Monday, March 22, 2010

University of Minnesota

on the

FIRE Radar Screen

FIRE is a well respected national organization that defends civil liberties and academic freedom on college and university campuses. They have received numerous awards for outstanding work including the 2010 Ford Hall Forum First Amendment Award. Previous winners of this award have included Gwen Ifill and Rosa Parks.

"FIRE's work to protect fundamental rights on campus concentrates on four areas: freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality on campus."

When FIRE exposed the TERI operations at Minnesota to scrutiny, the initial reaction of the administration and even some faculty members was to try to characterise the organisation as a right wing front, but this attempt failed miserably.

Now that the University administration's ham-handed attempt to circumvent the tenure code has been exposed to scrutiny by faculty and others, the FIRE has taken note of the situation and pointed out the university's obligation to faculty members who have dared to speak against the party line:

First Major Test of Academic Freedom Protections at the University of Minnesota

by Adam Kissel

Last March and November, my colleague Azhar Majeed noted the extra steps that some faculty bodies are taking to preserve their academic freedom in response to the ambiguous statement by the Supreme Court in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006) explicitly reserving judgment on the question of whether faculty members at public colleges and universities, despite the special importance of academic freedom and the societal benefit of having professors speak freely on issues related to institutional governance and areas of their professional expertise, are protected by the First Amendment when they do so because, in the end, they are public employees. While the Supreme Court noted the possibility of an exception for faculty without deciding the question, lower courts have nevertheless applied Garcetti to college professors (usually in matters regarding their individual treatment rather than their speech about institutional governance) with troubling results, so some faculty bodies are explicitly writing extra protections into university documents. FIRE and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have been watching these developments intently.

This month, the first major test of the University of Minnesota's new protections is in full swing, given the highly controversial issue of potential faculty salary cuts due to alleged "financial stringency" at the university, questions about transparency of financial information at the university, and controversy over the legality of the process by which the faculty are being asked to vote on potential cuts. (See the blog Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education and these blogs for more information on these issues and the faculty response.)

Fortunately for the faculty activists and critics, the university recently changed the Board of Regents policy on Academic Freedom and Responsibility. As of June 12, 2009, the new policy reads, in relevant part, with emphasis added:

Academic freedom is the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties and the functioning of the University.

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