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University of Arkansas at Little Rock professors respond to infringement on academic freedom with new policy statement

The faculty senate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock recently sent a strong message to the University of Arkansas system leadership by adopting a statement of principles reaffirming their overwhelming commitment to robust free expression.

Written in the spirit of the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”), the UALR faculty articulated a comprehensive statement of values they hope will guide the university when considering issues of free speech and academic freedom. The statement, titled “Statement articulating the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community,” has become official university policy after garnering approval from UALR’s chancellor last week.

This robust endorsement of academic freedom is the perfect response to the UA system’s Board of Trustees, which adopted an unwise tenure policy earlier this spring after a prolonged battle with faculty members from across the university system. Despite widespread faculty discontent with the proposed policy, and a letter and much commentary from FIRE (and others) urging against its adoption, the Board of Trustees nevertheless elected to adopt a flawed policy that endangers academic freedom by broadly defining “cause” for dismissal of tenured faculty.

The new policy statement at UALR encourages debate and deliberation of ideas, and accordingly represents a strong endorsement of academic freedom. Importantly, the statement defines the role of the university itself, paraphrasing the Chicago Statement to eloquently describe this role:

The 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 or society at large to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. The individual members of the University community–not the University as an institution, its administration, nor any external constituency–are entitled 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.

Due to its status as official university policy, faculty members and students alike at UALR can pressure the administration to ensure that the enshrined principles are upheld. Faculty members who encounter hurdles to academic freedom from the new board policy — or elsewhere — may now ask the university to live up to its promise to protect academic freedom and free inquiry. Likewise, students who want to bring a speaker to campus, stage a protest, or engage in other protected expressive activity may now remind the administration that is has promised to uphold the laudable principles of robust dialogue and discussion.

This affirmation of the university’s core purpose — debate, inquiry, and discovery — is an important step toward improving the climate for free speech at UALR. FIRE is pleased to see this development, and encourages other UA institutions affected by the tenure policy to adopt a similar statement of principles.

Upon its official adoption last week, UALR became the fortieth university administration or faculty body to endorse a statement of principles in the model of the Chicago Statement. If you would like to add your college or university to this growing list, contact us today to find out how!

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