FIRE Letter to North Shore Community College President Wayne Burton

By on March 27, 2009

March 27, 2009

Wayne Burton, President
President’s Office
North Shore Community College
1 Ferncroft Road
Danvers, Massachusetts 01923

Sent by U.S. Mail and Facsimile (978-762-4020)

Dear President Burton:

As you can see from the list of our Directors and Board of Advisors, FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, due process, legal equality, freedom of association, religious liberty and, in this case, freedom of speech and conscience on America’s college campuses. Our website, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is concerned about the threat to freedom of conscience posed by North Shore Community College’s (NSCC’s) job announcement requiring “Appreciation of multiculturalism” for a full-time faculty member in NSCC’s English Department. This requirement imposes a political litmus test on job candidates and forces a faculty member to maintain a fundamental viewpoint with which he or she might not agree.

NSCC’s Position Opening announcement for this faculty position, online at http://www.northshore.edu/includes/jobs/data/227F01C785672F6B8B7A3D5189C333EB.pdf and dated March 19, 2009, primarily involves “teaching writing courses (Composition 1 & Composition 2) and literature courses such as World Literature.” The announcement lists the following under “Qualifications”:

• Master’s degree required. Master’s in English preferred; closely related fields considered. Composition Specialist preferred.

• Experience teaching composition courses in community college preferred.

• Interest in and ability to teach online courses strongly preferred.

• Appreciation of multiculturalism required.

• Successful experience interacting with culturally diverse populations required.

• Knowledge of and experience with multimedia technology preferred.

The evaluative criterion “Appreciation of multiculturalism required” not only unacceptably interferes with potential and actual faculty members’ moral and intellectual agency, but is also so vague as to cause confusion and invite abuse. Although requiring candidates to acknowledge and demonstrate this “appreciation” may seem admirable and innocuous, in practice this requirement amounts to an ideological loyalty oath to an entirely abstract concept-”multiculturalism”-that can represent vastly different things to different people. This flexibility might seem to be a virtue until a professor realizes that he or she is to be judged on the existence of his or her “appreciation” of such an abstract concept. “Multiculturalism,” in current academic life, reflects a worldview that very commonly involves a particular set of opinions on topics such as race and ethnicity-topics on which reasonable scholars strongly disagree.

If NSCC truly believes in tolerance (leaving aside issues of academic freedom) it simply cannot require professors to adhere to a political orthodoxy, no matter how much the college may believe in the tenets of that orthodoxy and wish others to embrace those tenets. Professors are fully able to meet NSCC’s stated mission of “Blending tradition and innovation, liberal arts and career preparation, intellectual development and cultural and personal growth [to] foster a diverse and caring community of learners where all are welcome and each is challenged” whether or not they “appreciat[e]” whatever NSCC means by “multiculturalism.”

As a public institution, NSCC is legally and morally bound by the First Amendment and the decisions of the Supreme Court concerning academic freedom at public colleges and universities. In Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967) the Supreme Court noted that “[o]ur Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.” This being the case, the Court further explained that the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom . . . [which] is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” In the landmark case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943) the Court made clear the importance of freedom of conscience in our liberal democracy: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The Court concluded that “the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution” was precisely to protect “from all official control” the domain that was “the sphere of intellect and spirit.”

That the First Amendment’s protections fully extend to public colleges like NSCC is settled law. See, e.g., Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. at 605-06 (“[W]e have recognized that the university is a traditional sphere of free expression so fundamental to the functioning of our society that the Government’s ability to control speech within that sphere by means of conditions attached to the expenditure of Government funds is restricted by the vagueness and overbreadth doctrines of the First Amendment”); Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (citation omitted) (“[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, ‘the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools’”).

Furthermore, dictating political beliefs by requiring that faculty demonstrate appreciation of multiculturalism opposes the principles and statements of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP guidelines of 1915 state:

To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation or promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow-experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars in an unadulterated form the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish. (Emphasis added.)

In short, universities must not tell their professors what they must believe, or even what they should believe, lest the whole process of intellectual inquiry and innovation end before it even starts. Does NSCC disagree with this formulation of a professor’s right to think and teach as he or she will? Would NSCC fire a professor hired to teach Composition 1 and 2 who genuinely changed his or her mind about appreciating multiculturalism? By requiring candidates for this position to demonstrate appreciation of multiculturalism, NSCC impermissibly forces individuals to confess both by word and by act their faith in the opinion that multiculturalism is appreciated in their teaching and academic life. Does NSCC truly wish to violate academic, moral, and constitutional prohibitions against such coercion?

The AAUP further noted, “It is not only the character of the instruction but also the character of the instructor that counts; and if the student has reason to believe that the instructor is not true to himself, the virtue of the instruction as an educative force is incalculably diminished. There must be in the mind of the teacher no mental reservation. He must give the student the best of what he has and what he is.” Must instructors at NSCC who do not share the college’s assumptions about multiculturalism be made an exception to that ringing declaration of the meaning and value of true academic freedom?

This requirement, in short, requires professors to affirm a belief in a particular worldview. This is no different from requiring that instructors demonstrate their belief in Americanism, empiricism, biological determinism, or creationism. These may be perfectly valid intellectual viewpoints, but viewpoints may not be imposed at a public institution (and should not be imposed by any institution devoted to academic freedom) by fiat through official requirements.

Accordingly, FIRE would defend with equal fervor the rights of faculty at NSCC and elsewhere to be protected from prohibitions against appreciation for multiculturalism, or inquisitions into their love of country or celebration of Americanism if, in a change of ideological climate, a public college sought to demand such conformity. NSCC has a right to evaluate a candidate with broad discretion, but its inquisition into appreciation for multiculturalism, as stated above, imposes one fashionable agenda among many, reflecting an unacceptable orthodoxy that intrudes upon the private thought and conscience of free individuals in a free society. This truly does violate the college’s constitutional obligation to content neutrality, and it truly is a “loyalty oath” inimical to academic and intellectual freedom.

It is a human failing common to us all that we rarely see our own abuses of power, and no one, right, left, or center, is innocent of that failing. Once these abuses are called to consciousness, however, it becomes a moral imperative to restrain ourselves and to grant to others the academic freedom that we would demand for ourselves. The sad days of “loyalty oaths” to political ideologies have already once darkened the academy. Let us not revive them ourselves or tolerate their resurrection by others.

We ask that this position announcement be revised to accord with the First Amendment and common sense.

FIRE hopes to resolve this situation amicably and swiftly; we are, however, prepared to use all of our resources to see this situation through to a just conclusion. We request a response by April 17, 2009.

 

Sincerely,

Adam Kissel

Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

 

cc:

Maureen S. O’Neill, Dean of Liberal Studies

Paul Frydrych, Vice President for Academic Affairs

Patricia DePamphilis, Human Resources

Susan Jhirad, Department Chair, English Department

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Schools: North Shore Community College Cases: North Shore Community College: Ideological Litmus Testing for Job Candidates