Idaho State Faculty Sue University and President Alleging First Amendment Violations

By on February 16, 2012

On Tuesday, a group of faculty members at Idaho State University (ISU) filed a federal lawsuit against their institution and ISU President Arthur C. Vailas, alleging violations of their First Amendment rights. 

The group, called the Idaho State University Faculty Association for the Preservation of the First Amendment, alleges that the university blocked ISU’s Provisional Faculty Senate from sending emails to the entire faculty at ISU, thereby preventing the Provisional Faculty Senate from effectively communicating with its constituents regarding the important matter of a new faculty constitution. The group’s federal complaint further alleges that as a result of this tactic, ISU was able to prepare an alternative faculty constitution that is much more desirable for the university administration and disadvantageous to the faculty. In fact, the administration brazenly deleted one of our country’s best-known and most widely adopted standards for academic freedom from the document.

These developments are the latest in a series of disputes over academic freedom and shared governance between the ISU faculty and President Vailas and the ISU administration. Torch readers may remember that last year, Vailas and the Idaho State Board of Education unilaterally ordered the suspension of the Faculty Senate, ISU’s representative faculty body, and then refused to recognize the activities of the Provisional Faculty Senate, which, as elected by the faculty, returned most of the former senators to the new body. The ISU administration’s actions drew rebukes from both FIRE and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Now, ISU’s faculty seek to have their day in court. 

It is not difficult to see why, as a look through this edited document (.PDF) from the Faculty Senate’s webpage, showing ISU’s changes to the faculty constitution, reveals. The first major thing that should jump out from the administration’s changes is that in the preamble, an entire section on faculty academic freedom, taken largely from the AAUP’s famous 1940 "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," has been removed. That section formerly stated:

Institutions of higher education are established for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual faculty member or the institution as a whole, and the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition through scholarship.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to teaching, research (including scholarly and creative activities), and service. Academic freedom in teaching is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. Academic freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in service is fundamental to the advancement of the common good and the development of educational programs and policies. Academic freedom should not be abridged or abused. Academic freedom carries with it duties correlative with rights.

Faculty are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.

Faculty are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

Faculty are entitled to speak or write freely without institutional discipline or restraint on matters pertaining to faculty governance and development of educational programs and policies.

College and university faculty members are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of the educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

I’d like to know what part of that language ISU’s administration objects to, and why. Again, this section largely tracks the AAUP’s 1940 statement (you can compare it line-by-line here), and that statement is well-respected and widely used. (Indeed, we have previously noted and praised faculty at other schools for using the AAUP statement to strengthen their own institution’s academic freedom policies.) This is pretty well-worn territory, and there isn’t anything all that controversial here—or at least, there ought not to be. I would be very curious to hear ISU’s reasons for axing that section entirely.

You can read the rest of the edited document for yourself to see other instances in which ISU has slashed the rights of its faculty. For instance, under the section entitled "Powers and Authority," faculty are given "primary responsibility on matters of educational policy," which "includes those aspects of student life that relate directly to the educational process." The problem? This provision previously stated that "aspects of student life that relate directly to the educational process" include "the establishment of regulations concerning financial aid, academic performance, extracurricular activities, and freedom of action and expression." However, it no longer provides that. In other words, such considerations, no matter how important they may be, have been removed from the faculty’s purview. Reasonable people might disagree about how much control faculty should have over, say, financial aid, but "academic performance"? Is that really none of the faculty’s business? And what of "freedom of action and expression"? Is that no longer a faculty concern either?

The rights of ISU’s faculty when it comes to academic freedom and shared governance continue to be in peril. Therefore, we will be watching their lawsuit with interest, and we will have updates here on The Torch.

Schools: Idaho State University Cases: Idaho State University: Suspension of Faculty Senate