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What We’re Reading September 2020

Students are back in school, even if only remotely. Two of our reads this month address controversies that arose from remote classrooms: a professor suspended from teaching an online language class after using a Chinese phrase that sounds like a racial slur and a graduate student facing campus charges after fallout from his choice of Zoom background. Freedom of expression includes freedom to express views grounded in religious identity, and we take you to a university campus where a campus president responds to a student government leader leaving office after her beliefs sparked controversy.

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Campus Happenings

Letter to the University of Southern California Community
Carol L. Folt | Office of the President, University of Southern California | August 6, 2020

In response to the resignation of the USC student body vice president in the face of harassment for her pro-Israel views, President Folt wrote, “I believe it is critically important to state explicitly and unequivocally that anti-Semitism in all of its forms is a profound betrayal of our principles and has no place at the university. We must condemn any bias or prejudice that is based on a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristic. What happened to Rose Ritch is unacceptable.”

Whose Music Theory?
Colleen Flaherty | Inside Higher Ed | August 7, 2020

University of North Texas administrators have appointed a faculty panel to investigate the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, a peer-reviewed music theory journal published at UNT. The investigation began after a scholar criticized 19th century music theorist Heinrich Schenker as an “ardent racist and German nationalist,” and the journal responded with an issue devoted to a symposium of responses. The issue spurred groups of UNT music graduate students and faculty to call for the university to dissolve the journal, identify an anonymous contributor to the symposium, and fire its faculty editor for creating a “platform to promote racism.”

Five of Six Charges Dropped Against Stockton Student Whose Trump Zoom Background Caused Stir
Claire Lowe | The Press of Atlantic City | August 12, 2020

“Stockton University has rescinded five of the six charges in a complaint against a doctoral student over a Facebook post that stemmed from backlash over his use of a Zoom background of President Donald Trump.” A classmate filed a complaint with administrators after reading the post, which criticized “the leftist agenda of Black Lives Matter and the white self haters [sic].” After investigating, administrators dropped charges of discrimination, harassment, creating a hostile environment, causing harm, and cyberbullying. A charge of disruptive behavior still stands, carrying a minimum penalty of one semester probation, 20 hours of community service, attending a workshop, and a $50 fine.

USC Professor Placed on Leave for Using Chinese Expression that Sounds like N-word
Lee Brown | New York Post | September 6, 2020

“Professor Greg Patton was giving a virtual Zoom class to his students at the University of Southern California discussing how different cultures use filler words instead of ‘ums and errs’ to take pauses while talking. He noted how in China people tend to say ‘nèi ge,’ the word for ‘that,’ which he pronounced as ‘Neh-ga,’ video of the class shows.” Administrators suspended the professor after a coalition of students wrote that the incident had affected their mental health and created an “unwelcome environment” for Black students. A petition signed by over 20,000 people demands that Professor Patton be reinstated.

State and Federal Policies

Campus Free Speech Restoration Act
S. 4438, the Campus Free Speech Restoration Act | Introduced August 6, 2020

Introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), this bill would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 and apply to public higher education institutions. The bill bans free speech zones and any other restriction to lawful speech unless those restrictions are narrowly tailored, viewpoint-neutral, provide “alternative channels of communication,” allow for “spontaneous assembly and distribution of literature,” and fulfill a compelling state interest. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Delivers on Promise to Protect Free Inquiry and Religious Liberty
Press Release | Department of Education | September 9, 2020

The Department of Education announced an “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities” final rule, which implements Executive Order 13864, Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities. Under the rule, public institutions must comply with the First Amendment and private institutions must abide by their free expression policies in order to be eligible for grants (federal student aid is not at issue in the rule). The department will use final, non-default state or federal court judgements to determine if a school has violated the rule. Further, the rule requires public institutions to ensure religious student groups enjoy the same rights, benefits, and privileges as other student groups. The rule will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Provost Reprimanded for Using Word “Mantra,” Cited as Biased Against Buddhists
Christian Schneider | College Fix | August 6, 2020

As part of a wider investigation of bias response teams, the author reviewed over 100 incident reports filed with the University of Washington Bias Reporting System since 2019. Some of the reports were complaints against: a provost for emailing “With ‘access and excellence’ as our mantra…” since “mantra” is a religious term that should not be used with “nonchalance”; a fellow student for writing in a fundraising email that without his education he would be “just another sandwich artisan working at a local deli,” since the phrase “sandwich artisan” “disparages… an honest line of work”; a student who twice reported his Black professor for using the word “cracker,” which was “verbal assault”; and an Affirmative Action Bakesale, which constituted “written assault.”

Free Speech Absolutism Killed Free Speech
Tony Woodlief | Wall Street Journal | August 30, 2020

“We’re seeing free speech driven from campuses, in other words, because our unthinking commitment to it has kept us from constraining radicals who use their classrooms and administrative perches to persuade the young that freedom is a fiction. …The solution is not to issue more bromides about the importance of free speech. It’s to take the principle itself more seriously. Mill believed heretics should be heard, not put in charge of classrooms and permitted to create despotic speech codes. Everybody should be allowed to express his views, but that doesn’t require us to empower and elevate people who would afford themselves the right to speak and take it from everybody else.”

Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
John McWhorter | The Atlantic | September 1, 2020

“To the extent that the new progressives acknowledge that some prominent people have been unfairly tarred… they often insist that these are mere one-off detours rather than symptoms of a general cultural sea change. …However, hard evidence points to a different reality.” The author analyzes trends in 150 recent email conversations he has had with academics and highlights a recent Heterodox Academy survey of 445 members where nearly 60% said they are “concerned” or “extremely concerned” that publicly expressing opinions on controversial subjects would tarnish their reputations.

Big Reads

Closed Minds? Is Cancel Culture Stifling Academic Freedom and Intellectual Debate in Political Science?
Pippa Norris | Social Science Research Network | August 5, 2020

A new study, analyzing survey responses from over 2,00 academics in 102 countries, documents cancel culture in academe, with findings about how it varies around the globe: “Models suggest that in the United States, and in 23 comparable post-industrial societies, self-identified rightwing political scientists were most likely to report personal experience of a worsening cancel culture. By contrast, among those studying and working in universities and colleges in the 78 developing societies, it was the self-identified leftwing scholars who reported a worsening cancel culture.”