Update (June 23, 2021): The University of Oklahoma responded to FIRE on June 23, highlighting the school's commitment to free expression. Their full response has been added to this report.
Do you question whether refusing to use preferred pronouns is hate speech? You can’t — writing on that topic is “not acceptable.”
Think Black Lives Matter shouldn’t engage in property destruction? We’ll have to “re-adjust” your thinking.
If you’re a student at the University of Oklahoma — congratulations! Your instructor may already have done all of the thinking for you. But beware: Deviating too far from an instructor’s personal opinions can cost you.
A recording of an “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop acquired by FIRE raises alarm bells about the state of free expression and freedom of conscience at Oklahoma’s flagship university.
The workshop in question trains instructors on how to eliminate disfavored but constitutionally protected expression from the classroom and guide assignments and discussion into preferred areas — all for unambiguously ideological and viewpoint-based reasons. FIRE’s concerns are further compounded by the University of Oklahoma’s brazen and unconstitutional track record of putting individual rights out to pasture.
(We are also linking to the full video and providing timestamps of the sections we discuss. We encourage readers to watch the full workshop.)
“Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogies” is one of nine professional development workshops for instructors and grad students at OU. Held on April 14, it featured three faculty presenters teaching instructors how to foster an anti-racist environment in their classrooms. But it’s not just racism the presenters encourage participants to root out.
One of the workshop leaders, Kelli Pyron Alvarez, explained in the recording how undergraduate students in one of her introductory English courses are “a little bit more emboldened to be racist” (17:17). To combat this, she forbids huge swaths of classroom speech, including “derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech,” as well as “white supremacist ideas or sources,” unless the student is using those sources to dismantle racism.
If you are wondering what sources or ideas are off limits because they fall into Pyron Alvarez’s subjective categories of white supremacist sources or “derogatory remarks” — well, she never specifies, so you should be.
Professors cannot abuse their power to require students to personally adhere to a particular viewpoint or ideology.
Making a mistake can cost you: “If they use any of those things, if any of those come through in their writing or in their comments, I will call them out on it.” (18:20)
And if it happens again, “report them.”
Imagine being an OU student who is “reported,” presumably to the administration, simply for your choice of text to analyze or what sources you include in a bibliography.
Undergraduate students — the supposedly emboldened “racists” — in ENGL 1213 - Principles of English Composition, are apparently supposed to choose their own research topics, but the faculty conducting the training show the participants how they might lead students not only to topics the instructors find appropriate, but also to the side of the argument that the instructors prefer.
Fairly early in the training, Pyron Alvarez addresses the potential reluctance faculty members might have toward putting a heavy hand on student speech. “One of the fears is that we’re going to get in trouble for this, right?,” she says. “Like we can’t tell students that they can’t say something in class. But we can! And let me tell you how.” (17:45)
Pyron Alvarez’ fellow workshop leader Kasey Woody later goes into some detail on how instructors can “steer” students away from “problematic territory” to accomplish this. (46:01)
“I, in this case, usually look for my students who might be, like, entertaining the idea of listening to a problematic argument. Then I say, ‘we don’t have to listen to that.’” (45:45)
That’s right — even thinking about listening to a disfavored argument is apparently to be discouraged.
Woody later reassures the instructors that they won’t face consequences for censoring students: “You do not need to worry about repercussions at any degree in the university if you are responding to a student who is using problematic language in the classroom.” (49:42)
And who gives them the green light to censor OU students? According to Pyron Alvarez, that permission comes from the highest court in the country.
“The Supreme Court has actually upheld that hate speech, derogatory speech, any of the -isms do not apply in the classroom because they do not foster a productive learning environment. And so, as instructors we can tell our students: ‘no, you do not have the right to say that. Stop talking right now’, right?” (20:05)
Education versus indoctrination
To be sure, faculty members have expansive academic freedom rights, and FIRE spends a lot of time defending those rights. They have wide latitude to manage the atmosphere and tone of the classroom. This may include inhibiting some student expression in class by directing classroom discussions, prompting students to write on topics of the instructor’s choosing, and preventing students from disrupting the class or talking out of turn. As my colleague Peter Bonilla explains:
[S]tudents should be treated fairly and equitably by their professors. They shouldn’t expect that professors won’t sometimes disagree, even vociferously, with their beliefs, but they do have the right to expect that professors won’t punish students academically on that basis (which has happened). Students don’t have the right to avoid demonstrating proficiency with concepts they disagree with, but they do have a right not to be compelled to hold specific political beliefs as a condition for receiving academic credit (which has also happened).
Professors cannot abuse their power to require students to personally adhere to a particular viewpoint or ideology. As the AAUP has written, instructors have academic freedom of “instruction, not indoctrination.” It can be hard to define precisely where this line falls, but there’s no question that a significant amount of this workshop teaches participants how to indoctrinate instead of how to instruct.
As FIRE’s Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus explains:
By limiting classroom discussion and silencing dissent, professors violate the rights of conscience of their students. The clear aim is not merely to advocate a point of view but to coerce, if necessary, their students into believing the professor’s or school’s version of truth. Such oppressive actions clearly cross the line between education and indoctrination.
