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Academic Freedom Concerns Plague UW-Madison’s Handling of Professor’s Twitter Controversy

By July 28, 2015

Last week, the highest faculty governance body at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said it wouldn’t pursue punishment of professor Sara Goldrick-Rab for her controversial tweets, but faculty at the state’s flagship institution say the University Committee’s rush to publicly condemn her words has done lasting damage to their academic freedom.

The University Committee, under pressure from various campus and political groups, had previously released a hastily crafted statement admonishing the education and sociology professor for her tweets: one that compared Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to Hitler, and others directed at incoming students encouraging them not to enroll.

But after last week’s meeting, at which faculty urged that professors should not have their speech distilled through university filters, that statement appears to have been removed.

Professor David Vanness, who teaches Population Health Sciences at UW-Madison and has publicly argued for increased academic freedom, said the damage from the statement has already been done and that the statement was problematic in several respects. He first noted that the statement had all the trappings of an official university rebuke: It was posted on official letterhead and on the Committee’s school-hosted webpage, and it was signed by the chair.

Second, Vanness noted that Goldrick-Rab was publicly censured without due process. “The University Committee Statement declared Prof. Goldrick-Rab’s statements to be ‘inaccurate’ and ‘misrepresentations’ without conducting due diligence or hearing testimony,” he said.

Third, Vanness stated that the Committee’s action “sets a dangerous precedent which has likely already had a chilling effect on discourse by faculty,” because it implied speech that could damage the institution’s reputation is not protected speech. He added that guidelines promulgated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which the Committee follows, call for exactly the kind of free expression Goldrick-Rab engaged in on controversial governance issues.

Vanness said the actions were all the more concerning given new Wisconsin law removing protections for shared governance and tenure—the very laws Goldrick-Rab was tweeting about, the dangers of which FIRE wrote about at length in June.

“Given weakened governance and tenure protections … and fears that tenured professors are now less shielded from political reprisal than they were a month ago,” he said, “the University Committee’s statement is even more alarming.”

While we are glad that the University Committee ultimately decided not to pursue disciplinary action against Goldrick-Rab in this matter, we will continue to monitor the situation at UW-Madison and keep a close eye on faculty members’ academic freedom and free speech rights.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison