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Students' Complaints, Professors' Rights

January 18, 2007

A seemingly innocuous policy change at the City University of New York has faculty leaders worried that their institution -- which has not been front and center in the battles over David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" -- may end up giving the conservative activist a victory, at their expense.

CUNY administrators have proposed that the university's board adopt new procedures for handling student complaints that are not related to either academic freedom or covered by other university policies. The proposal -- expected to come before CUNY's board for ratification later this month -- sets up investigative responsibilities and creates panels to adjudicate those complaints in which a mutual conclusion can't be reached. CUNY officials portray the policy as a clarification that will help students who don't know what to do when they feel they have been mistreated in the classroom. Very few cases are likely to be covered by the policy, CUNY officials say, and it has nothing to do with Horowitz's cause.

In one sense, the proposed CUNY policy differs from Horowitz's proposals because the latter are described by him as a protection of academic freedom, while CUNY's policy is meant to apply to incidents that aren't covered by academic freedom. But the CUNY proposal is very consistent with Horowitz's claim that there are categories of student complaints (he has tended to talk about inappropriate political posturing in class) for which most colleges don't have a current policy. Most college and faculty groups have said that Horowitz grossly overstates any problem and that policies exist to cover any inappropriate actions that need review.

That's what faculty leaders are saying at CUNY, too. But the new policy states that there is no procedure in place for student complaints about faculty conduct in the classroom or academic settings, when those complaints don't involve academic freedom. The CUNY draft policy doesn't offer examples of what kind of situations would be covered, but faculty leaders note that there are already policies on sexual harassment, various forms of bias, and academic dishonesty.

"This sets up this gigantic machinery, without ever defining what one might be complaining about," said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the American Federation of Teachers unit that represents CUNY faculty members. "There's a mystery at the center of this procedure? Why create this now?"

The CUNY rules state that if a student files a complaint, the department chair (or academic dean, if the chair is the subject of the complaint) would conduct a fact-finding investigation within 30 days, try to work out an agreement with everyone involved, and issue a formal finding and recommendation. If either party appeals, the chief academic officer would then serve as chair of an appeals committee, which would have as additional members the chief student affairs officer, two elected faculty members, and one elected student. In considering appeals, the panel would be charged with "particular focus on whether the conduct in question is protected by academic freedom."

A critique of the policy prepared by the Faculty Senate noted that despite the statements about academic freedom, faculty members would have their conduct judged by a panel on which faculty members aren't a majority.

Frederick Schaffer, general counsel for CUNY, said that the new policy will not permit any intrusions on academic freedom. He said that the policy was for cases -- and he estimated that there may be one or two a year -- in which students feel a faculty member has been "abusive" in class, generally in a dispute over political views. That doesn't mean professors can't express political views, he said, just that they can't go beyond a certain point of professionalism in interacting with students.

"Professors are entitled to have a point of view, to express a point of view, and to teach as they see fit as a teacher," Schaffer said. "On the other hand, occassionally, professors' conduct could spill over into something that could be thought of as abusive or discriminatory," and the policy was designed for such cases. In cases of a problem, he said, it was likely that informal discussions would resolve matters. Anything that would lead to real discipline, he said, would have to end up in the system currently in the faculty's contract with the university.

Bowen raised a number of concerns about the proposal. She said that absent any sense of a real problem to solve, it's hard to ignore "the political context" in which it appears. "This would be a win for whatever groups want to politicize the classroom and intimidate and silence faculty," she said. (Horowitz, via e-mail, said that he has not been in contact with CUNY officials about this policy, although he noted that some CUNY faculty members have expressed support for his ideas.)

A major criticism professors have made of the Academic Bill of Rights is that it would create a mechanism for students to respond to professors' intellectual arguments by sending them into some sort of judicial system. So a student offended by a professor's insistence that evolution and creationism are not theories of equal weight files a complaint that the professor denigrated religion. Or a student encouraged by various groups to monitor professors for criticism of the United States or Israel ends up filing reports or complaints, rather than debating ideas in the classroom.

"This is an invitation to politicize the classroom, to ask students to go in and report on their professors," Bowen said.

Bowen stressed that she was not suggesting that faculty members have the right to say or do anything in class. But she said that review procedures, existing complaint procedures, and various CUNY offices gave any aggrieved student a range of options to seek help with any real problem. "As a union, we feel 100 percent that we stand for treating students with fairness and respect. The classroom should be a place for lively discussion and challenging one's views and expanding one's thoughts and that can be done -- and is best done -- when students are treated completely respectfully," she said.

Schaffer said that he realized that the Horowitz debates nationally have faculty members concerned. But he said repeatedly that he did not want CUNY's actions to be seen as in any way backing the Academic Bill of Rights. ""This is not an attempt to ensure that faculty be absolutely neutral," he said. "This is not an attempt to enforce any kind of orthodoxy."

He predicted that some complaints that would be made under the policy would be valid and others wouldn't. Why put forward the policy now? There are no complaints right now, he said, and CUNY didn't want the issue viewed through a specific case. "We were careful to bring this forward because there isn't a hot controversy."

 

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