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Layers of Meaning

April 21, 2005

The memo went out to University of Texas System presidents last month. The Board of Regents had updated its rules on faculty rights and responsibilities, and wanted to make sure that professors knew about the new code.

Much of the language was very similar to previous versions of the rules, including a section on faculty members' rights to decide what material to cover in their classrooms. But the language -- new to many scholars who had never read the old rules -- soon began circulating online.

Under a section called "Freedom in the Classroom," the policy reads: "Faculty members are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his or her subject, but are expected not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to his or her subject."

As that language spread across the Internet, some professors suggested that there was a new crackdown in the works on what goes on in faculty classrooms, apparently to pre-empt David Horowitz-style "Academic Bill of Rights" legislation to regulate faculty conduct. That speculation is incorrect.

The Board of Regents has in fact been in the process of revising many of its rules and policies, and the changes in this policy were not substantive. A policy or one like it has been in place for decades. Michael L. Warden, a spokesman for the system, said that the updates were routine, involved consultation with a faculty committee, and probably would have a minimal impact. He said he could not remember an instance in which the rules had been cited to punish a faculty member.

Nonetheless, some faculty leaders in Texas are upset about the rules and say that -- old or new -- they are troubling. Kenneth Buckman, an associate professor of philosophy at UT-Pan American and vice president of the Texas Faculty Association, said it all comes down to definitions.

"A term like 'controversial' is itself a controversial term since who is going to be defining what is controversial or not?" he said. As a philosopher, he said, "I could probably fudge it and say that any issue I bring up is part of what I do normally."

But he said that the idea that certain topics relate only to certain academic disciplines is wrong. "It's not like any academic discipline is in a vacuum," he said.

Buckman said that any professor who uses a course "to grandstand abusively" should be punished, but he said that there are plenty of ways for colleges to do that, and that he doesn't see cases where it is necessary.

Mansour El-Kikhia, a political scientist who is president of the Faculty Senate at UT-San Antonio, said that many professors on his campus were concerned about the rules. "What is the dividing line between acceptable and not acceptable?" he asked.

El-Kikhia said that professors were especially troubled because of national discussion of the Academic Bill of Rights and the dispute over Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado. "All of these issues are emerging and putting pressure on institutions of higher education, especially in this era of conservatism  -- they can fire you for saying inappropriate stuff."

Not all faculty leaders share his view. Dennis Reinhartz, head of the Faculty Senate at the Texas campus at Arlington and a professor of Russian and history, is on a faculty advisory committee that helped the regents revise their rules. He said that system officials are correct in saying that professors were involved in the revisions and that they were not substantive.

Reinhartz said he could see potential for problems, depending on who interprets the policy down the road. "Right now I have a lot of faith in my system chancellor and campus president, so I'm not worried," he said.

While Texas officials are correct in pointing out that the policy has been there for decades without upsetting faculty members, they may overstep a bit in their defense of the rule. Warden said that the rule is "modeled on language suggested by the American Association of University Professors."

A key AAUP document -- the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure -- has similar language to that used in the Texas policy. The AAUP policy states that "teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, said that the AAUP language, with its phrase "should be careful," is a "polite suggestion" to faculty members. But he said that the Texas policy implied that others could make these judgments, which he said was wrong.

"The faculty member is in the best position to make connections between material that may not at first glance seem related, but may have a relationship," Bowen said, so faculty members should make this determination. He said that Texas officials could reassure faculty members by just adopting the AAUP language.

He also said that professors in Texas were correct to be upset, especially in light of political debates taking place in many legislatures. "So long as the Academic Bill of Rights is pending, I think they have every right to be concerned," Bowen said. "Faculty not only have a right to be wary, they have a responsibility to be wary."

 

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