After debating versions of a resolution reaffirming academic freedom of speech for over a year, the University Senate declined to hold a vote on Friday and tabled the discussion, pushing the issue to the November plenary.
The debate over free speech has intensified in recent weeks following white nationalist Tommy Robinson’s speech and the protests against it. University Provost John Coatsworth and Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg have made several responses emphasizing freedom of speech and outlining the Rules of University Conduct in the wake of Robinson’s speech, with several protesters under investigation for possible violations of the Rules.
The Report on Academic Freedom was unanimously sponsored by the 17-member Faculty Affairs, Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee before being presented to the Senate. The report, which reaffirms the University’s commitment to academic freedom while banning abuse and intimidation, was discussed in the last plenary but not brought up for vote after students objected to the vagueness of some of the wording in the report.
Professors Robert Pollack and Letty Moss-Salentijn, co-chairs of the committee, presented the report to the Senate for approval.
“In the academic environment, in the teaching environment, we want to balance the power between the teacher and the taught so that they both have the chance to identify and clearly make a case without being intimidated,” Moss-Salentijn said.
However, members from the Student Affairs Committee, along with other student representatives, argued against the phrasing of “academic setting” as used in the report. Students debated what could be classified as interactions in an “academic setting,” questioning whether controversial speakers were included within the definition.
Students also questioned whether future controversial guest speakers could be interpreted as speaking in an “academic setting” and be granted more leeway or be considered intimidating as a result of the resolution.
“We support academic freedom in the classroom, but once again it’s the phrasing of ‘academic setting,’ which is in the third-to-last paragraph,” co-chair of the Student Affairs Committee Josh Schenk said. “Our concern is how that can be extrapolated to lots of dialogue that extends even beyond the purview of Faculty Affairs.”
In an attempt to quell disputes concerning the report, the Student Affairs Committee submitted an amendment that would change the wording of “academic setting” to “classroom setting” in order to provide a more specific definition of the term.
However, the proposed amendment failed to pass with a vote of 12 for and 41 against, after Pollack argued that reducing the definition to the classroom would not account for situations like office hours.
Pollack urged the Student Affairs Committee to view this as a document of academic privacy and stressed that it tries to establish a boundary for intimidation in academic freedom.
“We are trying to make a protected environment for discourse that we call academic. I take the point that an invited speaker may be outside that boundary,” Pollack said. “I’d be willing to accept that as an example of something outside a boundary. This document contains the notion of a boundary for academic freedom.”
Student representatives successfully motioned for the report to be tabled until the next plenary, pausing the discussion on free speech until then.
According to Eli Noam, University senator and Business School professor, there is a possibility that the Committee on External Relations and Research Policy will present a resolution concerning freedom of speech in the future.