Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Political Crime and Punishment

The AAUP has just released a new statement of principles on "Freedom in the Classroom." This is an excellent statement of principles by the AAUP. I only have a minor quibble with two points of emphasis. The first is whether professors can subject students to “obloquy.” I had to look that one up; it means “1: a strongly condemnatory utterance : abusive language; 2: the condition of one that is discredited : bad repute.” Obviously, it is good for professors to avoid this with regard to their students. But I think there might be times when a student says something so morally repugnant that a professor might be justified in strongly condemning it. To say otherwise demands moral relativism of professors.

Second, on the question of “persistent irrelevance,” the AAUP states that faculty should avoid irrelevant political statements and must receive peer judgment if they are accused of it. This is true, but it’s not enough. The standard for irrelevance should be politically neutral. If a professor engages in persistent irrelevance and fails to teach the content of a class, then it is unethical. But it doesn’t matter what the irrelevance is, and a professor should have the latitude to make some irrelevant comments in class, whether they are about politics or football or gardening.

Most of all, the AAUP’s statement doesn’t emphasize, as much as it should, that the proper way to deal with professors who violate these ethical standards is through criticism (and obloquy), not punishment. Even if a professor receives due process by a jury of peers, when a professor is brought up on formal charges for every political comment in class, it will have a massive chilling effect. Nearly all of the time, the proper way for an administration to deal with student complaints about a professor’s comments is by education, not punishment.

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