Policing the professors

A professor at Fresno State University recently said she was happy that Barbara Bush had passed away and delighted at the thought of former President George H.W. Bush's grief.  As utterly despicable as her comments were, outrageous remarks by college professors have become more and more common.  At John Jay College, a professor expressed his satisfaction in teaching "future dead cops."  At Orange Coast Community College, a psychology professor told her class that the election of Donald Trump was "an act of terrorism."  And at my campus, Queens College, we have a professor who has compared Republicans to ISIS.

To be clear, freedom of speech is protected by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as by deeply rooted principles of academic freedom.  Freedom of speech must always be cherished and respected – even speech the average person might find repugnant.  On the other hand, how do we protect students from professors run amok?  How do we protect students from professors who use their classrooms as their own personal bully pulpits, holding their students as a captive audience?

Freedom of speech is paramount, and so there are no easy answers, but there are a few possible remedies.  First of all, we must insist that college professors adhere to their own code of standards as promulgated by the American Association of University Professors (the AAUP).  According to AAUP guidelines, "[t]eachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."  Furthermore, according to the AAUP's Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, "[t]he professor in the classroom and in conference should encourage free discussion, inquiry, and expression.  Student performance should be evaluated solely on an academic basis, not on opinions or conduct unrelated to academic standards."

It is an unfortunate reality that all over the country, far too many professors disregard these important standards of conduct.  For example, an English professor teaching a course on the great works of George Bernard Shaw ought not to use each and every class as an opportunity to bash Republicans.  An economics professor should not use most of his classes as a chance to bash Democrats.  And all professors, regardless of political ideology, should not only respect the free speech rights of their students, but strongly encourage a full, free, and fair exchange of ideas.  According to a recent report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 32.3 percent of colleges surveyed had policies that "seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students."  It is time that colleges insist that all professors follow their own professional standards.  Perhaps there should be a refresher course once a year on the aforementioned AAUP principles, and professors who willfully refuse to adhere to them should probably face disciplinary action.  In addition, colleges that habitually infringe upon the free speech rights of students should risk losing their state and federal funding.

Last but not least, we must insist upon intellectual diversity.  The best way to combat offensive speech is not with censorship, but with even more speech.  If colleges encourage racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, why not intellectual and political diversity as well?  A wide diversity of ideas encourages critical thinking.  Should a typical department in the social sciences have eight liberals for every one conservative?  Would it not be better to have a few liberals, a few conservatives, and a few centrists?

Let's not censor speech.  Let's have more of it!

A professor at Fresno State University recently said she was happy that Barbara Bush had passed away and delighted at the thought of former President George H.W. Bush's grief.  As utterly despicable as her comments were, outrageous remarks by college professors have become more and more common.  At John Jay College, a professor expressed his satisfaction in teaching "future dead cops."  At Orange Coast Community College, a psychology professor told her class that the election of Donald Trump was "an act of terrorism."  And at my campus, Queens College, we have a professor who has compared Republicans to ISIS.

To be clear, freedom of speech is protected by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as by deeply rooted principles of academic freedom.  Freedom of speech must always be cherished and respected – even speech the average person might find repugnant.  On the other hand, how do we protect students from professors run amok?  How do we protect students from professors who use their classrooms as their own personal bully pulpits, holding their students as a captive audience?

Freedom of speech is paramount, and so there are no easy answers, but there are a few possible remedies.  First of all, we must insist that college professors adhere to their own code of standards as promulgated by the American Association of University Professors (the AAUP).  According to AAUP guidelines, "[t]eachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."  Furthermore, according to the AAUP's Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, "[t]he professor in the classroom and in conference should encourage free discussion, inquiry, and expression.  Student performance should be evaluated solely on an academic basis, not on opinions or conduct unrelated to academic standards."

It is an unfortunate reality that all over the country, far too many professors disregard these important standards of conduct.  For example, an English professor teaching a course on the great works of George Bernard Shaw ought not to use each and every class as an opportunity to bash Republicans.  An economics professor should not use most of his classes as a chance to bash Democrats.  And all professors, regardless of political ideology, should not only respect the free speech rights of their students, but strongly encourage a full, free, and fair exchange of ideas.  According to a recent report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 32.3 percent of colleges surveyed had policies that "seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students."  It is time that colleges insist that all professors follow their own professional standards.  Perhaps there should be a refresher course once a year on the aforementioned AAUP principles, and professors who willfully refuse to adhere to them should probably face disciplinary action.  In addition, colleges that habitually infringe upon the free speech rights of students should risk losing their state and federal funding.

Last but not least, we must insist upon intellectual diversity.  The best way to combat offensive speech is not with censorship, but with even more speech.  If colleges encourage racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, why not intellectual and political diversity as well?  A wide diversity of ideas encourages critical thinking.  Should a typical department in the social sciences have eight liberals for every one conservative?  Would it not be better to have a few liberals, a few conservatives, and a few centrists?

Let's not censor speech.  Let's have more of it!