Tag Archives: Academic Freedom

UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power.

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A letter from the University of Chicago’s dean of students to the incoming students of the class of 2020 has been making the rounds on social media the past few days. Its purpose, I guess, was to let those students know they were in for a real education. More of a full-on broadside than a welcome letter, the dean let the incoming students know that the university is totally committed to academic freedom and "freedom of expression" from its faculty and students.

What this means in practice, the letter continues, is that "we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." And, if you’ve watched students at other campuses, the dean warns, don’t get any crazy ideas about protesting invited speakers: "we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial." And, for the love of Milton Friedman, "Our commitment to academic freedom means we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings.’" WE ARE A MIGHTY RACE OF INTELLECTUAL WARRIORS.

I’ve been teaching on the college level for 18 years, and I also direct my university’s Teaching and Learning Center, so I’ve been following the debate over "trigger warnings," "safe spaces," and the purported scourge of "political correctness" for quite a while. Despite the apocalyptic tone that often accompanies screeds against supposedly coddled students and their trigger-free safe spaces, the issues involved strike me as far more complicated than the overheated rhetoric suggests.

As with any conversation about teaching and learning, context and nuance matter greatly — but they’re not present in most of the critics’ attempted takedowns of trigger warnings (better called "content advisories," in my estimation) or safe spaces.

Students deserve much more credit than they get in the UChicago letter

I’m dismayed by how diatribes like the Chicago letter approach students in adversarial terms, implying that they don’t know how to make choices or approach material when it comes to their learning. Our students deserve more credit than they get in these types of polemics; as I’ve argued elsewhere, they are far from the coddled, entitled softies that they’re often painted as. Rather than obsessing about a cartoonish version of what some hypothetical Oberlin graduate might say, we ought to engage with our students as the real and complex people that they actually are.

As you might imagine, though, there’s been a wave of support from the usual quarters for the Chicago letter and its sentiments; I assume that’s what such a blatant attempt at elitist posturing was aiming for in the first place. On the surface, the points seem hard to argue with.

Academic freedom is the sine qua non of higher education. Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own. No one who genuinely believes in higher education is going to dispute any of that. And that’s what this dean and the anti-trigger-warnings, no-safe-spaces crowd are counting on — that the surface veneer of reasonableness in these admonitions to the class of 2020 will obscure the rotten pedagogy and logical fallacies that infest this entire screed.

The screed is a manifesto looking for an audience

Even the timing of this missive raises questions. Why go full blast against this purported scourge of wimpy, touchy-feely educational malpractice right up front? Is there a safe-spaces petition percolating in the ranks of the first-years? Are the dean and the university worried that people will lose respect for the almighty maroon if they didn’t stake out the tough-guy intellectual turf from the beginning? Did they sit around and ask themselves what Milton Friedman would have done?

From the outside, it looks like a lot of smoke without much heat. I suspect that this letter is not intended as an orientation statement, but rather a public rebuke to what its authors see as a threat to their vision of what higher education ought to be. It’s not a welcome letter, it’s a manifesto looking for an audience.

And as a statement of principle, the letter — as does much of the general argument against trigger warnings and safe spaces — relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance. The document comes from a place, I imagine, where the true defenders of Academic Rigor™ man the parapets against the encroaching legions of namby-pamby liberals who want to coddle students instead of teach them.

Ohhh, you want a safe space so the mean nasty Truths of the world won’t hurt your wittle feewings. You want to be "warned" before we discuss "sensitive" subjects. WELL HEY JUNIOR, "WAR AND PEACE" HAS WAR IN IT. If you don’t like it, go sit on the quad and sing "Kumbayah" with the other flower children.

That’s the specter that arguments like this conjure up: The greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within. Coddled students who are used to getting trophies for everything don’t want to engage with stuff they don’t like, so they wrap themselves in entitlement and demand trigger warnings to protect their feelz. Or they want safe spaces to hide from the big, bad world. Or they want the university to cancel a lecture because the speaker is from the wrong demographic. And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse.

That’s a comforting narrative to the academic elite who feel like they’re faced with an existential crisis. Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy. And there’s an audience for this fiction — people still read Allan Bloom. But as critiques of inequality have shown time and again, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called "political correctness" in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and — most significantly — the student population.

What’s really behind the hand-wringing: the gatekeepers want to remain in place

Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place. The perception of the threat is entirely out of alignment with the reality on the ground. For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives.

If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do? And what does it cost? A student may choose an alternate text I provide, but this material isn’t savagely ripped out of my course to satiate the PC police.

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos.

Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social Darwinist assertions that certain "races" are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

These two examples — one centered in an individual classroom and the other involving institutional decisions — speak to the diversity and complexity of the issues involved. It’s easy to inveigh against silly scenarios. It’s much harder to address real things that really happen. Do I tell my student that, even though she was the victim of a brutal assault in her past, she must read testimony of gang-rape survivors in my course in order to uphold the sacred values of free intellectual inquiry?

Sure, Charles Murray has a right to his views. But is it okay for us to use student fees paid in part by African-American students to bring him to campus, fête him, and give him a rostrum to tell those students they’re doomed by genetics to be inferior to whites? Well, he makes a strong argument and isn’t bound by conventional "niceties." Yes, that’s true. But that’s also the reason people claim to like Donald Trump, and I don’t see universities lining up to bring him in as a guest lecturer.

Ignoring the complexity of real-life situations is a common accusation hurled at academics and the academy in general. Why on earth would we be so eager, in this case, to prove those accusations true? To prevent imaginary sit-down strikes against Victorian literature, we’re willing to force students into a predetermined path where to deviate is to compromise academic integrity? Are we so scared of losing the intellectual heft of our curricula that we want to muzzle our students and deprive them of agency?

Or are we just afraid of our students challenging us and holding us accountable to the very values we profess?

Our first reaction to expressions of student agency should not be to shut them down

As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value — and it isn’t them.

The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset — in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat, but an opportunity. Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students.

Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting — from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.

Kevin Gannon, PhD, is professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to his own blog at thetattooedprof.com, he writes on pedagogy and academia at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae and the Teaching US History blog. Find him on Twitter @TheTattooedProf.

This article was adapted from a post that originally ran on The Tattooed Professor.

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The Perils of Writing a Provocative Email at Yale

Last fall, student protesters at Yale University demanded that Professor Nicholas Christakis, an academic star who has successfully mentored Ivy League undergraduates for years, step down from his position as faculty-in-residence at Silliman College, along with his wife, Erika Christakis, who shared in the job’s duties.

The protesters had taken offense at an email sent by Erika Christakis.

Dogged by the controversy for months, the couple finally resigned their posts Wednesday. Because the student protests against them were prompted by intellectual speech bearing directly on Erika Christakis’s area of academic expertise, the outcome will prompt other educators at Yale to reflect on their own positions and what they might do or say to trigger or avoid calls for their own resignations. If they feel less inclined toward intellectual engagement at Yale, I wouldn’t blame them.

Nicholas Christakis will continue on as a tenured Yale faculty member. Erika Christakis, who gave up teaching at Yale last semester, recently published a book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.

She has no future classes scheduled.

The controversy that culminated in this week’s resignations began last October, when Erika Christakis was teaching a Yale class called “Concept of the Problem Child.

An expert in early childhood education, she’s long been critical of ways that adults deprive children of learning experiences by over-policing their behavior. When Yale administrators sent an all-students email advising Yalies to avoid “culturally unaware or insensitive choices” when choosing their Halloween costumes, Erika Christakis responded with an email of her own, acknowledging “genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” lauding the “spirit of avoiding hurt and offense,” but questioning  whether students were well-served by administrators asserting norms rather than giving them space to shape their own.

“Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” she asked. “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment? Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.”

Many students were outraged by the email, particularly a portion that Erika Christakis attributed to her husband: “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Student critics responded, in part, by circulating a petition that accumulated scores of signatures from Yale students and alumni. “You ask students to ‘look away’ if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore,” the petition stated, adding that “we were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding.”

The petition assumes that offensive Halloween costumes beget violence; proceeds as if Nicholas Christakis simply advised students to ignore all offensive costumes; acknowledges in the next clause that, in fact, he also declared, “or tell them you are offended;” and most bizarrely, concludes as if Ivy League students advised to “talk to each other,” the most straightforward of human behaviors, somehow need further counsel on “modes or means to facilitate these discussions,” as if they are Martians unfamiliar with talking to classmates—even as they put forth a persuasive petition aimed at those same classmates.

Soon after his wife sent her email, Nicholas Christakis found himself standing on a campus quad surrounded by protesters. He attempted to respond in person to their concerns. After watching videos of the scene, I noted the core disagreement between the professor and the undergraduates. Christakis believed that he had an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to respond that he was persuaded or articulate why he maintained a different view. In short, he believed that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue.

Many students believed that his responsibility was to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They saw anything short of a declaration of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respected students by validating their hurt feelings.

Their perspective was informed by the idea that their residential college is akin to a home. At Yale, residential colleges have what was then called a “master”—a professor who lives on site and is responsible for its academic, intellectual, and social life.  “Masters work with students to shape each residential college community,” Yale stated, “bringing their own distinct social, cultural, and intellectual influences to the colleges.” The approach is far costlier than what’s on offer at commuter schools, but aims to create a richer intellectual environment where undergrads can learn from faculty and one another even outside the classroom.

“In your position as master,” one student said, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”

“No,” Christakis said, “I don’t agree with that.”

As he saw it, there was no contradiction between creating a safe residence for Silliman students and challenging them intellectually, a view Yale itself officially shares (though what its representatives convey to prospective students is opaque to outsiders).

Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor University published one of the more insightful posts on this aspect of the controversy, observing that any Yale student seeking an environment akin to a home is bound to be disappointed, because their residential colleges are, by design, places where “people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space,” he added, “though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship.”

Homes are typically places where parents instill their own values in kids whose formative experiences they shape, or where domestic partners who bonded over shared values cohabitate. Insofar as Yale includes students from diverse homes, it will be unlike an actual home, and should acknowledge that reality to all of its students. Learning to live away from home by tolerating difference is part of campus life.

In that October confrontation, the student demanding a comfortable home exploded when Christakis articulated an educator’s understanding of his role. “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?!” she screamed. “Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”

The student concluded with a hateful statement: “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!” It was, by all accounts, an out-of-character outburst from an intelligent, normally thoughtful person in a moment of high emotion, but when video of her tirade was posted online, she was mercilessly harassed by trolls, some of whom used racial epithets and threatened to kill her. The Christakises, who defended that student, were subject to anonymous abuse and online threats, as well.

The ire that student activists directed at the couple is inseparable from the larger protest movement that roiled American campuses last fall. Many black students at Yale felt that the institution has failed to create an inclusive environment on campus, citing grievances as varied as the presence of residential college named for John C. Calhoun, who advocated for slavery in Congress, and the allegation that Yale security guards disproportionately forced students of color to show their IDs on campus.

The vast majority of grievances had nothing to do with Nicholas or Erika Christakis. Many were far more persuasive than any critiques aimed at the couple. Nor does their resignation do anything to address those grievances. Some activists nevertheless cast the couple as symbols of what was wrong with Yale, an injustice noted by a group of faculty members who came to their defense. “In the case of the Christakises, their work has been more directly oriented toward the social justice than the work of many other members of the Yale faculty,” they wrote. “For example, Nicholas Christakis worked for many years as a hospice doctor, making house visits to underserved populations in Chicago. Progressive values and social justice are not advanced by scapegoating those who share those values.”

With regard to Erika Christakis’s email, the faculty members declared themselves “deeply troubled that this modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision has been misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech; and hence as justification for demanding the resignation of our colleagues from their posts at Silliman.”  

But relatively few humanities professors signed that letter of support.

And when drafting the letter, the physics professor Douglas Stone found himself warned by faculty colleagues that he was putting himself at risk of being protested.

At Yale, I encountered students and faculty members who supported the Christakises but refused to say so on the record, and others who criticized them, but only anonymously. On both sides, people with perfectly mainstream opinions shared them with a journalist but declined to put their name behind them due to a campus climate where anyone could conceivably be the next object of ire and public shaming. Insufficient tolerance for disagreement is undermining campus discourse.

Off campus, many pundits published misrepresentations of Christakis’s email in the press. Without extraordinary support from colleagues or a change of heart among activists, some of whom vilified the couple out of solidarity rather than conviction, staying in residential life—which they could have chosen to do—would have assured ongoing conflict, further efforts to force their resignation, and more distractions from their scholarship. “At Silliman College’s graduation ceremony,” the Yale Daily News reported, “some students refused to accept their diplomas from Nicholas Christakis.” Why put yourself through treatment like that?  

On the other hand, their resignations all but assure that others at Yale will regard surviving a speech controversy as less viable and curtail their intellectual engagement.

The statement put out by the couple characteristically declined to criticize anyone at the institution. “Erika and I have devoted our professional lives to advocating for all young people. We have great respect for every member of our community, friend and critic alike,” Nicholas Christakis wrote. “We remain hopeful that students at Yale can express themselves and engage complex ideas within an intellectually plural community.  But we feel it is time to return full-time to our respective fields.”

They declined to comment further.

When Yale’s history is written, they should be regarded as collateral damage harmed by people who abstracted away their humanity. Yale activists felt failed by their institution and took out their frustration on two undeserving scapegoats who had only recently arrived there. Students who profess a belief in the importance of feeling safe at home marched on their house, scrawled angry messages in chalk beneath their bedroom window, hurled shouted insults and epithets, called for their jobs, and refused to shake their hands even months later, all over one email. And the couple’s ultimate resignation does nothing to improve campus climate.

What a waste.

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10 Revealing Details in the Melissa Click Investigation

A report commissioned by the university’s board sheds light on what happened before and after the professor’s infamous confrontation at a protest on the flagship’s quad.

