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With Friends Like These: Beware Faculty Who Try to Censor Their Colleagues

A while back, I blogged about Steven Salaita, a professor of English at Virginia Tech who raised some hackles when he criticized what he saw as mindless “support for the troops.” Here’s how he justified provoking the controversy: “[M]y job is write critically and teach critical thinking. Why should I be fired for doing my job?” Some people outside of academia might not accept that explanation, but his fellow professors should recognize his appeal to academic freedom. And yet, two recent incidents suggest that the dangerous notion of “academic freedom (or free speech) for me but not for thee” is gaining acceptance.

As Inside Higher Education recently reportedIowa Now, a publication of the University of Iowa’s Communication and Marketing Department, published a commentary by Associate Professor of Chemistry Ned Bowden titled “Common Ground” in its “Campus Voices” column. Bowden argued that the creation story in Genesis roughly parallels the scientific explanation for the beginning of the universe. Echoing observations that go back at least as far as the Scopes trial, he noted:

When this story was written 4,000 years ago, they didn’t have the language to talk about things like the Big Bang theory and subatomic particles. But whether you take the Big Bang or “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” it says the same thing. ... Maybe it’s time we stopped shouting and started listening.

It didn’t take long for the shouting to begin. Twenty-five Iowa faculty members signed a letter to express outrage at Bowden’s statement that there are “holes in the theory of evolution that are big enough to drive a semi-truck through.” Their reminder that “theory” in science does not have the connotations of doubt that it does in everyday usage responded to Bowden’s argument. Their conclusion, however, did not:

Evolutionary scientists certainly continue to refine our understanding of evolutionary processes, but we no longer debate the central principles of evolutionary theory as a scientific framework for understanding Earth's diversity.

Iowa Now, by publishing a piece that suggests otherwise, has done a disservice to the university. [Emphasis added.]

Allowing a college faculty member to put forth an alternate view about a controversial issue in an opinion column is not a disservice, even if a majority of readers would object to it.

According to another Inside Higher Ed report, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) is also having a hard time understanding this. Prism, its flagship publication, recently published a letter to the editor in which Wayne Helmer, a professor of mechanical engineering at Arkansas Technical University, questioned ASEE’s efforts to reach out to gays and lesbians. He wrote, “These dear people [gays and lesbians] caught up in this destructive way of life need true help and true hope and not encouragement or approval of a detrimental, negative lifestyle. They deserve better than that. This is not God’s plan for their lives.”

The ASEE’s presidents (past, current, and elect) published a letter, which is linked on the ASEE homepage, chastising the editor’s decision to print Helmer’s letter. The presidents rather ominously declare that:

We, the President, President-Elect, and Immediate Past President of ASEE, disagree with the decision to publish Prof. Helmer’s Letter to the Editor in the September issue of Prism magazine. We have conveyed our concern to the Editor and to the Publisher.


[W]e find the letter in question to be intolerant and prejudicial and not appropriate for publication in a magazine produced for professionals involved in engineering education. We will ask the Editor and the Publisher to review with us policies used in deciding the appropriateness of this letter and work to ensure that Prism will not in the future consider such contributions.

What the ASEE presidents do not explain is how silencing Professor Helmer and discussion of his views will help educate him or benefit the LBGTQ community. As ASEE Executive Director Norman L. Fortenberry pointed out in defending Prism’s decision to print the letter, “The views [Helmer] expressed are probably not unique.” If ASEE’s presidents and members believe Helmer’s beliefs to be erroneous, they should welcome the chance to expose and dispel such misconceptions rather than cover up the fact that they exist. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff argued in an article discussing Twitter censorship (though the argument extends to censorship in all its forms), “[I]t’s far better to know that there are bigots among us that to pretend all is well.” The ASEE presidents apparently prefer to live in a bubble. Their reaffirmation of ASEE’s commitment to diversity is fine, but attempting to purge Helmer’s letter is not.

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