Punishing Anonymity for Professors

Franciscan U of Steubenville is seeking to block faculty members from talking about university matters anonymously to the press and to limit what they may otherwise discuss publicly.

March 26, 2019

Franciscan University of Steubenville is considering taking disciplinary action against faculty members who make anonymous comments to the media.

According to documents first obtained by the conservative Catholic website Church Militant, a proposed policy on academic freedom and personal conduct loosely follows widely adopted professional ethics guidelines from the American Association of University Professors -- before taking a hard left.

“Anonymous communication of facts or opinions about the university to media outlets or other external organizations is unprofessional and unethical, and may be grounds for disciplinary action,” it says. Few to no other institutions have such a prohibition. And professors frequently take concerns about their institutions public, using their names or not, to find support from colleagues elsewhere that may lead to change. 

Another proposed policy on faculty disagreements outlines a process for resolving them and ends with a blanket ban on breaching “confidentiality.” That includes “spreading defamatory material among other faculty, students or the public” and involving “media outlets or providing them with anonymous information.”

Sharing on social media and “otherwise going outside the circle of parties immediately concerned with the alleged objectionable behavior” is also inappropriate.  

A third proposed policy on social media use says professors "shall conduct themselves with the same level of professionalism in social media that they would when speaking to traditional media (newspaper, radio, TV), knowing that anything they say may have repercussions for the entire university community."

The policies appear to have been sparked by a recent controversy over the inclusion of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom in the syllabus for an advanced English seminar. The 2017 book was critically acclaimed but raised some eyebrows on campus: it discusses pornography and, crucially, questions the Virgin Mary’s virginity and makes reference to her masturbating.

The university initially defended Stephen Lewis, the professor who assigned The Kingdom, in a public statement. But after that statement was published in a Church Militant article called “Franciscan Univ Defends Use of Pornographic, Blasphemous Book,” Franciscan backtracked. Lewis lost his department chairship, and the university said the book would not be taught on campus again.

Church Militant reported this week that some of the faculty members who originally contacted it about The Kingdom, angry that Franciscan hadn’t immediately taken a harder line against Lewis, had retained lawyers in response to the new policies on anonymous sources. It’s arguably ironic. But so is the university responding to an academic freedom crisis with new limits on faculty speech.

Daniel Kempton, chief academic officer, said in an emailed statement Monday that the policies “are part of a broader set of draft policies that were recently proposed by our Faculty Standards Committee for consideration by the full Franciscan faculty.”

Kempton underscored that the policies are still drafts that “could well be revised prior to approval, or not implemented if not approved by a faculty vote.” The standards were “collectively developed by the members of the Faculty Standards Committee and were not authored by the administration,” he added.

Lewis did not respond to a request for comment, nor did numerous other faculty members.

John K. Wilson, co-editor of the AAUP’s "Academe" blog, previously criticized Franciscan’s actions regarding Lewis on that platform. As for the new policies, Wilson said what appears to be a growing trend toward prohibiting “staff and even faculty from speaking to the media” is a “threat to both academic freedom and transparency on campus. Freedom of expression, not secrecy, is a fundamental value of a university.”

Franciscan’s proposed policy on faculty disputes, in particular, is “extraordinarily broad,” he added, noting that it covers concerns about colleagues' publications. Faculty members "should not be immune from criticism, especially from their colleagues,” he said. And it's “particularly appalling that Franciscan wants to invoke the AAUP's principles of academic freedom then add on their unsupported belief that anonymous whistle-blowing is unprofessional and unethical.”

Anonymity is “far from ideal,” Wilson said, but academics may feel “they have to be anonymous because they work at an institution that fails to protect their academic freedom.” And while the “attacks” on Lewis and his academic freedom in response to The Kingdom were “terrible,” Wilson said, “the solution is for colleges to fiercely defend the academic freedom of faculty, not to try to silence criticism of them.”

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said that rules against employees sharing information with reporters are widespread, but they are “on doubtful legal footing” and are regularly struck down when challenged.

The anonymous comment stipulation is one LoMonte hadn’t seen before, but one that he said “seems like an especially dangerous variation of the employee gag order.” That’s because it would be easy for someone to be the mistaken target of discipline based on "the erroneous suspicion that he is a leaker.” (LoMonte said this would also be a recruitment challenge, in that it would scare away potential faculty hires.)

The policy, as written, is weak in that it makes no distinction about the kind of information being shared, whether it’s sensitive and or “the location of the annual Christmas concert,” he added.

William C. Ringenberg, an instructor of history at Taylor University and author of The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth Seeking in Community, said that at these institutions, “attributable communications are usually preferable to anonymous ones, for the sake of open dialogue.” But the forbidding of anonymous statements “may be even more undesirable than the making of them.”

People in a community “must be able to trust one another,” Ringenberg added. “Often what is needed is more open dialogue rather than a restriction on communication.”


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