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What We’re Reading October 2020

This month’s reads include two stories about college presidents defending faculty academic freedom, news about the fallout from faculty publications, and a survey of college students on their free expression views.

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Campus Happenings

Messages to the Community
Will Dudley| Office of the President, Washington and Lee University | September 7, 2020

After a Washington and Lee University professor faced online harassment and threats after media coverage of his first-year writing seminar, “How to Overthrow the State: Historical Lessons from the Global South.” President Dudley wrote he will be “defending the safety of our community members and expressing my unequivocal support for the free exchange of ideas in our classrooms and in the public arena… [The course] studies how revolutionaries have written in order to help students become more powerful and persuasive writers. That is directly in the service of our mission.” WLU School of Law Dean Brant Hellwig also issued a defense of the professor.

‘A Quintessential Example of Trying to Operate Business as Usual’: RAs Call Upon the University to Address Urgent Safety Concerns and Provide Necessary Resources Amid Pandemic
Jacquelyn Kim | Cavalier Daily | September 7, 2020

Resident advisors at the University of Virginia anonymously published a list of demands on Twitter, calling upon Housing and Residence Life to provide RAs with the “necessary resources to fulfill our role and protect ourselves, our residents and the community.” The demands were published anonymously due to a policy interpreted by students as preventing RAs from speaking to the press; the RAs “expressed frustrations with HRL’s blanket restrictions surrounding media coverage, pointing to how the University has previously emphasized the importance of the freedom of speech, particularly in the wake of the white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12 in Charlottesville.” Following a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the University agreed to revise its policy to ensure RAs understand that they are permitted to speak to the media.

Faculty Members Joined a Day of Action to Protest Racial Inequality. Now Two Are in Hot Water.
Emma Pettit | Chronicle of Higher Education | September 21, 2020

Tenured professors at the University of Mississippi and Texas A&M University who participated in the September 8–9 Scholar Strike for Racial Justice by not holding class or office hours are being threatened with termination because of state laws against participation in work stoppages. The faculty countered that their actions were within their scope as faculty. PEN America has issued a statement in support of one of the professors, citing due process and academic freedom.

Academic Freedom Debate Continues
Lynn Mahoney | Office of the President, San Francisco State University | September 23, 2020

In September, Zoom refused to stream a webinar hosted by faculty at San Francisco State University featuring Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government. In response, President Mahoney wrote, “the University remains steadfast in its support of the right of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship free from censorship, in this instance the right of two faculty members to host ‘Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled’ as part of a virtual class. A university can, at the same time, allow its students and faculty the freedom to express contrary, even objectionable, views while also condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, and other hateful ideologies that marginalize people. These are complex issues but universities above all other places should be places to debate and question complexities.”

Iowa College Cans Controversial Play Based on “Peanuts”
Erin Jordan | The Gazette | September 29, 2020

Muscatine Community College administrators cancelled a scheduled production of “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” just days after the school’s Dean of Instruction Jeremy Pickard expressed “concerns” over the play’s adult themes. MCC President Naomi DeWinter advised the play’s director, Alyssa Oltmanns, that the production was cancelled due to coronavirus-related concerns and said that the school lacked “available technical staff” to support a virtual performance. Critics of the cancellation argue that, “Citing public health in canceling a virtual theatre production after the dean of instruction raised concerns about the script’s content is naked pretext to censorship.”

State and Federal Policies

Request for Records and Transcribed Interviews
U.S. Department of Education | October 7, 2020

The Department of Education has notified University of Pittsburgh chancellor that it is investigating the removal of Dr. Norman Wang as the director of a university fellowship program soon after he published an article in the Journal of the American Heart Association arguing for race-neutral admissions to cardiology education. The Department will investigate whether university officials pursued a “campaign of denunciation and cancellation,” misrepresented its commitment to free inquiry and academic freedom, engaged in racial bias against Dr. Wang, and violated its nondiscrimination commitments under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Colleges, Conservatives, and the Kakistocracy
Michael S. Roth | New York Times | September 19, 2020

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth writes about the importance of actively bringing conservative ideas to campus. He writes, “When I talk about the tradition of conservative thinkers, I have in mind those who were skeptical of the powers of a central government, those who felt that a well-ordered society depended on a notion of transcendence, and those who were concerned that even well-intentioned policies to improve peoples’ lives could have unintended consequences that are ruinous… Those streams of thought offer powerful, alternative perspectives on enduring questions. Given the current makeup of the academy, we can’t just hope for them to get a hearing. We have to proactively bring them into the mix.”

Needed: A New Rehearsal Space for Democracy
Andrew Delbanco and Jon Parrish Peede | Inside Higher Ed | September 30, 2020

“Too many students leave college with a blinkered view of the world—trained in this or that specialty but unprepared to reflect on the meaning and purpose of their own lives, and to participate in an informed and deliberative way in the collective life of our nation and the world. A key reason is the decline of general education… The time for reimagining general education is now. The pandemic and the resurgent movement for racial justice raise many deep questions about the power of words and symbols for good or ill, the burden of our history for people of color, the responsibility of individuals for the welfare of others and the problem of ambiguity in the realm of science—to name just a few issues. We need college students to bring both knowledge and empathy to these problems. We need college graduates who speak with civility, listen with respect and know the difference between assertion and argument—and we need them now.”

The Cancel Mob Comes Back for More
Bruce Gilley | Wall Street Journal | October 7, 2020

The author reflects on the last-minute decision by Lexington Press, the academic imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, to reverse its commitment to publish his book, The Last Imperialist: Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire, and to cancel the book series, Problems of Anti-Colonialism, of which his book was to be the inaugural volume. The author argues that an online petition was behind the decision to cancel the book series. “The mob’s takedown of the series shows its importance. The stage actors have appeared right on cue in this dramatization of what ‘decolonizing’ means for free speech. Whatever the fate of our book series, freedom is needed more urgently than ever.”

Big Reads

2020 College Free Speech Rankings
College Pulse, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Real Clear Education | September 29, 2020

For the “largest survey of college students about free speech on their campuses ever conducted,” FIRE partnered with Real Clear Education to commission a College Pulse poll of nearly 20,000 students about the climate for open inquiry and free exchange at their schools. In addition to ranking institutions’ free expression culture (the University of Chicago earning best marks, DePauw University coming in last), the survey also gathered data about campus attitudes. Among the findings: “While 57% of students say their college would defend a speaker’s right to express his or her views in the case of a controversy over ‘offensive’ expression, a disturbingly large minority, 42%, believe their college would punish the speaker for making the statement.”