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Change is needed as a chilling effect sweeps college classrooms

College faculty are increasingly designing their courses not to maximize the degree to which they engage and challenge their students, but to minimize the risk of offending them, the Wall Street Journal reports.

FIRE has also observed worrisome signs of this phenomenon, as have other faculty members, such as Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, who wrote for The New Yorker back in 2014 about “The trouble with teaching rape law” in such an environment.

This is a threat not only to the core educational mission of universities, but also to the well-being of our nation, whose leaders are products of these institutions. If faculty cannot ask their students to engage with difficult, challenging, and even upsetting materials as part of the learning process, how will those students ever function as effective leaders in a world that requires just that type of engagement on a daily basis?

The Wall Street Journal’s Douglas Belkin reported this week on the growing number of faculty who “say they are caught in a conflict between the free-speech ideals of academic debate and a creeping self-censorship in the classroom.”

Film studies professor Frank Tomasulo, for example, told Belkin he no longer shows certain classic films, such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Tootsie,” because they bring up issues of racism and gender stereotyping. Belkin also told the story of University of Kansas professor Andrea Quenette, who was “on track for tenure until the fall of 2015 when students accused her of being racially insensitive.” Quenette was subjected to a months-long investigation for her classroom speech, and FIRE wrote to the University of Kansas in her defense in the winter of 2016.

At institutions with more conservative student bodies, meanwhile, professors report worrying that being critical of President Donald Trump — or even being perceived that way, such as by discussing nationalism more broadly — will be harmful to their careers, the journal reports:

“Renee Fraser, an adjunct who teaches western civilization at Moorpark Community College in California, said she is deeply concerned about receiving a bias complaint when she delivers a lecture this semester about nationalism.

“‘If you describe nationalism, you’re describing Donald Trump,’ she said, noting that students in her school are mostly conservative. ‘I’m embarrassed that I don’t let the students have more freedom because I’m afraid for my job.’”

Belkin — correctly, I believe — attributes this rise in faculty self-censorship to several factors. The first is the increasing popularity of bias response teams, which monitor and investigate student and faculty speech, ostensibly for the purpose of assessing and improving the campus climate. Although bias response teams do not necessarily punish speech, they create a Big Brother-like environment where everyone is encouraged to report on each other and someone in power is always watching. This is hardly a conducive setting for free-wheeling discussion and debate.

Many faculty fear being on the receiving end of a bias report or other complaint for engaging in difficult classroom conversations. And their fear is well-founded; over the past several years, FIRE has seen a number of cases in which faculty have faced serious repercussions for germane classroom speech.

In addition to the rise of bias response teams, Belkin cites a number of other factors behind the chill on classroom speech, including pressure from the federal government to broaden the definition of sexual harassment, pressure from college students’ parents to provide their children with “more protection,” and the increasing number of faculty who lack the protections of tenure.

So in the face of all this pressure, what can universities do to ensure that their faculty feel free to teach their subjects as they see fit, and to challenge their students to think about and engage critically with difficult materials?

One step could be to dismantle their bias response teams. Although bias reporting systems are not necessarily punitive in nature, there is simply an unavoidable tension between encouraging free and open debate on campus and encouraging students to report any instances of subjectively biased speech to the administration. And while the current zeitgeist seems to dictate that we should resolve that tension in favor of students’ emotional comfort, doing so will only worsen the echo-chamber phenomenon that does such immeasurable harm to the kind of critical thinking and intelligent, reasoned debate that we must be able to engage in in order to address the problems we face as a society.

Another critically important thing universities can do, and that a number of prominent universities have already done, is to adopt a statement of commitment to free speech and academic freedom modeled after the one produced by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression. That statement affirms:

“[T]he University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

The significance of adopting a formal free speech policy statement at this moment in time is twofold.

First, it sends a clear message to students and faculty, at a time when demands for censorship are high, that the university understands the importance of free speech and will defend it against calls for censorship and punishment. This message should empower faculty to teach as they see fit, knowing the university will stand behind them if someone demands they be punished for doing so.

Second, it provides the university with a clear, viewpoint-neutral statement of principles to which they can refer back when actually faced with demands for censorship. If a university both adopts a free speech statement and publicizes its adoption, making clear that it is the policy by which all free speech controversies will be resolved, the university is much less vulnerable to charges of uneven enforcement, bias, and double standards after the fact. And hopefully, with consistent enforcement, demands for censorship will wane over time as people realize that the university will, each and every time, stand up for free speech and academic freedom.

We should all be profoundly disturbed that at a time when informed discussion and debate are so desperately needed in our society, a growing number of faculty members feel their primary goal must be avoiding offense rather than instilling knowledge. As students, parents, and alumni, we should all encourage the administrations of these institutions to take the necessary steps to safeguard faculty members’ ability to teach the next generation of leaders.

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