February 29, 2016

CSU Faculty Senate reaffirms commitment
to academic freedom

The Cleveland State University Faculty Senate passed a resolution on academic freedom.
In its meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 10, it reaffirmed its commitment to protecting faculty’s right to teach controversial material.

The resolution highlighted the Faculty Senate’s commitment to protecting free communication, stating:

“[This] freedom is an integral part of the learning experience and an obligation from which we cannot shrink.”

[Helping] students learn to process and evaluate controversial material fulfills one of the most important responsibilities of higher education.

[Shielding] students from controversial material will deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens.”

The resolution also explains that, while professors may choose to offer students warnings about controversial or sensitive topics discussed in their classroom, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

It also does not endorse labeling controversial topics in such a way to make students think that they can forgo participation in discussions about the topic.

William Bowen, Ph. D., professor and director of the doctoral program in Urban and Public Affairs, presented the reaffirmation to the Senate.

Bowen — along with Michael Schwartz, Ph. D., and former president of Cleveland State — wrote on the importance of academic freedom within higher education in Chapter 2 of “(Re)Discovering University Autonomy.”

“A fundamental and foundational principle of the modern university is that it must provide substantial protection for dissent from the conventional wisdom,” according to the text.

“The generation of ideas requires that the range of thinkable thoughts not be restricted by convention no matter how morally compelling a convention may currently be…”

According to Bowen and Schwartz, academic freedom is a concept rooted in the efforts of the members of the American Association of University Professors and the American Associate of Colleges and Universities.

It is meant to protect tenured faculty from wrongful termination due to differing viewpoints from university administration and major financial sponsors.

“Once granted, tenure serves as employment protection for those who defy the conventional wisdom and do so in the spirit of inquiry that allows ideas to be developed, followed logically, clarified, and tested in a ‘let the chips fall where they may’ environment.”

The chapter goes on to discuss the “enemies” of academic freedom, including authoritarianism and supernaturalism.

Recently, these “enemies” have been seen in the controversy surrounding the firing of tenured professors at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.

The scandal at Mount St. Mary’s University (MSM), first reported by the campus newspaper “The Mountain Echo,” outlaid the president’s new student retention plan.

It includes the quote, “this is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies […] put a Glock to their heads.”

According to The Washington Post, after printing the special edition on the president’s retention plan, the faculty advisor — a tenured faculty and former trustee member — was fired, followed by another tenured professor who objected to the university’s plan. This sparked national outrage and response from educators across the country.

One educator who wrote a response was Elizabeth Lehfeldt, Ph. D, dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Honors College at Cleveland State. In her response she outlined the importance of the events at MSM, as well as what professors can do to support those affected and protect themselves at their respective universities.

In an email interview, Lehfeldt explained how the events at Mount St. Mary troubled her, as well as their relation to Cleveland State’s professors.

“I was deeply troubled by the swiftness of the decision and by the complete absence of discussion around the relevant issues,” she wrote.

“Rather than reach out to the faculty, the president summarily fired two of them. Firing a professor with tenure for expressing disagreement with the university administration is upsetting; many colleges and universities protect faculty against such actions,” she said.

“I think the issue at Mount St. Mary is larger than the issue of academic freedom — at MSM the president is essentially firing anyone who disagrees with him without warning; the provost was dismissed, too. In so doing, he breaks the essential trust between faculty and administration. And, of course, he violates academic freedom.”

And while the resolution on academic freedom passed by the Senate reaffirms faculty’s protection in straying from the beliefs of the university president, she does find fault with the statement.

“While I uphold the importance of academic freedom for faculty and believe that it is already protected by language in the Green Book [a document which outlines faculty protections and activities within the university], I think the issue of trigger warnings is a very real and important one and I don’t think the Faculty Senate engaged adequately with the issue.”

While the events at MSM are a shocking violation of academic freedom, they are certainly not the only example of wrongful termination at the university level.

At Cleveland State, disagreement between faculty and the administration, from Lehfeldt’s standpoint, is handled in a more professional, peaceful way.

“[Cleveland State] faculty would be protected against actions like the ones taken by the president at MSM,” she said.

“That said, things like what happened there can always happen if an administration chooses to break trust with the faculty and other administrators.”

“Keep in mind, that the events at MSM included the provost being dismissed, not just faculty.”

“That said,” she continued, “I think that the current climate at [Cleveland State] between faculty and administration is generally good. That is not to say that there is always agreement between the two, but when there is disagreement, [it] is healthy, respectful and civil.”


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