After months of debate, the University Senate passed a resolution in support of academic freedom of speech at the Senate plenary meeting last Friday.
The Senate has attempted to pass a resolution about academic freedom of speech since last October, but this has been delayed on three separate occasions over concerns about what constitutes an “academic space.” The long-awaited resolution, put forward by the chairs of the Faculty and Student Affairs committees, reiterated the importance of maintaining free speech and open discourse on campus and outlined a series of principles, including freedom to express disagreement with any idea, that the University should uphold in order to do so.
Biology professor Robert Pollack, who presented the resolution at the plenary, said that it put forth guiding ideas on the matter, rather than explicit rules.
“This is a resolution in support of principles, and it explicitly excludes the making of rules which should be based on these principles,” Pollack said. “I would like you to think of this as a necessary, but not sufficient, endorsement of academic freedom. [We don’t know] what we’re going to do in the future, but it should be based on these principles.”
In response to the proposed resolution, University President Lee Bollinger, along with several other senators, took issue with a line in the preamble that read, “For freedom to extend to all, one person’s freedom cannot extend to actions that bring about another person’s gratuitous suffering.”
Bollinger said that the University’s devotion to free speech meant that free speech on campus cannot be limited even when it might cause hurt to others.
Bollinger said that the University essentially adopts the First Amendment, although noting the right to free speech, including speech seen as disrespectful, should not be interpreted as encouragement to be offensive. Ultimately, the Senate proposed a motion to strike the contested line from the preamble, after which the resolution was passed unanimously.
In addition to mediating the discussion on academic freedom of speech, Bollinger addressed the issue of unionization in a speech at the beginning of the meeting, stating that the University does not object to unions but considers graduate students to be students, rather than employees. However, no time was set aside in the agenda for senators to ask Bollinger questions about the University’s decision.
In a recent letter sent to the Columbia community on Tuesday, Provost John Coatsworth said that the administration will refuse to bargain with the graduate students attempting to unionize. The announcement prompted widespread uproar, culminating in a protest on Thursday morning during which union members stated their intention to take legal action against the University for violating federal labor laws.
Graduate students voted to form a union in late 2016, after which the University began litigation to challenge their ability to unionize.
“The University has long taken the position that graduate students are students, and that is different from the concept of employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act,” Bollinger said. “So under the federal law you must bargain with employees if they choose to bargain, but our position, and every Ivy League position, is that we should not be compelled under the act to treat graduate students as employees who unionize.”
The issue of graduate student unions also resurfaced during the discussion of academic freedom, when Andrew Boyd, a student senator from the Graduate School of the Arts, stated that an important form of free speech is the ability to participate in a union election. Boyd then argued that the University’s decision to ignore the outcome of the election was contrary to the principles of free speech.
Boyd questioned why graduate students’ responsibilities did not qualify them as employees.
“I have a question for President Bollinger … graduate students help teach classes, we grade papers, we work on lab work, we write research reports and grant applications,” Boyd said. “That work is necessary for the functioning of the University. Why does that work qualify us not to be workers?”
Bollinger responded by noting that the University only participated in the election because losing the election was necessary in order for the University to appeal the decision and pursue its position.