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The Amy Wax Higher Education Challenge


When I was a junior teacher, I considered this word professionall one of those value terms that can be used to demean anyone who doesn’t fit in.

Criticizing someone as unprofessional seemed to me to be too easy a way to attack colleagues based on their ideas, behavior or even appearance.

As I grew older, my situation changed. I have become more sensitive to how teachers can abuse their professional status: not only to bully, harass and intimidate, but also to justify almost anything they might say or do.

Now I believe that we have the right to expect professionalism among our colleagues – even if the meaning of this concept is not entirely clear and not obvious.

I really enjoyed the last Jonathan Zimmerman Inside Higher Ed Essays called “My problem is Amy Wax,” which I find to be one of the most insightful, thoughtful, and balanced arguments I have read about restrictions on free speech in the academy.

His argument—that academic freedom protects Amy Wax’s right to speak her mind without demeaning or discriminating against individual students—is a fine example of the balance and nuance that Professor Zimmerman brings to discussions of key educational controversies, whether they involve they sex education, poor teaching or freedom of speech.

And yet, while I agree with Professor Zimmerman’s argument in this particular case, I believe there are several complex issues that deserve further study.

One of these questions seems to me to be relatively simple: To what extent should college and university administrations censure faculty behavior that they deem inappropriate or worse, to the conclusion of appropriate faculty committees?

For example, was it appropriate for the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School to seek serious sanctions against Professor Wax based on her “public statements” and alleged unprofessional conduct? I think not.

While administrators may speak about their institution’s values ​​in general terms, I believe it is wrong to have a biased opinion on a case, regardless of how deeply these individuals feel about a particular issue. Administrators should not pander to the crowd, nor should faculty feel threatened with reprisal for not following the administration’s chosen course of action.

In my view, faculty, and faculty alone, should consider such matters without the impression that refusing to act as institutional leadership prefers will be problematic. Administrators should not create expectations about her or his desired outcome.

Two problems seem much tougher to me. The first is related to the issue of damages. How should we interpret the legal and moral principle that students should not be exposed to a hostile learning environment?

Clearly, no student should be subjected to “severe, pervasive, persistent” harassment or bullying. But what about the broader principle that students should not be placed in an environment that denies, limits or inhibits their ability to learn. Couldn’t the faculty’s remarks outside the audience be so clearly offensive that any reasonable student would be right to perceive bias, prejudice, or favoritism?

One frequent example is Jewish students who fear that their attitudes toward Israel will turn against them. After all, we have examples in which faculty refused to write letters of recommendation for students to study in Israel. I myself have heard from students who are afraid to express opinions in class that conflict with their professor’s obvious point of view.

Should a teacher’s disparaging remarks be directed at individual students (as was alleged to have been the case in the Wasko case), or are generalized remarks sufficient to warrant a remedy? And what is the appropriate response?

  • Should the chair or dean advise the faculty member? Hold a hearing? Consult with the executive committee? Act unilaterally and proactively?
  • Is it enough to give students the opportunity to take a class with another teacher? Can the impression of favoritism and bias be so extreme that it warrants suspension or dismissal of the faculty member?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but it seems to me that transparency is a reasonable guideline. Administrators must ensure that all faculty members understand the institution’s policy regarding faculty-to-student communication and face-to-face communication. Teaching staff should also be informed of legal regulations aimed at protecting students from harmful educational environments and the possible consequences of violating these regulations.

The second issue, which I find particularly difficult, has to do with professional integrity and suitability. Can teachers’ absentee remarks or other forms of behavior indicate that they are unfit to be in the classroom?

What about professors who promote conspiracy theories — or, in Wax’s case, openly express prejudice or bigotry? Or, to take a completely different example, what about a teacher who thinks grades are unfair and gives every student, or some students, an automatic A?

Should it matter if the instructor is tenured or not?

Please don’t think of these issues as ethical abstractions. Recent examples include:

Many will also remember case of Ward L. Churchillwhose references to 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns” prompted the University of Colorado to investigate and fire him for alleged research misconduct.

Or take the recent firestorm that erupted after University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer argued that “The US, by pushing for NATO’s eastward expansion and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine,” helped prompt the Russian invasion.

Those who bear the brunt of criticism for inadequacy tend to be those whose ideas fall outside the established consensus, not those who are out of step with the latest scholarship, whose teaching is inadequate, whose scholarship is substandard or non-existent, who consistently alienate students or assign unfair or inconsistent grades.

Don’t expect disputes involving toxic, harmful, dangerous or hostile educational and work environments or professional misconduct, integrity and fitness to go away. In today’s highly politicized, polarized, and partisan society, the academy is anything but an ivory tower or a safe place for difficult conversations. Colleges and universities lie at the epicenter of many of the most divisive and contentious controversies of our time.

Meanwhile, in the age of social media, there are many incentives for educators to be deliberately provocative and confrontational, and to express their opinions in inflammatory and sometimes offensive language. Indeed, I know of cases where colleges and universities have hired faculty precisely because of their controversial reputation.

What then to do?

1. In most cases involving the perception of professorial bias or prejudice, we should follow Professor Zimmerman’s advice and focus our attention on actions or statements that mock, ridicule, denigrate, demean, or target individual students.

2. We must be extremely careful not to encourage, intentionally or unintentionally, students or fellow faculty to “weaponize” accusations of a hostile educational environment or professional unfitness as a way of punishing those with whom we disagree. We must recognize that even the process of formally investigating such allegations will inevitably have a chilling effect.

3. Any administrative response must be fully consistent and carefully calibrated to the seriousness of the offense. Colleges and universities must adhere to the principle that the punishment should fit the crime, that similar crimes should face parallel punishments.

Academic freedom and free speech are delicate flowers that depend on acceptance of differences and a degree of civility. If colleges and universities are to function as laboratories for the free exchange of ideas, as bastions of independent thought, and as cauldrons where intellectual controversy can flourish without reservation, we must guard against the temptation to purge our adversaries, destroy enemies within, and silence dissent. .

But this does not mean that all opinions are acceptable. Making judgments about harm or professional fitness ultimately hinges on the very professionalism I once, earlier in my life, mistakenly questioned.

Stephen Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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