Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Chillier Near the Lake

In an action that has a touch of irony, the administration at Marquette University has refused to grant recognition to an organization called "Students for Academic Freedom." As reported by Lindsay Fiori in today's Marquette Tribune:

Students for Academic Freedom has been denied recognition as a student organization on campus because of objections from the Office of Student Development about the group's constitution and proposed activities....

The university "objected to types of programming and activities the group proposed as some of their functions," [dean of student development Mark] McCarthy said. "Such activities include reading lists, academic conferences and classroom speakers, all of which are curricular decisions within the purview of faculty.

"There were concerns in terms of having this organization be the monitoring group for these types of things," McCarthy said. "This issue has a lot to do with the rights of faculty members."
Needless to say, the proposed group was one that represented a conservative viewpoint and wanted to criticize liberal faculty members, although the group's leader pointed out that it had a non-partisan purpose:
"This decision clearly shows that the administration appears to be taking the position that academic freedom at Marquette is inconsistent with allowing the criticism of Marquette's liberal bias by conservatives," said John McAdams, associate professor of political science and the faculty adviser for SAF. "Academia protects women and minorities from offensive comments but does not want to do the same for conservative students."

However, according to [head of SAF Chuck] Rickert, "SAF is a nonpartisan group that both political views could have and would have supported. Its goal is to empower students to have more control of their lives in the academic sphere...to advocate a student bill of rights, or contract from the administration to the students and vice versa."
Marquette recently was in the news when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) called it out for censoring a graduate student's office door/bulletin board and generally constricting free speech on campus. According to a FIRE news release from last October:
Writer and humorist Dave Barry probably never expected that one of his jokes would spark a university free speech dispute. But in early September, a Marquette University administrator removed a Barry quote about the federal government from Ph.D. student Stuart Ditsler’s office door because the quote was “patently offensive.” Facing this arbitrary exercise of political censorship, Ditsler contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

“There have been several high-profile free speech controversies on campuses recently, such as at Columbia this month. But incidents like this one at Marquette and on other campuses illustrate how even innocuous expression is under ongoing assault at our colleges and universities,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said.

In late August, Ditsler posted a quote by Dave Barry on his office door in the philosophy department. The quote read, “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.” On September 5, Philosophy Department Chair James South sent Ditsler an e-mail stating that he had received several complaints and therefore removed the quote. He wrote, “While I am a strong supporter of academic freedom, I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not ‘free-speech zones.’ If material is patently offensive and has no obvious academic import or university sanction, I have little choice but to take note.”

“This incident at Marquette is part of a truly disturbing trend,” Lukianoff said. “Administrators seem willing to ban speech across the board and to designate increasingly tiny ‘free speech zones’ rather than risk any student or faculty member being offended.”

Ditsler reports that other members of the philosophy department have posted materials on their doors in the past without receiving reprimand or sanctions. FIRE wrote to Marquette University President Robert A. Wild on September 27 stating that Marquette’s policy against “offensive” materials is completely discretionary and therefore subject to abuse. FIRE also reminded Wild that Marquette’s Student Handbook protects the “right of the members of the university community freely to communicate, by lawful demonstration and protest, the positions that they conscientiously espouse on vital issues of the day.” Wild has not responded to FIRE’s letter.
I don't know enough about SAF's constitution or by-laws to comment on whether those would have served as an impediment to academic freedom (though I doubt it). I find it hard to agree with the Marquette Tribune's editorial stance that the decision to deny recognition was warranted. The rather tepid and poorly-reasoned editorial concludes:
We believe existing academic freedom is adequate, but the university needs to continue and improve efforts towards educating students on the proper channels for issuing complaints.
Is there a college or university on the planet that needs fewer, rather than more, checks and balances to assure that all viewpoints are respected and given space? If some people are discomfited by certain statements or viewpoints, the response should not be to restrict speech, but to expand it so that dialogue and true argument can take place.

SAF's faculty advisor John McAdams had the better point when he wrote on his blog yesterday. Referring to the official explanation from the university administration for Students for Academic Freedom's rejection, McAdams noted:
This statement, which appears to echo arguments fed to Miller by the Office of Student Development, is close to bizarre.

Just reading it, one might gather that Students For Academic Freedom was asking for the right to censor class reading lists at Marquette. One might gather that the organization was asking for the right to veto particular speakers or cancel conferences they don’t like.

In reality, all they asked for is the right to criticize the University, faculty and administrators on any of these issues.

Thus, “academic freedom” to these people means not merely that they get to make the relevant educational decisions. It means they cannot be criticized for decisions they make.
To paraphrase last year's Academy Award-winning song, in a university setting, "it's hard out here for a conservative." Living in a college town, I frequently hear stories that confirm that lament. Groups like FIRE exist to protect viewpoint diversity at both public and private institutions. (The First Amendment cannot be invoked when disputes like this arise on private campuses, but moral suasion can -- and must -- be used instead.)

I have a soft spot in my heart for Marquette University. It is just down the street from Marquette University High School, with which it shares a history. (Both schools celebrate their sesquicentenery this year.) For many years, the university and the high school also shared faculty members and had a unified Jesuit community.

Marquette was also my "safety school" when I was applying to college. Many of my high school classmates went on to MU for college and grad school. And of course I landed at another Jesuit institution, Georgetown University, so a certain fraternalism is expected. (I even interviewed for a job at MU, with the Office of Campus Ministry, just before I graduated from Georgetown, but nothing came of it.) So it is sad for me to see a campus rumpus about academic freedom and free speech there. I hope it is resolved to the benefit of all concerned.

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