Victory for Academic Freedom at University of California–Santa Barbara

By June 26, 2009

University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) has notified Professor William Robinson that it is no longer pursuing charges against him for sending an e-mail to his Sociology of Globalization class which offended students and critics both within and outside the university. Exactly two weeks after FIRE wrote UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, the university’s Charges Committee reported that it "did not find probable cause to undertake disciplinary action." Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas informed Robinson that "this matter is now terminated." This is a victory for all faculty members at UCSB, who now are less likely to self-censor in fear that complaints about their relevant class communications might be transformed into unconstitutional months-long investigations.

As Greg summed up the case in The Huffington Post:

Stripped of the jargon of sociology and the politicization of the issue by both sides, the question becomes whether or not the professor in what essentially amounts to a global politics class can give his opinions about global politics. While many of his critics would prefer to see the Professor Robinsons of the world denied this right, in the end, we all benefit from classroom and academic discussions in which the exchange of ideas is as free as possible.

Several major national organizations that pay close attention to academic freedom agreed with us. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote Yang in May with concerns about the principles of academic freedom and academic due process implicated in the case. The ACLU of Southern California also was just about to get involved on Robinson’s side. The National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles chapter, also wrote Yang on June 18, stating that "the clarity of the law and reason … dictate [that] the charges against Prof. Robinson should be dismissed, indeed, [should] never [have been] accepted for investigation in the first place."

Oddly, as Wednesday’s press release from the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB (SB4AF) reports, the faculty’s Ad Hoc Charges Committee had decided the matter on May 15, nearly six weeks before a final decision was made and Robinson was notified. Why? The answer is simple: the UCSB faculty does not have the only say in whether charges against a faculty member will be carried forward to the next stage in the process.

According to UCSB’s Campus Procedures for Enforcement of the Faculty Code of Conduct, section 6(a):

The Charges Committee shall determine whether any of the allegations in the complaint, if true, would constitute a violation of the Faculty Code of Conduct. If it determines that none of them would, it shall transmit the complaint, with its findings, to the Chancellor. If the Chancellor also concludes that none of them would, the matter is terminated.

This means that for nearly six weeks, if SB4AF is correct, the official faculty opinion was in Robinson’s favor but the Chancellor’s office continued to deliberate. Why? UCSB’s response to FIRE’s letter says nothing of the administration’s role in pressing charges against faculty members. In fact, UCSB’s one defense of the months-long investigation was that

The charges process at UCSB is designed to provide the Academic Senate, through its designated representatives, the opportunity to determine whether the actions at issue in this case were conducted in a manner that meets professional standards, or, instead, constitute a breach of the duties of professional care set forth in the Faculty Code of Conduct. … I [David Birnbaum, Deputy General Counsel-Educational Affairs and Campus Services] do not believe that having the charges in this case considered by representatives of the Academic Senate, in accord with these established procedures, violates Professor Robinson’s rights.

The trouble here is that if SB4AF is right, UCSB’s letter to us of June 16 was written an entire month after the Academic Senate’s representatives had already decided the matter. Even if not, at some point the question was whether the Chancellor’s office was going to agree with the Charges Committee about dropping the charges, yet this step was completely hidden in Birnbaum’s letter.

What was Chancellor Yang waiting for? On June 10, we wrote Chancellor Yang urging him to end the investigation:

Faculty members report that a chilling effect is being felt across the campus, and every day that the investigation continues deepens the violation of their academic freedom and constitutional rights. I urge you to protect UCSB from further embarrassment and restore freedom of expression to your campus by immediately calling an end to the investigation.

It took two more weeks before Robinson was notified that the investigation was concludedtwo more weeks that did not need to transpire.

FIRE is, of course, not saying that UCSB should not be taking up genuine questions of professionalism or pedagogy and having them adjudicated by the faculty and/or administration in whatever fair process UCSB chooses. But in a case where a professor is clearly engaging in discourse relevant to his own field (in this case critical globalization studies), and when the faculty’s own representatives agree that there is nothing to further investigate, it is deeply problematic that Chancellor Yang would keep the investigation going anyway. In such cases, presidents should take the lead of University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, who wrote in one of FIRE’s earliest cases:

What I want to make clear and unambiguous is that responses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech CANNOT BE QUALIFIED.  Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message.  Noting that, for example, "The University supports the right to free speech, but we intend to check into this matter," or "The University supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances," is unacceptable.  There is nothing to "check into," nothing "to investigate."

Opinions expressed by our employees, students, faculty or administrators don’t have to be politic or polite. However personally offended we might be, however unfair the association of the University to the opinion might be, I insist that we remain a certain trumpet on this most precious of Constitutional rights.

This is the kind of ennobling statement that could have made UCSB proud.

Schools: University of California, Santa Barbara Cases: University of California, Santa Barbara: Professor Investigated for Sending E-Mail to Class