empty classroom lecture hall chalkboard chilling faculty feat
FIRE asks Ohio Northern University to reform troublesome ‘collegiality’ provision in faculty handbook

By November 15, 2017

Recently I wrote about potential changes coming in the University of Arkansas System, which could dramatically lower the bar for terminating tenured faculty — in particular by adding language that could give system institutions more leeway for ridding themselves of supposedly un-collegial professors. Specifically, I wrote:

As part of a new definition of “cause,” the system’s draft policy lists a “pattern of disruptive conduct or unwillingness to work productively with colleagues” as one of the offenses that can lead to a tenured faculty member’s termination.

The American Association of University Professors is rightly critical of such policies, and FIRE is skeptical of them as well for the ease with which they can be abused.

Unfortunately, the UA System is far from alone. Earlier this year, FIRE wrote to Ohio Northern University regarding a similarly concerning provision in its faculty handbook. We wrote of that problematic policy language, with emphasis added:

[The policy] specifies in relevant part that “[f]aculty members are expected to treat colleagues and staff with civility and respect . . . .” This policy may seem innocuous in intent, but in practice it chills academic discourse and scholarship. Freedom of speech and academic freedom do not simply protect speech that is not controversial. On the contrary, controversial speech is that which needs the most protection, and the Supreme Court has held as much: “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973).

The same problems presented by the policy language the UA System is considering are present here. How is one to define “civility”? What constitutes “respect”? Of course, the Ohio Northern policy provides no answers, leaving it all too easy for administrators to conveniently define it however they please, whenever it suits their interests. This can have a serious chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom. I quoted from the AAUP’s “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation” statement in my previous entry, but it’s worth doing so again here, at greater length, because of its apt characterization of academic life and assessment of the need for robust and even sometimes rancorous debate and discussion:

A distinct criterion of collegiality also holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion. Criticism and opposition do not necessarily conflict with collegiality. Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions. They have sometimes proved collegial in the deepest and truest sense. Certainly a college or university replete with genial Babbitts is not the place to which society is likely to look for leadership. It is sometimes exceedingly difficult to distinguish the constructive engagement that characterizes true collegiality from an obstructiveness or truculence that inhibits collegiality. Yet the failure to do so may invite the suppression of dissent. The very real potential for a distinct criterion of “collegiality” to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations.

Ohio Northern University should take this caution to heart, as should the UA System and any other institutions maintaining or considering such subjective criteria for punishing or terminating faculty.

I’m sure we’ve barely scratched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this kind of troublesome policy language, and I encourage faculty worried about their own institutions’ policies to email us at fire@thefire.org. In the meantime, we’ll keep you updated on what goes on at ONU, in the UA System, and at other institutions around the country.