The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) claims that academic freedom on college campuses is under attack as never before. A campaign called “Speak Up, Speak Out: Protect the faculty voice” was launched in November 2009 amid court decisions thought to restrict the freedom of speech of faculty members who had spoken up against their institution.
According to the AAUP the new threat to academic freedom stems from a Supreme Court case in 2006. In the case Garcetti v. Ceballos, an assistant district attorney sued his supervisors for demoting and transferring him after he complained about alleged misconduct in one of his cases.
According to the AAUP website, the ruling stated that public employees were not protected when speaking on matters pursuant to their official duties, but added an exception for expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction.
The AAUP maintains that this court decision affected decisions in lower courts, dealing with cases between faculty and the administration of their college or university. The “Speak Up, Speak Out” campaign suggests that faculty advocate for policy changes at college campuses to better protect the academic freedoms of faculty members.
Rachel Levinson, senior counsel at the AAUP, pointed out what she feels is a threat to academic freedom.
“At both public and private institutions, faculty have an opportunity, and an obligation, to help define and shore up their own institutions’ academic freedom policies,” Levinson said, “including by revising handbook or contract language and by organizing colleagues to speak out in one voice against policies or practices that impinge on academic freedom.”
“One of the most serious threats to academic freedom today is the sharp decline in tenure-track positions and the increase in use of contingent faculty,” said Levinson. “Without the security of employment that tenure provides. Faculties are less and less likely to speak out on controversial issues, engage in controversial research, or challenge administrative decisions and priorities, to the detriment of students, the university community, and the public as a whole.”
John Brigham, professor of political science and co-vice president for the Massachusetts Society of Professors, echoes the sentiment that the faculty voice is important to universities.
“The faculties are at universities longer than Chancellors,” said Brigham. According to Brigham, the faculty helps to maintain the culture of the university.
However, Brigham does not see a need to change policy at the University of Massachusetts, citing that members of the UMass faculty are not afraid of losing their positions over disagreements with the administration.
“The Supreme Court isn’t the best place for free speech,” said Brigham, who maintained that the best place to advocate for free speech is at the local level.
Brigham used the example of last semester’s panel discussion “The Great Western Massachusetts Sedition Trial: 20 Years Later,” when the members of the UMass faculty invited a controversial speaker to UMass. The administration, although publicly disagreeing with the decision, felt they had no power to stop the members of faculty from inviting the speaker. The speech did happen on Nov. 12, but without the speaker, Ray Luc Levasseur, who was eventually restricted from entering the state by the U.S. parole board.
The AAUP is not associated with the MSP.
Levinson maintains that while academic freedom may not be the most critical problem at UMass, the issue should be relevant to the campus.
According to the AAUP, faculty input is vital to the well-being of places of higher education and the community at large.
“The ability of the public, legislators, and others to engage in informed analysis and decision-making is vastly enhanced when faculty are able to share their expertise with the public and the community,” said Levinson. “Indeed, faculty are often in the best position to bring a new or alternate perspective to public debates without (we hope) fear of reprisal.”
Levinson spoke of the outside pressure on public institutions of higher education.
“Public universities are often subject to more public and political scrutiny, in large part because of their public funding,” said Levinson.
However, Levinson does not feel that this outside pressure should determine the way in which a public university operates.
“Faculty at public universities are protected by the First Amendment,” said Levinson, “but as we have seen, courts are drastically narrowing those protections.”
The AAUP website outlines cases where they feel that academic freedom has been encroached upon.
The “Speak Up, Speak Out,” campaign plans to continue its campaign through 2010.
Bobby Hitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org