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Faculty members defend academic freedom

Preventing academic code violations, extra funding for research also discussed in faculty meeting

Faculty members voiced their support for inviting controversial speakers to campus during a general discussion about academic freedom. As part of the monthly faculty meeting, the roundtable discussion centered on concerns that some students fail to respect opposing points of views.

Recent violent student protests over controversial speakers at Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley sparked the discussion. “We are in an era where we see provocateurs and activists who very much want to play out an agenda on college campuses,” said President Christina Paxson P’19.

Reflecting on a conversation he had with peer faculty members, Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies Andre Willis said faculty members talked about the importance of  “intellectual humility” to foster a community, Willis said.

After four years at Brown, “you know you’ve had a successful liberal education if you can entertain the thought that ‘I might be wrong,’” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson.

The University’s statement on academic freedom is missing “something that points to a need to respect speakers and let them be heard, even if you eventually oppose what they are saying,” said Iris Bahar, professor of engineering and computer science.

It is a violation of the University’s code of conduct for a student to interrupt a speech, Paxson said.

Hosting speakers with opposing views in a discussion could also prove incredibly productive, said Jim Head PhD’69 P’90, professor of geological sciences.

The Office of Campus Life supports professors hosting potentially controversial events and speakers, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. To prepare for the event, the office examines different approaches to hosting a speech and hands out the code of conduct to students at the event.

Additionally, if faculty members are planning an event that is expected to be particularly controversial, the Office of Campus Life will direct them to a risk mitigation group to discuss strategies for maintaining safety, including security and media coverage, Paxson said.

Many faculty members would like “some kind of method for adjudication when questions of academic freedom come up,” said Rose McDermott, professor of international relations. She voiced her fears that parents, trustees and donors can apply financial pressure to force the University to take a political stance.

The University could take a powerful stance by writing a statement that acknowledged all sides of the academic freedom debate, said Nancy Khalek, associate professor of religious studies. Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 said faculty members want an additional official statement that affirms their right to invite and listen to controversial speakers.

Regardless of what actions come out of the faculty discussion, “talking to students about rights and responsibilities is really important,” Paxson said.

After the roundtable discussion, Paxson announced that the University will create a $5 million “research backstop fund” to be authorized by Provost Richard Locke and administered by the Office of the Vice-President for Research. Should ongoing research be disrupted by federal decisions to cut funding, the backstop fund will ensure that research continues.

The proposed federal budget includes cuts in funding for grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Arts, environmental research and reproductive health research, Locke said.

The faculty meeting opened with questions about recent reports on the academic code, academic standing and the University Resources Committee, though The Herald was not granted access to the reports.

The Standing Committee on the Academic Code has been very active over the last academic year because the rate of code violations remains high, said Tom Doeppner, a committee member and associate professor of computer science. As a result, the academic code report requested to expand the size of the standing committee to address the volume of violations, he added.

Computer science students are the leading source of offenders, Doeppner said. “We need to make it clear to students that they will get caught and punished for cheating,” he added.

Discussing the academic code in class could help deter students from cheating, Mandel added.

On May 1, the next Faculty Commons will discuss recommendations faculty members would like to make about implementing the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and creating an infrastructure for that implementation, said Marc Tatar, professor of biology.

The University is also discussing a proposed “day of action or solidarity” to take place in the fall, Locke said. Capitalizing off recent work by the Swearer Center for Public Service and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the nonpartisan event will aim to channel student and faculty energy toward political engagement.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies Andre Willis said, "Students need to learn 'intellectual humility.'" In fact, Willis was referring to a conversation he had with peer faculty members regarding the importance of intellectual humility for the community in general, not just for students. A previous version of the article also misstated Willis' title. He is an assistant professor of history and religious studies, not an associate professor. The Herald regrets the errors.

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