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What We’re Reading: August 2019

While students are away from campus, the summer has been marked by disagreement about faculty and teaching assistants’ freedom to make statements or use language viewed as offensive. One focus of these discussions has been University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Amy Wax, and whether she should be disciplined for controversial comments at a conference of conservatives. Wax’s comments drew a pair of posts at Academe Blog by Keith E. Whittington, author of the 2018 book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, and Hank Reichman, author of the 2019 book The Future of Academic Freedom.

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Campus Happenings

UCSB Teaching Assistant Under Fire from Colleagues, Students for Transphobic Tweets

Evelyn Spence | Daily Nexus | July 2, 2019

A controversy has erupted at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Should First Amendment and academic freedom protections allow a doctoral candidate in feminist studies who questions the existence of transgender identities to continue to serve as a teaching assistant?

N-Word at the New School

Colleen Flaherty | Inside Higher Ed | August 7, 2019

The New School has opened an investigation of faculty member Laurie Sheck, after a complaint about her use of a derogatory term in a classroom discussion of African American scholar James Baldwin’s own use of that term.

State and Federal Policies

More States Are Passing Campus Free-Speech Laws. Are They Needed, or Is the Crisis Talk Overblown?

Katherine Mangan | Chronicle of Higher Education | July 23, 2019 (paywall)

“More than a dozen states are now extending such protections to public-college campuses. So what gives? If free speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment, why are so many states in a rush to enact bills doubling down on those protections?”

Even ‘Offensive’ Publications Have Free Speech Rights

Doug Lederman | Inside Higher Ed | July 25, 2019

If a public university allows student publications to compete with other student groups for funds, barring the publication in retaliation for content it published violates its free press and free speech rights, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.”

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender

José Luis Bermudez and eleven others | Inside Higher Ed | July 22, 2019

“Recent conversations among academic philosophers have given traction to proposals to censure or silence colleagues who advocate certain positions in these discussions, such as skepticism about the concept of gender identity or opposition to replacing biological sex with gender identity in institutional policy making. … We, all scholars in philosophy at universities in Europe, North America and Australia, oppose such sanctioning.”

Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’: How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics

Will E. Young | Washington Post | July 24, 2019

“I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought?”

Academic Freedom, Even for Amy Wax

Keith E. Whittington | Academe Blog | July 28, 2019

“There are limits to academic freedom, but Wax’s critics have not yet shown she has crossed them. …  All we have is the argument that she holds bad opinions, that her normative values are contrary to the normative values of university administrators, and that she makes students uncomfortable because her opinions reflect on them.”

Amy Wax, Academic Freedom, “Official” Positions and the “Fitness” Standard

Hank Reichman | Academe Blog | July 29, 2019

“As a general rule, all public comments made by faculty members as citizens, whether controversial, indisputable, or merely innocuous, never ‘represent’ the institution. … Still, in cases where certain fundamental institutional commitments central to fulfillment of higher education’s mission are concerned, condemnation may be necessary… And the Wax case may be such a case.”

The Purely Imaginary ‘Rightward Transformation’ in Higher Education

Phillip W. Magness | James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal | July 31, 2019

“All empirical measures show an academy that is moving sharply and rapidly to the political left. … In noting this empirical reality, I make no claims about the ‘proper’ level of ideological balance in higher ed. Intellectual diversity does appear to carry value onto itself by breaking up ideological echo chambers and subjecting research to scrutiny from outside perspectives.”

Big Reads

Ideological Diversity, Hostility, and Discrimination in Philosophy

Uwe Peters et al. | PhilPapers | forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology

An analysis of an international survey of philosophers finds that respondents were predominantly left-leaning in their political ideology; many reported experiencing hostility from colleagues based on their ideology; and a significant minority were willing to discriminate against colleagues with a different ideology.

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