The message being sent to the instructors and graduate students attending this workshop is not simply that they have academic freedom rights to direct discussion in the classroom and to prevent disruption. It is that a legitimate basis for exercising that control is to suppress viewpoints not shared by the instructor, under the guise of civility or the avoidance of ill-defined “hate speech.” Indeed, the workshop leaders conflate disagreement with disruption to such an extent that they call it a valid reason for reporting students for discipline.
‘You need to pick something else. You’re not doing that.’
Some of the responses from workshop participants indicated that they understood how what they were being told to do was out of the ordinary, and expressed reservations about it. One workshop participant asked whether instructors are doing a disservice to their students by censoring certain topics. The participant asked how to identify problematic arguments and whether, for example, a student should be able to examine if the Black Lives Matter movement should refrain from property damage. In response, Pyron Alvarez suggests telling students to “re-adjust” their topic if they’re “bordering” on being offensive. (53:05)
That’s not advice on what arguments might be effective — that’s “advice” on what arguments are politically acceptable.
Another participant asked what rights instructors are supposed to respect. (You will no doubt be shocked to hear that freedom of speech or conscience is not found in the workshop leaders’ answer.) Asked what they should do if, for example, a cisgender student wanted to examine arguments about the use of someone’s preferred pronouns, Woody focuses on “leading them” away from wanting to even debate the issue, because, she suggests, the stakes aren’t as high for a cisgender student. She advises instructors to sit the student down and “have a conversation — and be kind with the student about it — but help kind of lead them.” (57:30)
Pyron Alvarez has a distinctly different answer.
We asked OU to change the compelled speech components of the training. It refused.
“I’m not so kind,” she responds. “If they’re writing and their goal is like ‘Oh, I should be able to use whatever pronouns I deem acceptable for this person despite how they identify,’ then they are invalidating that person’s humanity and their existence. And that’s not acceptable. So I flat out tell them that. This is what this is doing. You need to pick something else. You’re not doing that.”
Again, this is not education about argumentation. This is telling students what topics are “acceptable” to argue about. And this is supposed to be for a class that focuses on analyzing “effective argumentative discourse.”
Interestingly, Pyron Alvarez also noted that last semester, none of her students pushed back against her method of teaching. But in a classroom where “acceptable” opinions are delineated by an instructor’s personal beliefs — and the consequence for stepping beyond those bounds is being reported to the administration — it’s not really a surprise.
On June 23, OU Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Belinda Higgs Hyppolite responded to FIRE's report:
The University of Oklahoma unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints. In fact, these are central elements of the university’s strategic plan and at the core of what makes a great university. In no way does OU endorse or condone censorship of its students. OU is a place where students are taught how to learn, not what to learn. Every effort is made to ensure students feel that they belong.
The workshop in question is one of many professional development workshops put on by the English Department’s Composition Program. Participation in any given workshop is voluntary. The workshop topics were selected in response to aspects of teaching that are challenging. The curriculum of the workshop is designed to address how instructors respond to and handle racist comments within the classroom environment. The university will always protect the right to free speech and expression.
A history of problematic trainings
OU is historically a bad actor in this area. Just last month, FIRE reported on OU’s mandatory diversity training program for faculty and staff — including some graduate students — that required participants to acknowledge their agreements with the university’s approved political viewpoints in order to complete the requirement. We asked OU to change the compelled speech components of the training. It refused.
Additionally, when FIRE first requested to see the training, OU responded that we would have to travel to Norman, Oklahoma — during a pandemic — to view it in person. This, for a training OU delivers online to its own students and faculty.
FIRE is very aware of the threats to candid and open discussion that may arise when college classes are recorded, as well as the chilling effect it may have on faculty members. However, while faculty members conducted this workshop, this was not an academic class. It was, rather, an instructor training session given by OU, a state institution with both legal and moral responsibilities to its students and to the taxpayers who fund it. (Adjunct instructors are required to attend two of the nine workshops; graduate teaching assistants are required to attend one.) When such sessions are dedicated, even in part, to compromising fundamental rights, we believe it is appropriate to expose what is happening so that it may be stopped as soon as possible.
Sunlight, as FIRE has always believed, is the best disinfectant.
Students deserve better
FIRE is bringing this issue to the attention of OU’s leadership. We encourage supporters who disagree with this abuse of student rights and violation of their freedom of conscience to join us. Fill out the form below to let leaders in Oklahoma know that this type of indoctrination is not acceptable.
Institutions that infringe on student rights often find themselves in costly litigation. FIRE encourages students who face unconstitutional censorship to know their rights and contact FIRE to defend those rights when violated.
Don’t stay silent when censors try to smother speech. Ignite your rights with FIRE.
FIRE, a First Amendment charity, effectively and decisively defends the fundamental rights of tens of thousands of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses while simultaneously reaching millions on and off campus through education, outreach, and college reform efforts.