Monday, October 12, 2009

Academic Freedom Still Imperiled by College of DuPage Board of Trustees

UPDATE: The College of DuPage had slightly changed the language in some of their policies (which are now available online in pdf, starting on page 123), and I was using an earlier version, so I have updated my objections.

It’s like one of those bad horror movies where you think the monster is dead, only to see it rise up again to try to finish its rampage. The College of DuPage Board of Trustees is back once again to consider many of the same disastrous policies endangering academic freedom that it had rescinded in May.

On the agenda for Thursday, October 15 are three policies that were overturned this spring in the wake of new board members being elected to replace David Horowitz’s right-wing flunkies. These three policies use almost the exact same language that the AAUP, FIRE, and numerous other groups objected to.

Here are the three policies that go before the Board for a vote on October 15:

15-25, Employee Code of Ethics Policy, which declares in part,
“3. No volunteer, officer or employee shall engage in dishonest, unethical, or unprofessional behavior in the workplace.”

Unethical and unprofessional behavior is a vague standard that gives the administration broad power to punish employees.

The “dishonest” ban is also troubling because it’s a vague standard. A professor who tells a colleague that the Obama health care plan has “death panels” is certainly being dishonest, but no one should be punished for holding such a view.

15-170, Causes for Termination of College Personnel Policy
“College personnel may be terminated whenever cause exists. Cause for termination includes, but is not limited to:…5. failure to perform in a professional manner."

As the Illinois AAUP noted this spring, “Among the list of reasons for termination is the vague category of ‘unprofessional conduct.’ This term is vague and not defined.” The updated language, "failure to perform in a professional manner," may be slightly broader (and therefore worse) than "unprofessional conduct."

Policy 15-170 also says "cause for termination includes, but is not limited to" this list. So the list doesn't actually matter, they can technically terminate someone for any reason under the policyt.

15-335, Academic Freedom / Instructional Material – Full-Time Faculty Policy
“Faculty members will be free to present instructional materials which are pertinent to the subject and level taught. Faculty members have a duty to present controversial issues in an unbiased manner which respects their students’ rights to academic freedom to determine for themselves the proper resolution of such issues.
In the execution of a faculty member’s duties and responsibilities and in matters related to the College, each faculty member will make every effort to:
1. Be accurate;
2. Exercise appropriate restraint;
3. Show respect for the opinions of others, including their students; and
4. Indicate in the expression of the faculty member’s opinions that the faculty member is not speaking for or on behalf of the College.”

Most of these rules are deeply disturbing. “Exercise appropriate restraint” is extraordinarily vague. Restraint of what? Should faculty members restrain themselves from speaking the truth? Or is this a claim that faculty must restrain themselves when critiquing the administration? There is no reason for this rule, nor any trustworthy way to define and enforce it. As for indicating that the faculty member is not speaking for the College, this is both unnecessary and often impossible (how many newspapers will agree to add such a caveat whenever quoting a faculty member?). No one should believe that a faculty member speaks for the entire College unless they make some false indication claiming this to be the case.

The demand that teachers must be “unbiased” is a vague and dangerous standard to impose, especially because an unbiased viewpoint is almost impossible. Evolution is a “controversial issue” in our society. Will it be deemed “biased” to teach scientific theories of evolution in a science class? Should faculty members be forced to allow anti-scientific theories of creationism to be graded as “true” on tests about evolution in a science class? Will history teachers be forced to assign Holocaust deniers to avoid being biased on the question of mass murder by the Nazis?

As the Illinois AAUP observed in March, “Faculty members should be evaluated on the basis of competence and professional and disciplinary standards. Many of the revered books of our civilization are ‘biased’; the great thinkers all had a point of view.”

The previous College of DuPage Board of Trustees disgraced itself by becoming the first college to enact David Horowitz's “Academic Bill of Rights” (and then rescind it when a new board was elected). The current Board should be wary of making the same mistakes that the previous board did, since it will do nothing to improve the education of students, but instead will lead to national ridicule and condemnation of what’s happening at the College of DuPage.

As the AAUP and the National Council for Higher Education noted in a letter last May, these policies were “developed with no meaningful faculty involvement and contrary to the college’s well-established and board-endorsed collaborative processes of shared governance.” The College of DuPage Board of Trustees should stand up for academic freedom and shared governance, shelve these flawed proposals, and work with faculty and others on campus to create better policies.

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