Five months after Syracuse University suspended chemistry professor Jon Zubieta for writing “Wuhan Flu” on his course syllabus, Zubieta was reinstated to his teaching role last month. While it’s heartening to see a school like Syracuse — with its terrible track record for honoring expressive rights — let Zubieta teach again, the long suspension over his clearly-protected speech is an affront to academic freedom.
On August 25, Zubieta’s syllabus, which listed “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” under a section detailing university COVID-19 rules, began circulating online, drawing the ire of Syracuse students, faculty, and administrators. That same day, despite no evidence of class disruption, Syracuse claimed Zubieta’s syllabus was “damaging to the learning environment for our students” and placed him on leave.
FIRE wrote to Syracuse back in September, explaining how a university that purports to uphold academic freedom may not punish a professor over his course syllabus. Syracuse explicitly grants faculty the right to — at the very minimum — raise such issues on their course syllabi, and may not suspend them for merely commenting on the exceedingly-significant public issue of COVID-19, even if such viewpoints are unpopular with the academic community.
Syracuse ignored FIRE’s letter, leaving Zubieta suspended for the next several months. However, in December 2020, Syracuse tentatively agreed to reinstate Zubieta, but only after he underwent an informal resolution process — which dragged on until February — culminating with Zubieta agreeing to take a few professional development courses and retire in 2023. Zubieta, who is in his seventies and had initially planned on retiring last year at the onset of this controversy, is finally teaching again, and is looking forward to a well-earned retirement after teaching for over 30 years.
While FIRE is glad to see Syracuse reinstate Zubieta, he should never have been suspended in the first place, nor should it have taken the university nearly half a year to ultimately live up to its academic freedom promises. Syracuse’s swift punishment for protected academic expression betrays its commitment to uphold faculty free speech rights, and chills the speech of all Syracuse professors.
If universities continue to confront controversial viewpoints with lengthy disciplinary investigations, charges, and suspensions, academia will become a sterile place devoid of heterodox thought. Institutions of higher education, as the guarantors of academic freedom, must protect their professors’ rights by rebuffing calls to punish them over their protected expression.
For Syracuse, the “winner” of FIRE’s 2021 Lifetime Censorship Award for its historically terrible record on free speech issues, this circuitous result is a step in the right direction. We hope a favorable outcome in this latest incident puts the university on a path to retiring, once and for all, its disdain for expressive rights.