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FIRE to University of Arkansas System: Do not adopt proposed board policy 405.1

In a Dec. 5 letter, FIRE wrote to the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas System urging them 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.” Today — two months to the day after our letter went out — FIRE has not yet received a response from the Board. With a vote slated for next month, we deem it necessary to once again warn of the proposed policy’s dangers and caution against its adoption.

In expressing disapproval of the proposed revisions, FIRE joins a chorus of critics concerned about their academic freedom implications. As University of Arkansas law professors Josh Silverstein and Robert Steinbach (among other faculty members) have outlined in meticulous detail, there are numerous issues with the proposed policy. Most important, however, is the threat to academic freedom posed by the proposed definition of “cause” to include 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.

As explained by my colleague Peter Bonilla, expansion of this definition to include a so-called “collegiality” provision is flatly contrary to the guidance of the American Association of University Professors. 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.

As our letter to the Board of Trustees stated:

[S]ubjecting faculty members to discipline and potential termination based on an ambiguous collegiality standard sets a dangerous precedent, as this requirement can too easily be used to punish faculty dissent and chill expression. Implementation of this proposed policy would weaken academic freedom and discourage new faculty from accepting positions within the UA system. As a public institution fully bound by the First Amendment, UA must preserve academic freedom and should encourage lively debate and discourse on its campuses.

We hope the Board heeds FIRE’s — and others’ — numerous warnings about the dangers of this proposed policy, and votes against its adoption. 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.

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