics that currently arouse passions and will probably continue to do so for decades. These include racism and women’s right to control their own bodies.

I am not calling for the ability to grieve offenses against academic freedom because I distrust the current administration. It is certainly no worse than, and better than many university administrations that I have known. My problem is that I cannot predict the future. Sure, I can predict that racism will continue to be controversial, but I cannot predict how adamant future administrations will be as they corporatize and solidify their control.

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