In what seems to be a trend, this week two professors were fired for expressing controversial opinions outside of the classroom. Lisa Durden, an African American Adjunct Professor at Essex County College of Newark, got into a heated discussion about race with Tucker Carlson on his show leading to her comment “boo hoo hoo, you white people are angry because you couldn’t use your white privilege card.” Katherine Dittwyler, an adjunct at the University of Delaware, was reportedly trying to make a point about white privilege when she tweeted that Otto Warmbier got “exactly what he deserved.” These are clearly statements that could, and did, cause an outcry and evidently, some of that condemnation came from university donors and administers as both women were quickly fired.
And it isn’t just untenured faculty who find themselves unceremoniously let go or sanctioned after making controversial statements. Along with Durden and Dittwyler, Associate Professor Johnny Williams of Trinity College in Connecticut was placed on leave this week. Last week Williams reposted an intentionally provocative story on race that suggested that bigots, if in need, should be left to die. His position was spun by some to suggest that he was speaking specifically about the recent shooting at the Congressional baseball practice. Significant threats of violence against Williams and the school resulted in the college closing for a day due to safety concerns.
These three examples are just the most recent cases where faculty members have had their academic freedom challenged. Other examples among a growing list include Erlene Grise-Owens who was fired from her tenure-track position at Spalding University this year, she says, because she leveled a complaint against her university for failing to notify three non-tenure track minority faculty members of the potential threat posed by a troubled student. And let’s not forget a case that grabbed the nation’s attention a year and a half ago – the “parting of ways” between Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College. What began as a Facebook post where Hawkins explained that she would wear a hijab through the Lenten season as a sign of solidarity with Muslim women ended with her departure from the institution a month later. At Wheaton, an explicitly Evangelical Christian institution, Hawkins’ decision to wear a hijab, and her comment that she felt compelled to do so because Muslims and Christians follow the same god, was enough for them to fire the college’s first tenured black woman. Additionally, though not officially a firing, in 2014 the University of Illinois rescinded a tenure track offer to Steven Salaita, who is ethnically Palestinian, after he posted anti-Israeli tweets. He sued and received $600,000 in the settlement.
These, and other cases, raise serious concerns about the protection of academic freedom as more and more professors, a seemingly high number of them women and minorities, are losing positions for making comments that others find offensive. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) articulated in its 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure that “Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” For nearly eight decades, these principles have been the guiding forces in higher education, but in today’s social climate, and in an era where social media complicates matters, these tenets are drawing fire – especially from external sources. In fact, colleges and universities, especially private institutions that perhaps have more leeway when it comes to the protection of academic freedom, appear to be caving to the external pressure they face when members of the college or university community express controversial opinions. The public relations nightmare these cases can create, and the affect they could have on donations and student recruitment, make it difficult for universities to support their faculty. Yet this is a scary reality. As external groups and individuals realize the influence they can have, they are only more emboldened to push for the silencing of faculty.
The academy is designed to be a place of critical thought and discussion. If academic freedom is not protected, and dismissals only take place after a thorough and unbiased process – no matter one’s academic rank – then the whole endeavor of higher education is at risk. Even if we disagree with someone’s controversial actions or statements there should be respect for academic freedom and due process in higher education. Without it, we all suffer.