Profs shy away from controversial issues

In-class discussion of controversial topics became more difficult after Sept. 11.

by Jon Collins

Last year, South African civil-rights leader Desmond Tutu was scheduled to speak at the University of St. Thomas to high school students about “turning enemies into friends.” Wanting to avoid controversy from a 2002 statement Tutu made against Israeli occupation of Palestine, the St. Thomas administration revoked the invitation.

When St. Thomas political science professor Cris Toffolo registered her discontent with the administration’s decision, she was dismissed as director of the Justice and Peace Studies program.

Because of this and other cases around the country, Toffolo and others said academics might feel pressured not to talk about potentially controversial issues, whether as private citizens or as professors, for fear of attracting negative attention that may threaten their jobs or tenure.

But Dennis Donovan, a research fellow at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs, said a discourse about different ideas is fundamental to an academic community.

“Part of our program is the creation of a free space, space where people can say what they feel as long as they’re not attacking someone,” Donovan said. “The University is a land- grant institution, but part of that is creating students who are active citizens.”

He said Sept. 11 created a chilling effect on academic discussion for some faculty.

“I think, depending on who they are, some people are more cautious,” Donovan said.

The concept of academic freedom in the United States can partially be traced back to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which was created by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The statement outlines the faculty’s freedom to run their classrooms and engage in public debate as private citizens.

John Wilson, the founder of the Institute for College Freedom, also said threats to academic freedom at universities are related to other post-Sept. 11 impulses that suppressed civil liberties.

“There have been a number of incidents and efforts to try and suppress academic freedom, both on individual campuses and through legislation,” he said.

Wilson said an academic controversy directly related to Sept. 11 was last year’s firing of tenured ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado after he made controversial political statements about the victims of Sept. 11.

Although Churchill was officially dismissed for research misconduct, Wilson said it was Churchill’s political statements that drew attention to his research methods in the first place.

“If you create a system where only controversial professors get scrutinized, then you’ll create a strong incentive for people to avoid controversial comments,” Wilson said.

Toffolo said these public situations could decrease the likelihood that academics would comment on potentially controversial subjects.

“My being penalized, and removed from directorship, will have a chilling effect,” Toffolo said. “You’re told ‘this will happen if you don’t toe the line.’ “

Ken Doyle, an associate journalism professor and president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Scholars, said the Churchill situation was dealt with poorly.

Although the national executive director of the NAS released a statement in July applauding the University of Colorado for dismissing Churchill, Doyle said his personal opinion was that the campaign to fire Churchill was a violation of the “marketplace of ideas,” which is the goal of academia.

“His statements were utterly outrageous, but he should be permitted to say it,” Doyle said.

University alumna Kelly McCarthy said sometimes students want to see their own values reflected in University classes, but faculty can challenge those values instead.

“I do remember when I was a junior, people talking about how, in the past couple years, conservative students and professors were feeling attacked,” she said. “In most of my classes, the point was to read something, and then critique it.”

Wilson said the worst tendency is for academics to just put their heads down, do scholarly research and avoid controversial topics.

“We need to work to make faculty, as well students, feel free to speak their minds,” he said. “It’s essential for universities to stand for free expression.”

Calls to the University’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee were not returned by deadline.