Academic Freedom Violations Found at Hunter

Report says that unusual arrangement in which corporate interests sponsored a course put professor in untenable position and compromised curricular standards.
May 13, 2008

When reports surfaced of an unusual arrangement at Hunter College -- in which corporate interests sponsored a course and helped students set up a fake Web site to advance the business goal of discouraging counterfeit goods -- college officials dismissed the concerns. They declined to discuss details, but said that the course was not problematic.

Now a special faculty committee that investigated the matter has issued a report finding multiple violations of academic freedom of the professor assigned to the course and to his students.

Further, the report found that the "episode raises concerns about the ethics of pedagogy in higher education today -- concerns that deserve discussion by the college community. Sponsored courses seem not to violate academic freedom in their own right, but invite manipulations of the usual principles of classroom discussion. More discomfiting, the course in question ... made use of Hunter students to advance corporate interests, and created a false ad campaign that deceived Hunter students (who were not in the class). The nature of the course allowed for a casual approach to the dignity of students and relied on deception to achieve some of its aims -- which were, we emphasize, as much corporate as pedagogical."

Hunter's Faculty Senate is planning to discuss the report -- which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed -- later this month. A spokeswoman for Hunter, asked for the administration's response to the report, said that because the report was leaked, and those named in it have yet to formally respond, the administration would say nothing, "in the interest of fairness."

The course at Hunter, part of the City University of New York, was sponsored by the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition (known as the IACC), an organization of companies that are concerned about low-cost knockoffs of their products. The companies involved include some of the biggest names in fashion and consumer goods -- Abercrombie & Fitch, Chanel, Coach, Harley-Davidson, Levi Strauss, Reebok and so forth. The faculty panel found that Hunter agreed to let the IACC sponsor a course for which students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would set up a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real. The course was created without any standard curricular review and the idea was to teach one side of the issue -- ignoring those who believe that the companies sponsoring the course take too limiting an attitude about intellectual property.

Adding to the concerns, the professor who was drafted to teach the course, Tim Portlock, not only didn't have tenure, but was outside his area of expertise. His expertise is computer art, not advertising -- but he was put in charge of devising the advertising campaign on which students worked for credit.

The report found that the idea for the course originated at the senior levels of the administration and noted that Coach's CEO is a Hunter alumnus. Coach provided $10,000 to support the course and Lew Frankfort, the CEO, was subsequently given an honorary degree and made a "large donation" to the college, the report found.

The faculty panel found three areas of violations of academic freedom:

  • "The most egregious aspect was that free inquiry into multiple points of view was effectively blocked despite the expressed desire of the instructor to promote such inquiry. Only a single point of view, a distinctly non-scholarly perspective that came from outside of the academy and hence not subject to the usual rigor of peer-review and other academic standards of higher education, was presented during the course."
  • The "unconventional nature of the course ... clearly invites discussion about substantive issues of pedagogy at Hunter. The choice of an untenured faculty member whose expertise falls well outside of the scope of the IACC course material predisposed a situation which made it difficult for the instructor to exercise his academic freedom rights, both in his ability to refuse to teach the class beforehand, and in his ability to control the subject matter presented while the course was running."
  • "Content of courses at Hunter is reserved to individual faculty, and the faculty collectively through the Hunter College Senate. There was unwarranted involvement in the course from parts of the administration that are not charged with curricular substance, i.e., the Office of the President and the Office of Student Affairs. This blurring of the definitions of shared governance specifically contributed to the academic freedom concerns articulated above."


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