I read with interest the report on a new study from North Dakota State University on students’ hypothetical willingness to report professors who say “offensive” things.
As a longtime administrator, I can count the number of student complaints about professorial speech on one hand and have fingers left over. It hasn’t happened with anything close to the frequency that the article indicates. To be fair, community colleges may be somewhat different in this regard; the greater preponderance of vocational majors may lead to fewer students being in classes in which political opinions would even come up. (“I’m offended that my professor doesn’t trust the reliability of the rotary engine.”) But community colleges teach classes in history, literature, biology, politics and sociology, so if students were anywhere near as trigger-happy as portrayed, I think I would have noticed.
I remember one from about 10 years ago. A male student came into my office to complain about his sociology professor. As he put it, “I think my professor is a lesbian.” I paused, shrugged and replied, “Could be. We don’t discriminate.” He wasn’t sure what to do with that. After that, we got to a brief but focused discussion on academic freedom.
Several years ago we had an incident in which some students who were secretly recording a class on their smartphones goaded a professor into saying something impulsive. They edited out the context and posted it online, claiming to have conclusive proof of political bias. They didn’t; at worst, they had flawed proof that he had overreacted at one point in class.
Recording is a double-edged sword. If only one party is recording, and that party has an agenda, it’s possible to create almost any impression. (With AI, it may become possible to generate convincing fakes to prove just about anything.) Excerpt 30 seconds of a class that includes a brief discussion of Marxism and you could make someone look pretty alarming. But if the professor has their own recording, it’s much easier to offer context.
Part of the issue, though, is ensuring that college leaders from the department chair level on up understand what academic freedom is and why it matters. That’s true for practical reasons as well as philosophical ones. If you don’t know where the boundaries are supposed to be but instead take conflict avoidance as your guiding principle, then you are effectively empowering people with agendas. You’re giving them the de facto ability to drive out anyone they don’t like by objecting to them and then pointing to their own objection as evidence of controversy. Some actors have become very good at exploiting that tactic.
Even if you want to avoid all conflict, you don’t always know what will set someone off. Once when I taught a debate class, I assigned Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” as a reading; the point was to distinguish between the form of an argument and its content. One student took grave offense, believing—even after an in-class discussion in which I explained the concept of parody—that I was advocating cannibalism. Satire doesn’t always register.
Controversy is not a sign that someone is wrong. It’s a sign that people see the same thing differently. Given freedom and a range of perspectives, that’s normal. Helping students navigate that should be part of what higher education does.
Yes, there are borderline cases. That’s where relevance can be a useful criterion. Academic freedom is supposed to be in service of the point of a course, or the goal of a research project. If you’re doing an American history class, some exposure to documents or clips with clearly racist content may well be germane to the class. Using those same materials as the basis for word problems in an algebra class would be gratuitously offensive.
As the political climate becomes more fraught, it’s all the more important for academic leaders to understand—and be able to explain and stand by—the importance of reasoned disagreement. That’s true among colleagues, and it’s true with students. It’s difficult to push in that direction when the larger culture is pushing the other way. But that’s when it matters most. If instead we default to conflict avoidance, there won’t be any end to it.