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FIRE renews call to University of Arkansas System to reject proposed board policy

By March 27, 2018

In a Dec. 5 letter, FIRE wrote to the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas System urging the Board to consider the pernicious threat to academic freedom posed by the proposed revisions to Board Policy 405.1 on “Appointment, Promotion, Tenure, Non-Reappointment, and Dismissal of Faculty.” With a new vote on the proposal slated for this week, we deem it necessary to once again warn of the proposed policy’s dangers and to recommend against its adoption.

In FIRE’s view, the proposed policy’s original definition of “cause,” which included a “pattern of disruptive conduct or unwillingness to work productively with colleagues” as one of the offenses that could lead to a tenured faculty member’s termination, amounted to a “collegiality” requirement. Such a mandate has been condemned by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP’s “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation” report lays out the dangers of this standard, which can easily be used to stifle dissent and chill speech:

[C]ollegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.

Over the years, FIRE has seen many instances of faculty termination or discipline under such vague policies for simply expressing unpopular views or criticizing administrators.

On Feb. 13, the president of the University of Arkansas System released a new draft of proposed revisions to Board Policy 405.1 with commentary and amendments, stating that the new draft was a result of “productive dialogue with faculty leadership.” The revisions to Board Policy 405.1 have been the subject of much discussion and criticism by faculty members at Arkansas and other commentators since the Board first considered a policy change last fall. However, it seems the administration has made some improvements to the proposed policy in response to significant — and justified — concerns regarding academic freedom.

Although it is not immediately clear what version of the policy the Board will consider, FIRE is cautiously optimistic that the version of the proposed policy voted on this week will reflect input from faculty members, FIRE, and other commentators. Positively, the revised proposal refines the definition of “cause,” in relevant part, to “a pattern of conduct that is detrimental to the productive and efficient operation of the instructional or work environment.”

We are pleased to see that the administration has considered FIRE’s — and others’ — numerous warnings about the dangers of the originally proposed policy. However, FIRE and others remain concerned about the potential threat to academic freedom still posed by the most recent version of the policy. Given the wording of the original policy, FIRE acknowledges the possibility that the revised policy may be enforced by the administration in a way that deters faculty members from expressing dissent or disagreement. Evidently, many of the faculty in the University of Arkansas System agree. According to a survey of the University of Arkansas Medical School’s chapter of the AAUP this month, 92 percent of faculty who voted responded that they “do not approve of the proposed changes to Board Policy 405.1.”

We urge those interested in reading more about the substantive provisions of the policy to review the information archived by faculty members at Arkansas, as well as the detailed counterproposal, authored by Arkansas law professors Joshua Silverstein and Robert Steinbuch.

As always, we stand ready to assist the Board with crafting a policy that respects the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of its faculty.

Schools: University of Arkansas – Fayetteville University of Arkansas School of Law