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Accreditor demands answers from Mount St. Mary’s on numerous standards

In June, Mount St. Mary’s University received reaffirmation of its accreditation, with strong reviews, from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

But after a month of controversy at the Maryland institution, Middle States may be having second thoughts. It has told the university that it must provide answers by March 15 to questions about how “recent developments” may “have implications for continued compliance” with one requirement and four standards that are crucial to being accredited. And the standards in question aren’t minor technical issues, but core requirements on issues such as integrity, admissions and the way faculty members are treated.

The Mount St. Mary’s campus has been in turmoil since word leaked last month through The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper, that President Simon Newman had compared struggling students to bunnies that need to be drowned or killed with a Glock. The metaphor grabbed attention, but educators said the underlying debate was what really mattered.

Newman had proposed to use a survey — on which freshmen would be told there were no wrong answers — to identify those at risk of dropping out and to encourage them to do so in the first weeks of the semester. The idea was to raise the university’s retention rate, since those who leave very early in the semester don’t count in the total enrollment figures. Many professors and some administrators protested the plan, saying that the university has an obligation to try to educate those it admits.

For those just catching up on the controversy, here is an article about the initial report on the now infamous bunnies metaphor, an article on the firing of two faculty members who opposed Newman (and whom he subsequently reinstated), and another piece on growing national outrage. Throughout the furor, many have asked who has the authority to stop what they view as a deeply flawed president who has the backing (at least to date) of his board.

The answer may well be the Middle States accreditor. While Simon can ignore a request by the faculty that he resign (as he appears to be doing), he can’t ignore any subsequent finding from Middle States that some of his actions raise questions about institutional eligibility for accreditation.

A spokesman for the university released the following statement on the inquiry from the accreditor: "We are in receipt of an inquiry from Middle States and will be providing a reply according to their timeline. In June of 2015, Mount St. Mary’s University received the highest accolades when our accreditor reaffirmed our accreditation with no concerns. We welcome their recent request and are addressing it through the appropriate university channels."

Middle States has (in public on its website) only specified the standards on which it wants answers from Mount St. Mary’s; it hasn’t said that various actions specifically violate those standards. But reading the standards, there are phrases and provisions that appear to faculty members to be relevant to what has happened at the university. While faculty members continue to fear talking with their names quoted, given the recent firings, they say that they are encouraged that the accreditor is asking questions.

Here are some of the provisions about which Middle States has asked for a report from Mount St. Mary’s and why they could be significant:

  • Integrity. The integrity standards say: “In all its activities, whether internal or external, an institution should keep its promises, honor its contracts and commitments, and represent itself truthfully.” Faculty members say that this was violated when the college gave new students a survey without explaining its use, when faculty members were fired in violations of their contracts and when administrators said faculty members had broken university rules. The integrity provision also states that faculty members have the right “to question assumptions,” something faculty members say the university violated by criticizing professors for disagreeing with the president and not showing sufficient loyalty.
  • Admissions and retention. The standards state that colleges must have “programs and services to ensure that admitted students who marginally meet or do not meet the institution’s qualifications achieve expected learning goals and higher education outcomes at appropriate points.” Critics say that planning to weed out such students with a survey given before they started class violates that standard. Faculty members also note that the Middle States standards invite colleges to provide “evidence that support programs and services for low-achieving students are effective in helping students to persist and to achieve learning goals and higher education outcomes.” The implication of this language, professors say, is that the college is supposed to be committed to helping students persist, not trying to get them to leave.
  • Faculty. The standards require colleges to have “published and implemented standards and procedures for all faculty and other professionals, for actions such as appointment, promotion, tenure, grievance, discipline and dismissal, based on principles of fairness with due regard for the rights of all persons.” Faculty members said that while “published” rules at the colleges may provide for a faculty role in evaluating faculty members, Simon fired people without any faculty role or without any fair rationale. Further, they note that while the president rehired the faculty members, he cited “mercy” as the reason for doing so, suggesting there was nothing wrong with the dismissals.
  • Leadership and governance. The standards say that colleges must have “a climate of shared collegial governance in which all constituencies (such as faculty, administration, staff, students and governing board members, as determined by each institution) involved in carrying out the institution’s mission and goals participate in the governance function in a manner appropriate to that institution. Institutions should seek to create a governance environment in which issues concerning mission, vision, program planning, resource allocation and others, as appropriate, can be discussed openly by those who are responsible for each activity.” Faculty members say this has been violated by firing faculty members who disagree with the president, and by removing administrators and faculty members who don’t share the president’s apparent vision of a lesser emphasis on the liberal arts in the curriculum.
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