U. of Oregon Admins and Faculty Reach Tentative Agreement Protecting Faculty Speech

September 24, 2013

On September 18, the University of Oregon (UO) and its faculty union, United Academics, reached a tentative agreement that includes important protections for faculty speech and strikes the previously proposed “civility” clause that prompted our concerned Torch post last week.

As In These Times assistant editor Rebecca Burns noted, the problem with the university’s old proposal wasn’t just its mandate that faculty treat all “students, staff, colleagues, and the public fairly and civilly”—the kind of requirement that FIRE has seen used as a tool for punishing professors who share unpopular opinions. Burns also expressed concern that the proposal’s limitation on faculty members’ ability to consult for other organizations would be abused in cases where professors were involved in advocacy contrary to the interests of major donors, for example. And perhaps most alarmingly, as Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin pointed out, UO proposed a statement that “faculty members have no expectation of privacy in emails, files, documents, or other information created or stored on university information assets,” even in some emails in non-university accounts and on non-university computer systems.

The tentative agreement UO has reached with the faculty union is not perfect, but it is more protective of faculty rights than UO’s previous proposal. Faculty members are no longer bound by a civility mandate, and the school’s license to search professors’ personal email accounts is more limited, although those accounts can still be subject to open-records requests. And while UO’s press release does not contain all the details of the agreement, it does emphasize academic freedom:

UO policies addressing academic freedom will now specifically include research as well as classroom instruction, reaffirming the principle that faculty must be able to pursue controversial subjects without fear of censorship or retaliation.

The agreement has received mixed reviews from interested parties. For example, special education instructor Deborah Olson was thankful that administrators finally conceded on several important points, but economics professor Bill Harbaugh has stated that the agreement should more explicitly guarantee the right of faculty to “engage in internal criticism.”

The union will vote on the two-year agreement on October 8, and The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that it is expected to pass. Check back to The Torch for updates on the final agreement.

Schools:  University of Oregon