This op-ed appeared in both print and online editions of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Throughout our nation’s history, academic freedom has been a catalyst for inquiry and discovery on college campuses. Without it, instead of fostering widespread innovation, education lapses into stale repetition. Freedom of inquiry is essential for the exploration of the new frontiers of science and technology, for challenging the status quo, and making our lives better.
Great universities like our state’s flagship, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, expose students to a broad range of ideas in order to develop their ability to reason, analyze difficult, sometimes contentious issues, and help move our nation forward. By exposing young citizens to a broad range of viewpoints, the university prepares them for the vigorous dialogue and debate on which our free society depends.
Speech codes and campus “safe spaces” do the opposite, but they are are all too common at American colleges and universities. University officials across the country have taken dangerous steps that limit free speech to make their students feel “safe” from controversial ideas. Such invasive measures have come at a cost: former Vice President Joe Biden, Ben Shapiro, Alice Walker, former First Lady Laura Bush, and numerous others have either met strong opposition, or faced a disinvitation due to their political beliefs. By censoring certain types of speech, higher education is encouraging today’s college students simply to avoid viewpoints with which they disagree, rather than engaging, debating, and learning from them.
Lawyers for the University of Arkansas System recently drafted new guidelines that threaten to upend the academic freedom of its tenured faculty. Under the proposal, tenured faculty could be dismissed for not working “cooperatively” with colleagues. “Faculty are expected to work productively with colleagues in carrying out the mission of the University.” What does this mean in classroom reality? Civility is important in any working relationship, but who will be the arbiter of maintaining “a respectful and professional academic learning environment?”
In theory, tenured faculty could be subject to dismissal for expressing disagreement with specific policies of a university, or for disputing censorship of academic work. Both situations commonly occur on college campuses; both could start dismissal proceedings at the University of Arkansas under the proposed tenure policy. A grey area is thus created for tenured faculty who are not only responsible for providing a challenging, rigorous education, but by rights should have the prerogative to speak out on university policies.
Should a tenured faculty member be “uncooperative” according to these guidelines, he or she could face dismissal proceedings after just one unsatisfactory annual review from an administrator. The proposed changes would be a dangerous step towards limiting the free exchange of ideas.
If the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees supports these policies that limit the academic freedom of its tenured faculty, professors may fear sanctions for presenting their own viewpoints, controversial or otherwise. The quality of education provided within the University of Arkansas System will suffer tremendously.
As recent graduates of the university, we are proud of our alma mater’s nationally recognized stature as a leading research institution. It has produced an accomplished group of alumni, including U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, architect E. Fay Jones, Olympic track and field star Veronica Campbell-Brown, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. As a leading research institution, the university should be a leading protector of free speech — not just for Arkansas, but as an example to institutions across the country.
The University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees is set to convene today and Thursday. We strongly urge them to intervene and to keep this proposal from becoming university policy. We urge them to protect the free exchange of ideas on the system’s campuses.