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Commentary: Faculty, step up on free speech

Last August, newspapers reported that the University of Chicago had sent a letter to incoming freshmen noting that they would not receive "trigger warnings" about uncomfortable subjects or "safe spaces" from these topics. That distinguished Chicago from institutions like Oberlin, which embraced trigger warnings in 2013.

But both directives were issued by administrators, with little or no faculty input. The regulation of speech at our universities comes from the people who run them, not from the professors who teach at them.

That's the crucial context missing from the report on campus free speech by PEN America, which was released last week. Over the past four decades, administrators have come to dominate curriculum, personnel, and every other aspect of university life. So it shouldn't surprise us that they are now in charge of speech, too.

In 1975, universities employed almost twice as many professors as administrators; today, administrators outnumber the faculty. During these years, the number of executive and managerial employees rose by 85 percent. Meanwhile, the so-called "professional staff" - counselors, accountants, and so on - skyrocketed by 240 percent.

This vast administrative army manages our burgeoning physical plants and caters to the needs of our diverse student bodies. And one of those needs, apparently, is the management of speech. A survey of freshmen in 2015-16 found that 71 percent agreed that "colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus," up from 59 percent in 1992.

So administrators have promulgated speech codes, even in the face of court decisions ruling them unconstitutional. They have instituted diversity trainings, despite the lack of clear evidence that these exercises affect racial attitudes. And they have occasionally encouraged faculty to issue trigger warnings and to avoid "microagressions" against minorities.

Most American faculty are hostile to these developments, which they see as a threat to open discussion in their classrooms. In a 2015 survey of 800 professors by the National Coalition Against Censorship, for example, more than two-thirds said they opposed trigger warnings while only 17 percent were favorable to them.

But you wouldn't know that by listening to our public dialogue about free speech, in which faculty have been conspicuously quiet. That's because our own speech is very well protected, thank you very much.

The PEN America report details a few instances of full-time professors who were fired for speech-related reasons, including one who was dismissed for making sexual jokes in her classroom that supposedly created a "hostile learning environment." But the people who really have to worry are the so-called adjunct or contract faculty, who now make up more than half of American professors. Often lacking livable wages or benefits, they also lack the basic protections of academic freedom.

So in Iowa, an adjunct professor was fired for telling his class that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve was a myth. A Virginia adjunct was dismissed when he suggested that the 2007 massacre at Virginia State University had been overhyped by the media because most of its victims were white women. And "The Phantom Professor" - an adjunct at Southern Methodist University who blogged anonymously about student drug use and other controversial subjects - was fired after the university discovered her identity.

It's hard to imagine these fates befalling members of the full-time faculty, which helps explain why most of us are so blasé about the subject. To be fair, the American Association of University Professors has decried the so-called "adjunctification" of faculties and the corresponding decline of academic freedom. On most of our campuses, however, faculty haven't been at the center of recent disputes over speech.

One big exception is the University of Chicago, where a faculty committee released a statement last year calling for a renewed commitment to "free and open inquiry" on campus. But Chicago isn't immune from the administrative virus, either, as last August's letter to students underlined. Sent by a dean, it came as a shock to most of the university's professors.

So 150 of them signed their own letter of protest, arguing that the dean's blanket condemnation of trigger warnings limited their freedom to issue such warnings if they wished. Most of all, they condemned the idea that a university's statement about teaching could be issued without the approval of its teachers.

The same thing happened at Oberlin, ironically, after the university issued a statement in favor of trigger warnings. It was drafted by a task force composed of one vice president, two deans, three students, two alumni, and only one faculty member (who was promoted to dean shortly after that). Most professors didn't find out about the directive until it was reported in the national news. And they made such a fuss afterward that the policy was tabled.

That's precisely what our free-speech debate needs right now: more fuss from the faculty. Free speech should be an academic question, not an administrative one. The real question is whether we'll step up to answer it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of "Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know."