Faculty look to update academic freedom

An academic freedom group pushed to adopt University of Chicago policies at U.

Benjamin Farniok

The freedom of University of Minnesota professors to discuss controversial topics without fear of punishment could be reinforced by the end of the year. 
Last month, faculty senate leaders discussed updating the school’s academic freedom statement. However, one national group still has problems with some other speech policies at the University.
Colin Campbell, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee, said the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education urged the school to adopt the University of Chicago’s academic freedom statement, but faculty leaders said instead they want to create their own.
Campbell said the University doesn’t have too many issues with academic freedom. 
“The goal here is to produce a strong, modern, updated statement that would reaffirm the institution’s commitment to academic freedom,” he said.
The current academic freedom statement is fairly strong, said Teresa Kimberly, Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee co-chair. It received a slight update following a controversy after the University delayed the debut of a documentary professors made about the causes of pollution in the Mississippi River, which portrayed businesses school leaders as having commercial ties to the pollution.
A previous update of the University’s academic freedom policy outlined how the school handles freedom of expression issues and stated that the University will protect projects and employees in their studies.
Kimberly said it would be difficult to align school policies and procedures with the statement, adding that the school has had some issues with academic freedom, such as the film and restrictions on graduate students traveling for educational purposes.
Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at FIRE, said the group wanted the University to adopt and endorse the University of Chicago policy because it
clearly states that expression and independence should come before whether people feel comfortable.
“It makes clear, in order to pursue truth and knowledge, students and faculty have to be free to follow their ideas to where they may lead,” he said, “even if that path causes some, or even many, discomfort, uncertainty or even offense.”
Other schools across the country have adopted the Chicago statement,  including Purdue University and Princeton University.
Creeley said a handful of other issues also limit freedom at the University. On FIRE’s website, the school is rated yellow, meaning that there are one or more policies the group believes could hurt student or other academic freedoms.
Those issues include a complete ban on racial slurs, bans on expressions of biased speech and requiring people to have a permit to utilize public space in some situations, Creeley said.
“It is important to discuss these issues instead of banning them outright,” he said.
The faculty senate committee will try to get the updated academic freedom statement approved through the provost’s office instead of the whole senate, but it intends to consult faculty members, Campbell said.
He said a committee member will start drafting the update this month.