Faculty Committee Issues Stinging Report on Academic Freedom Violations at UC San Diego

By on June 9, 2011

"Shocking and appalling" is how UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh summed up an incident described in a report from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) faculty’s Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF). It’s hard to disagree with him.

The report in question, delivered at a May 24 meeting of UCSD’s faculty assembly, lashes the UCSD administration for ordering a UCSD professor to cease his criticisms of the methodology and research of one of his colleagues, or else face sanction. Specifically, the report states:

The complaint arose out of a letter that the professor ("Professor A") received on June 16, 2009 from the dean of an academic unit at UCSD.  The dean told CAF that the letter was drafted with the assistance of lawyers in the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. The letter was cc’d to the Office of Research Affairs and the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. 

The dean’s letter arose out of a long-running academic disagreement between two faculty members (a dispute in which CAF does not take sides).  The dean directed Professor A to cease pursuing a critical re-examination of the other professor’s research and data.  The letter said (we here obfuscate identities):

"You are to stop harassing [Professor B].  This means: stop contacting B with questions regarding [name of B's publication], his/her research methods, or his/her previous research methods; stop contacting others about your re-analysis of his/her data; refrain from discussing … your re-analysis of B’s data at your presentations at any meetings, including scholarly meetings like the [name of professional association]; and do not publish texts that refer to … your re-analysis of B’s data."

The letter also stated: 

"If you continue to engage in these activities, you may be subject to formal discipline, which can include written censure, reduction in salary, demotion, suspension, or dismissal." [Emphasis added.]

While CAF’s report obscures the identities of the parties involved, the San Diego Union-Tribune identifies "Professor A" as UCSD sociology professor Richard Biernacki, with the dean being Jeff Elman, Dean of UCSD’s Division of Social Sciences ("Professor B" remains unknown to us). The Union-Tribune writes that

In June 2009, Biernacki submitted a manuscript titled "Inside the Rituals of Social Science" to Duke University Press. The manuscript examines what Biernacki calls "methodological problems in the field" and critiques the work of other sociologists, including one of Biernacki’s colleagues at UCSD.

It also notes that "Elman wrote Biernacki a letter ordering him not to publish his work or discuss it at professional meetings."

News of the controversy rightly set off alarm bells in the academic community, with Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) telling Inside Higher Ed that "It really is not the business of an administrator to intervene in disputes over scholarship." All of the CAF report is worth reading, but I will include here some of its particularly scathing observations here:

We cannot avoid the conclusion that the dean’s letter contains clear and unacceptable violations of core academic freedom rights, violations that were apparently implicitly or explicitly supported by others in the University administration at the time.   

The dean told CAF that his letter and subsequent actions were a well-intentioned effort to protect reputations and collegial relations, since the letter stemmed from a dispute between two faculty members. However, the UCSD faculty should understand that the dean’s letter did not prohibit just slander, libel, or personal disputes; the dean’s letter prohibited utterance, research, and publication within the academic field of study. [Emphases added.]

Following the oral presentation of CAF’s report, UCSD’s faculty assembly passed a resolution calling for stronger academic freedom protections and better training for administrators on how to respect it. The Union-Tribune notes:

The resolution adopted by the faculty assembly specifically calls on the administration to "promptly and publicly" acknowledge a violation of academic freedom. It also calls for the taking of "concrete steps to better train the appropriate administrators, staff and academics about the nature of academic freedom rights."

The resolution goes on to state: "One goal of this training is to ensure that it is widely understood that prior restraint of scholarship cannot be justified."

The UCSD administration, for its part, was quick to apologize and promise to step up its efforts to ensure full compliance with its own promises of academic freedom. This is good, though it’s deeply concerning that the administration needed such a basic lesson in fostering a healthy academic environment. The AAUP’s Cary Nelson said it well when he told Inside Higher Ed that "People disagree, and out of disagreement sometimes better understanding comes, and sometimes disagreement comes and that’s all…. But if you don’t want faculty fighting, all you have to do is not have faculty."

Schools: University of California, San Diego